Saudi Women Drivers Sent to Terrorism Court

"The trial of peaceful reformers in a terrorism court underlines the political nature of this court."

Faisal Nasser/Reuters

Two Saudi women, who have been detained for nearly a month after defying a ban on female drivers, were referred on Thursday to a court established to try terrorism cases, according to the BBC.

Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysa al-Amoudi, 33, were both arrested December 1 after not only ignoring the restriction on women driving, but also publishing photos of them behind the wheel on social media, alongside their opinions of the ban and democracy in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hathloul was stopped by border guards when she attempted to cross the border on November 30 with a United Arab Emirates driver's license in an act of defiance. Al-Amoudi, a UAE-based Saudi journalist, was stopped when she went to deliver food and a blanket to al-Hathloul at the border.

The specific charges against the two are unknown, according to the Associated Press, but the case has been referred to the Specialized Criminal Court—a court that was established in 2008 to try terrorism cases, but has also tried and sentenced human rights workers, dissidents and activists who have been critical of the government.

In 2012, after a spate of activist arrests, Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, pointed out the political nature of the court. "Trying Saudi political activists as terrorists merely because they question abuses of government power demonstrates the lengths the Saudi government will go to suppress dissent," said Wilcke. "The trial of peaceful reformers in a terrorism court underlines the political nature of this court."

Earlier this year, the court sentenced Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death for "disobeying" the government. The court also sentenced prominent human rights lawyer, Waleed Abul-Khair, to 15 years in prison on charges of inciting public opinion.

Although no law exists in Saudi Arabia forbidding women to drive, religious edicts to keep women from driving have resulted in arrests for decades. Religious conservatives justify the ban by asserting that it is improper for women to travel, no matter how short the journey, without being accompanied by a man, but one Saudi cleric went so far as to say that driving is bad for women's ovaries.

Some in the Saudi power structure, however, are trying to relax the ban. Last year, Saudi billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a nephew of King Abdullah, attempted to make an economic case for ending the ban. "[The question of] women driving will result in dispensing with at least 500,000 foreign drivers, and that has an economic and social impact for the country," the prince said on Twitter.

So far, however, the prince's assertion has not prompted change.