A Saudi activist will stand trial for defying the kingdom’s ban on female drivers, a lawyer and rights advocates said Monday, revealing clear limits on how far the conservative Muslim land is willing to go to grant women greater rights.
Just a day earlier, King Abdullah, who is regarded as a reformer by Saudi standards, decreed that women would be allowed for the first time to vote and run as candidates in elections for municipal councils starting in 2015. He also promised to appoint women after two years to the Shura Council, the currently all-male consultative body with no legislative powers.
Activists in Saudi Arabia and abroad welcomed the changes as a step in the right direction, while urging the kingdom to end all discrimination against women. Some also pointed to the case against Najalaa Harriri as evidence of how far the kingdom still has to go on the path of reforms.
Harriri was among the dozens of Saudi women to challenge the country’s ban on driving in a campaign that began in June. The campaigners posted video of themselves behind the wheel on the Web.
She was summoned for questioning on Sunday by the prosecutor general in the western port city of Jeddah, according to attorney Waleed Aboul Khair. She will stand trial in a month, joining several other women currently on trial for driving.
Activists say the trials reveal a gap between the image the kingdom wants to show to the outside world and the reality on the ground in the ultraconservative nation.
“I believe that Saudi Arabia has always had two kinds of rhetoric, one for outside consumption to improve the image of the kingdom and a more restrictive one that accommodates the religious establishment inside,” Aboul Khair said.
In most cases, the women are stopped by police and held until a male guardian is summoned and the women sign a pledge not to drive again. Some are referred to court.
Harriri refused to sign, according to Samar Badawi, another female activist who was present at the police station with her three weeks ago.