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Rights group decries flogging sentence for female Saudi driver

By the CNN Wire Staff
September 28, 2011 -- Updated 0022 GMT (0822 HKT)
A Saudi woman gets out of the backseat of a car. Religious interpretations do not allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi woman gets out of the backseat of a car. Religious interpretations do not allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Saudi king announced greater political participation for women this week
  • Amnesty International says the reforms mean little in light of flogging sentence
  • Women are barred from getting behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia
  • Amnesty says a woman was sentenced to 10 lashes

(CNN) -- Saudi King Abdullah announced greater political participation for women in the conservative kingdom this week, but Tuesday, a human rights group decried the promised reforms in light of a flogging sentence for a woman who dared to drive a car.

Amnesty International said a Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for getting behind the wheel. The group said the harsh sentence demonstrated the scale of discrimination against women in the Islamic nation, and it urged the dismantling of the "whole system of women's subordination."

"Flogging is a cruel punishment in all circumstances, but it beggars belief that the authorities in Saudi Arabia have imposed lashes on a woman apparently for merely driving a car," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa deputy director.

"Belatedly allowing women to vote in council elections is all well and good, but if they are still going to face being flogged for trying to exercise their right to freedom of movement, then the King's much-trumpeted 'reforms' actually amount to very little."

Amnesty said a court in Jeddah handed down the sentence Tuesday. Two other women are believed to be facing charges for driving, one in Jeddah and one in al-Khobar.

The Women2Drive campaign said the woman who was sentenced to 10 lashes has appealed the sentence. She said she did not want to be identified or speak publicly about her case for her own safety.

Women2Drive also said police pulled over women's rights activist Madeah Alajroush for driving in Riyadh on Tuesday. She was taken to police headquarters for questioning and released after she signed a pledge not to drive and called for a taxi home, a statement from Women2Drive said.

Woman sentenced for driving a car
Women's suffrage coming to Saudi Arabia

"After the euphoria of the announcement on voting, we are saddened and shocked to hear the news today," said Maha Al-Qahtani, a member of Women2Drive.

No specific traffic laws make it illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, but religious edicts are often interpreted as a prohibition of female drivers. Such edicts also prevent women from opening bank accounts, obtaining passports or even going to school without the presence of a male guardian.

Authorities stopped Manal al Sharif, 32, for driving a car May 21 and detained her the next day. She said she was forced to sign a form promising not to drive again and spent a week in jail. Her case became a rallying cry for female activists.

The Women2Drive campaign on Facebook and Twitter encouraged women to drive as part of their normal daily activities rather than converge in one place.

On Sunday, King Abdullah announced two changes for women, which would be historic for Saudi Arabia. He said women will be allowed to serve as members of the Shura Council, the appointed consultative council that advises the king.

He also said women will be allowed to run as candidates and nominate candidates in the next set of municipal elections. It is unknown when those may ultimately take place.

The changes do not apply to elections scheduled for Thursday, which will be only the second set of elections in the kingdom since 1963.

The U.S. State Department's human rights report on Saudi Arabia, published in 2011, noted many challenges facing women in Saudi Arabia in 2010:

-- "By law a female rape victim is at fault for illegal 'mixing of genders' and is punished along with the perpetrator."

-- "The guardianship system requires that every woman have a close male relative as her 'guardian' with the authority to approve her travel."

-- "Women risk arrest for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative."

-- "Women also faced discrimination in courts, where the testimony of one man equals that of two women."

-- "The law requires a woman to obtain the permission of a male guardian to work if the type of business is not 'deemed appropriate for a woman.'"

CNN's Kindah Shair, Mohammed Jamjoom and Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report.

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