CAIRO — 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.
"Saudi Arabia is moving far too slowly," said Amnesty International's deputy Middle East director, Philip Luther. "Ultimately, it is no great achievement to be one of the last countries in the world to grant women the vote."
Harriri was among the dozens of Saudi women to challenge the country's longtime ban on driving in a campaign that began in June. In a nod to the power of social media, the campaigners posted video of themselves behind the wheel on the Web, drawing international attention at a time of great tumult across the Arab world.
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 Saudi Arabia, no woman can travel, work, marry, get divorced, gain admittance to a public hospital or live independently without permission from a "mahram," or male guardian. Men can beat women who don't obey them and fathers or brothers have the right to prevent their female relatives from getting married if they don't approve of her suitor.
"Right now, women are harassed and they get dragged to courts and nothing has changed in this respect," said Aboul Khair, who himself has been referred to court after challenging the social restrictions women face as well as other issues. His trial has yet to start.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women – both Saudi and foreign – from driving. The prohibition forces families to hire live-in drivers, and those who cannot afford the $300 to $400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor.
In a high-profile case that triggered the June Internet campaign, Manal al-Sherif was detained for more than 10 days after appearing in a video clip driving her car and calling for a mass driving protest on June 17. Al-Sherif, an IT expert, was released after signing a pledge not to drive again or speak to reporters.
Since then, Harriri and dozens of other Saudi women have followed her lead. Harriri also helped start a similar campaign this month called "My Right, My Dignity" that calls for an end to all forms of discrimination against women.
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.
"Najalaa is not the only one. I've received phone calls from many women who get detained and referred to trial," Badawi said. "At court, you have one of two options: either the judge issues a sentence or closes the case."
The ban is rooted in religious edicts and Saudi Arabia's conservative traditional culture, which views limitations on women's freedom of movement as a necessity to prevent sins. However, there is no written law banning women from driving. As a result, there is no set punishment for the offense.
Also, activists like Badawi argue this means there is no legal basis for brining the women to trial.
She notes that she has been driving every two or three days in Jeddah since June and without a problem. The port city is notably more liberal than the capital, Riyadh, and other parts of the country.
"We are marginalized in very basic rights," said Badawi, who was sentenced herself to six months in prison for disobeying her father. "They think that by giving us some political rights, we will be pleased and shut up."