The Arab Spring has mostly sidestepped Saudi Arabia, but there is a protest movement going on in the Middle Eastern country, and one former Houstonian is caught in the crossfire.
Shaima Jastaniah lived in Houston from 2000 until 2010, earning a master's degree from the University of St. Thomas with a focus on international studies before returning to Saudi Arabia.
"Shaima fit right into Houston society. Texans are larger than life, and so is she," writes Nivien Saleh, Jastaniah's former professor, in The Atlantic. "Discard your images of the veiled female Arab: Her dedication to Islam is sincere — she recently completed the hajj to Mecca — but she is not demure and does not attempt to fade into the background. When she enters a room, you notice."
Jastaniah and Saleh are hoping revived international attention and pressure can change the verdict or force the system to recognize the pardon.
Jastaniah brought her BMW X5 with her back to Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that her homeland is the only country in the world to ban women from driving. She was required to hire a male chauffeur to go about her daily life.
This rule (which is not an official state law but is given authority by a religious fatwa) came under attack by Saudi women in May, with activists organizing the Women2Drive campaign and committing acts of civil disobedience simply by getting in their own cars and driving. Between May and July of 2011, several women were arrested for driving, including Jastaniah.
According to Saleh, Jastaniah wasn't behind the wheel to make a political statement — she just wanted a little freedom.
"She had spent 10 years in Houston, and she had to a certain extent culture shock," Saleh told CultureMap. "She was used to values of the United States, like individualism, and she came back to Jeddah and there were all these things she couldn't do anymore. There's no privacy because you're always chaperoned. One day she decided she needed to be by herself and she thought that it was her car and she wanted to drive it. She didn't do it with the goal of being arrested."
Unlike the other women, Jastaniah was sentenced to 10 lashes. As Saleh explains,
In Saudi Arabia, when a woman is caught driving, the typical police response is to extract a signed pledge not to "misbehave" a second time and let her go. There are a few women who broke the prohibition against driving several times and pledged betterment again and again. Shaima's case, however, never went through that stage. The matter was immediately referred to the country's conservative shariah court system, which is controlled by the Kingdom's religious establishment.
The judge happened to pass his verdict on the heels of a government announcement that, five years from now, women will receive the right to vote and run for public office. Possibly to register his disapproval, possibly to discourage the other women who had recently taken to the road, or maybe for some other reason, the judge assigned the unusually harsh sentence of flogging. Shaima was shocked. "What I did was a misdemeanor. The court could have fined me, and I would have been happy to pay up," she told me. "Instead, they decided to criminalize me. I am not a criminal!"
The sentence received international media attention over the summer, and in September it appeared Jastaniah would be spared when a Saudi princess tweeted that the king had decided to pardon her. But the courts never recognized an official pardon, and Jastaniah's sentence will be carried out unless she can successfully appeal the ruling.
However Saleh says that under the Saudi system, even a successful appeal won't make the verdict go away — it can only send the matter back to the original court for a modified sentence. Jastaniah and Saleh are hoping revived international attention and pressure can change the verdict or force the system to recognize the pardon.
No matter what happens to Jastaniah, Saudi women still have a significant battle ahead of them for the right to drive. Despite recent concessions that will allow Saudi women to vote and run for office by 2015, conservative clerics are still the dominant voice in Saudi society, and the highest religious council in the country declared last week that if women were allowed to drive, it would "provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce," and that soon there would be "no more virgins" in Saudi Arabia.