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Bold reversal on Saudi lashing may signal new era for women's rights

A Saudi woman talks on the phone while walking in Riyadh on June 14, 2011.

AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

King Abdullah's unexpectedly speedy reversal of a court's order that a woman be lashed for the crime of driving a car could indicate just how serious the Saudi ruler is about enhancing the civil rights of women in the Kingdom.

While not repealing the ban on women driving that was imposed in 1991, the King's action in overturning a court sentence is a direct challenge to the authority of the religious establishment and will not likely be overlooked in future cases.

With the surprise move, the Saudi ruler may be staking out new ground, and not just as a response to the popular Arab uprisings sweeping the region.

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Shaima Jastaina had been sentenced Tuesday to 10 lashes for driving a car in Jeddah. The court ruling came just two days after King Abdullah had announced that Saudi women would, for the first time, be able to stand for office and nominate members of municipal councils. The reform is to take effect only in future elections, the date for which has not been set.

Over the years it has been said that the ruling House of Saud has been at the forefront of political reforms in Saudi Arabia, but has been held back by the powerful Wahhabi religious establishment. As the pace of reform has been so slow as to be almost imperceptible, many have doubted the sincerity of the royal family's interest in advancing liberalization, especially in the case of women.

This week's municipal election, for example, in which women are not eligible to vote, is only the second election in the country since 1963. There is no national election in Saudi Arabia; rather an all-male Shura Council of 150 advisers is appointed by the King. On Sunday, King Abdullah also announced that when members of the council are next appointed the selection will include women.

In 2005, in his first interview after taking the throne two months before, King Abdullah told the U.S. interviewer Barbara Walters that women in the Kingdom would one day be eligible to drive. It would just be a matter of time, he said.

The 1991 ban, decreed by the country's interior minister, followed a protest by some 40 Saudi women who drove their cars in the centre of Riyadh. The act was witnessed by some of the world press, then in the country to cover the Gulf War against Iraq, and was acutely embarrassing to the Saudi king. Until that ban, women had been forbidden from driving only by custom and its enforcement by religious police, the mutaween.

There have been past examples of royal intervention to counter religious practices involving women.

In the 1970s, when he was deputy prime minister, the late King Fahd introduced schooling for girls. Riots broke out across the country as the religious community objected to such a practice. Observers say, however, the Fahd stuck to his decision and ushered in a profound change.

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Today, Fahd's half-brother, Abdullah, may also be attempting to bring in a new era. The next move will be up the Wahhabi leadership.

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