Two kinds of events deserve wild celebrations in a place like Saudi Arabia. One, when an act of personal liberty is introduced into society; two, when punishment against an act of personal liberty is revoked. Such are the subtle ways of the Saudi social code imposed from above that even if the two events sound contradictory, they are sold and bought as harbingers of happy change. And our irony about wild celebrations gets lost. A day after Saudi king Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to participate in municipal elections in 2015, Shaima Jaistana, a 30-something woman in Jeddah, was found guilty of driving without permission and “sentenced” to “ten lashes”. Was this a punishment for jumping traffic lights? The lashings were punishment for a woman driving in Saudi Arabia, a traffic code haram if there was one.
Thankfully, Saudi women are allowed to tweet. So even though at the time of writing this there was no official confirmation of the amnesty, Princess Amira al-Taweel, wife of the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, tweeted: “Thank God, the lashing is cancelled. Thanks to our beloved king. I am sure all Saudi women will be so happy, I know I am.” That’s one way of reforming. Book someone for a stupid crime and then pardon the criminal without making the offence legal. Women drivers, as some of the male drivers among us can vouch for, can be targeted for their gender. A bad male driver is a bad driver, while a bad female driver, as your backseat driver or chauffeur will tell you, is a woman driver. But in Saudi Arabia, women driving a car is punishable by law. But owing to Saudi Arabia’s slow reforms traffic, allowing women to vote and to drive may upset the clerics who, going by Freudian explanations, not only drive but also love pressing the horn. Thus Abdullah’s unwillingness to make women drivers legal but willingness to pardon rogue women drivers. Ingenious.