Saudia Arabia is striding toward the future — about an inch at the time.

And then backwards about three-quarters of that.

Saudi King Abdullah announced earlier this week that women in his country would finally get the right to vote and run for office — but not yet. Four years from now. Maybe.

But they still can’t drive a car. 

Bloomberg News reports that two days after the king’s announcement, one woman was sentenced to a beating of 10 lashes by a court in Jeddah, and another was arrested in Riyadh. And it’s not as if the police happened to see them and pulled them over. 

Madeeha Ajroush, a 58-year-old psychotherapist, said she went driving to express her joy at the king’s announcement that women could eventually vote. After someone saw her and complained, police came to her house and hauled her to the police station, where she was detained for 3 1/2 hours and forced to sign a no-driving pledge before being released.

The Saudi king has been loosening a few restrictions here and there, and sharing a bit of the country’s enormous wealth with poorer residents, in an attempt to avoid the widespread civil unrest that has swept through other Arab countries this year.

The long-oppressed women of Saudi Arabia have sought to gain some headway, using social networking sites to promote radical notions like the idea that women should be allowed to drive.

The weird thing is that there actually seems to be no written law denying a woman’s right to drive, but the judges are allowed to impose their interpretation of the Wahabi take on Sharia law, which puts women clearly under the thumb of men.

David Keyes, executive director of a group called Advancing Human Rights, commented that “Saudi Arabia made the giant leap this week from an F- to an F+ in human rights.”

Meanwhile, according to Baptist Press, Iran could soon demonstrate another brand of intolerance based on its clerics’ interpretation of Islamic law: Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who refuses to recant his faith is in danger of being executed. 

Iran’s clerics consider converting from Islam to Christianity to be a crime punishable by death, but even within that atrocious system, Nadarkhani should be considered innocent, as he never practiced Islam. The courts ruled, however, that even though Nadarkhani was never a practicing Muslim, his Muslim heritage was sufficient to make him guilty of apostasy.

When you slide behind the wheel of your car today, or exercise your freedom to worship God as you choose, say a prayer for sisters and brothers across the world who could die for the privilege of doing the same.

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