U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday voiced support for what she termed the “brave” women in Saudi Arabia seeking the right to drive. Saudi women activists had appealed for such a statement, which puts Clinton at odds with leaders of the key Gulf ally.
Officials here say Clinton had raised the issue privately with Saudi officials but her remarks at a news conference ending a U.S.-Japan ministerial dialogue Tuesday were her first about the subject in public.
In a protest movement that has gained strength in recent weeks, Saudi women activists have been taking the wheel of family cars in so-called “drive ins” aimed at ending the kingdom’s ban on female drivers.
Responding to a question on the issue, Clinton said she is moved by, and supports, the protest by Saudi women she said is both brave and right.
The Secretary of State said the issue is not about what the United States or any other foreign country may say, but rather about Saudi women seeking to raise practical concerns with their own government.
“We’ve made clear our views that women everywhere, including women in the kingdom, have the right to make decisions about their lives and their futures. They have the right to contribute to society, and to provide for their children and their families. And mobility, such as provided by the freedom to drive, provides access to economic opportunity, including jobs, which does fuel growth and stability. And it’s important for just day-to-day life, to say nothing of the necessity for time to time to transport children for various needs, and sometimes even emergencies,” Clinton said.
The State Department had said Clinton raised the driving issue, among other matters, in a telephone talk with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal last Friday but did not elaborate.
The acknowledgement drew a challenge from a group of Saudi women activists, who in a letter to Clinton this week called on her to make a public statement on behalf of their right to drive.
They said in light of the region-wide “Arab spring” reform movement, and U.S. backing for women’s rights, it is something Clinton should logically be supporting without reservation. A similar letter went to European Union chief diplomat Catherine Ashton.
The activists who wrote Clinton said they understand the sensitivity of the issue in U.S.-Saudi relations, but that theirs has become the biggest women’s campaign in Saudi history, and that it requires public diplomacy from rights advocates like herself.
Some Saudi officials have voiced at least private support for easing the driving ban but change is strongly opposed by the country’s religious authorities.
A number of women taking part in the drive-in protests have been briefly detained and sent home by religious or traffic police, but in some cases women behind the wheel have been ignored by officers.