- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2011

After initially remaining silent, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bowed to international pressure this week and voiced support for Saudi Arabian women seeking to lift the kingdom’s Islam-based ban on women driving.

“What these women are doing is brave, and what they are seeking is right. I’m moved by it, and I support them,” Mrs. Clinton, an outspoken feminist, told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday.

Mrs. Clinton’s comments supporting the group Saudi Women for Driving came a day after State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the secretary chose not speak out on the issue publicly, but supported universal human rights through “quiet diplomacy.”

On Wednesday, Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign minister, came out in support for the Saudi women, according to her spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic.

“The EU supports people who stand up for their right to equal treatment wherever they are,” she said. “The Saudi women who are taking to the road are exercising their right to demand that equality.”

Mrs. Clinton’s initial silence on the Saudi women’s driving movement highlights U.S. diplomatic sensitivities toward the Saudi kingdom, said Benjamin Joffe-Walt, human rights editor for the social activism website Change.org, that is used by Saudi Women for Driving for their campaign.

“Such a statement is seen by Saudi Arabia as quite meaningful,” Mr. Joffe-Walt stated in an email to The Washington Times. “If it meant nothing to the Saudi government, [Mrs.] Clinton would have made the statement a month ago when the Saudi women first started putting pressure on her to do so.”

The statements of support highlight growing international backing for the Saudi women’s driving movement, which was largely unorganized a month ago. Through postings on Change.org, the informal group of about 25 women has collected more than 100,000 signatures from people in 150 countries to support their cause.

In Saudi Arabia, only men are allowed to obtain a driver’s license from the government, based on a 1991 fatwa, or religious edict, issued by clerics that prohibits women from taking the wheel. The oil-rich kingdom is the only country in the world that bans women from operating motor vehicles, as well as from riding bicycles.

Nadya Khalife, a Beirut-based women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the ban affects women’s mobility, ranging from running errands to driving home at night, without having to wait for a hired driver or male guardian.

The campaign to overturn the driving ban started May 21, when women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif was arrested for driving in Alkhobar, Saudi Arabia. The 32-year-old Internet security consultant was detained for nine days by Saudi authorities. She has since been called the “Saudi Rosa Parks,” after the American civil rights protester of the 1960s who refused to ride in a blacks-only section of a public bus.

Members of Saudi Women for Driving are organizing the movement through Facebook and emails. They held a national protest on Friday, when several dozen Saudi women with international driver’s licenses drove around the country in solidarity against the ban.

“This is a home-grown women’s revolution inside Saudi Arabia that’s been 20 years in the making,” Ms. Khalife said.

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