WASHINGTON (AFP) – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday publicly threw her support behind a campaign by Saudi women to lift a ban on female driving in the ultra conservative, oil-rich kingdom.
“What these women are doing is brave, and what they are seeking is right,” Clinton said, ending what officials here had called quiet US diplomacy toward a campaign by Saudi women to defy the ban.
“I’m moved by it (the campaign) and I support them,” the chief US diplomat told reporters after Saudi women had urged her to publicly back their right-to-drive demands.
However, Clinton sought to make clear the United States was not interfering in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia, a key US Middle East ally.
“I want to underscore the fact that this is not coming from outside of their country. This is the women themselves seeking to be recognized,” said Clinton, who has been a champion of women’s rights worldwide.
“We have raised this issue at the highest level of the Saudi government,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday the secretary had used “quiet diplomacy” to raise the issue in the last few days with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister.
“We have made clear our views that women everywhere, including women in the kingdom, have the right to make decisions about their lives, and their futures,” Clinton said.
“They have the right to contribute to society, and provide for their children and their families,” she said.
“And mobility, such as provided by the freedom to drive, provides access to economic opportunity, including jobs, which does fuel growth and stability,” Clinton said.
“And it’s also important for just day to day life, to say nothing of the necessity from time to time to transport children for various needs and sometimes even emergencies,” she said.
Since a Saudi woman was arrested in May for defying the ban and posting her deed on YouTube, activists calling themselves Saudi Women For Driving have repeatedly called on Clinton to publicly press Saudi Arabia to let women drive.
A number of Saudi women drove cars on Friday in response to calls for nationwide action to break what amounts to a traditional ban, unique to the ultra-conservative kingdom, according to reports on social networks.
The call to defy the ban that spread through Facebook and Twitter is the largest en masse action since November 1990, when a group of 47 Saudi women were arrested and severely punished after demonstrating in cars.
“I know there is an active debate in Saudi Arabia on a range of social issues,” Clinton said at a press conference with Japan’s Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa as well as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“For our part, we will continue in private and in public to urge all governments to address issues of discrimination and to ensure that women have equal opportunity to fulfill their own god-given potential,” she said.
The protests are the climax of a two-month online campaign riding the winds of the so-called Arab spring which has spread mass revolts across the region and toppled two regimes.