June 20 (Bloomberg) -- A group campaigning for the right of Saudi women to drive sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking why she hasn’t expressed support for those who defied a ban on driving last week.
More than 50 women got behind the wheels of their cars on June 17, according to Saudi Women for Driving, a group of women’s-rights activists, bloggers and academics challenging the world’s only ban on female drivers. No arrests were reported.
In a letter released today, the group said it asked Clinton in a June 3 letter to “make a public statement supporting our right to drive.”
“Three days ago, on June 17, more Saudi women drove a car than ever before,” the group said in today’s letter. “But as we launch the largest women’s rights movement in Saudi history, where are you when we need you most? In the context of the Arab Spring and U.S. commitments to support women’s rights, is this not something the United States’s top diplomat would want to publicly support?”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton spoke to Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on Friday and broached the subject.
“I am not in a position to characterize how she felt about the phone call other than to tell you that the issue did come up,” Nuland told reporters in Washington.
The group sent a similar letter to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The driving campaign began last month when a group of Saudis called, through the Facebook and Twitter social-networking websites, on women with international driver’s licenses to get in their cars and drive on June 17. They insisted their plan wasn’t a protest. Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has avoided the anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world this year.
One of the organizers, Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old computer-security consultant, was arrested last month in the city of al-Khobar, in Eastern Province, after she drove on more than one occasion and urged other women to drive in a video she posted on YouTube, according to Amnesty International. The human-rights group said al-Sharif was forced to sign a pledge that she wouldn’t drive again and was released 10 days later.
“Beep beep and solidarity to the Saudi women & supporters challenging the driving ban!” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote on Twitter on June 17.
The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
The Saudi women were spurred by images of female U.S. soldiers driving in the desert and stories of Kuwaiti women driving their children to safety, and they were counting on the presence of the international media to ensure their story would reach the world and ease any repercussions. The women were briefly detained and lost their jobs for at least two years.
Some Saudis including Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a cleric, say the driving ban prevents the spread of vice. They say if women were allowed to drive, they would be free to leave home alone whenever they like. The women would also break the strict rules that limit the mixing of genders by interacting with male mechanics if their cars break down or with attendants at gas stations.
Saudi Arabia enforces restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Women aren’t allowed to apply for a driver’s license, though some drive when they’re in desert areas away from cities. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places. They aren’t permitted to vote or run as candidates in municipal elections, the only balloting the kingdom allows.
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