Women’s rights activists, in support of those fighting a ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia, are petitioning the U.S. State Department to condemn the detention of Saudi women who were arrested and held for driving earlier this week.
Support Saudi Women, a U.S.-based group that sympathizes with a movement pushing to overturn a ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia, has launched a Change.org petition calling on the State Department to condemn the arrests. The petition was launched after Mark C. Toner, a department spokesperson, refused an opportunity to criticize the detentions, saying that they were an internal Saudi issue.
During the State Department’s Thursday press briefing, a reporter asked if the department could confirm that women had been arrested for driving around the coastal city of Jeddah on Tuesday.
“These women were detained but not ever charged, and later released,” Toner said. “This is something that was done by the Saudi religious police and not the regular or national police force.”
While reiterating that it was an internal matter for Saudi Arabia, Toner said the department expressed solidarity with the driving campaign, adding that “the Secretary’s [Hillary Clinton] expressed solidarity with these women who are standing up for their rights.”
He was later asked if he thought it was a good thing that Saudi religious police were taking women out of their cars while they were driving and arresting them.
“It’s important to note that this is not about the U.S. or the West imposing their values on Saudi Arabia,” Toner responded. “This is about Saudi Arabian women … standing up for their rights, asking to be heard.”
“This isn’t necessarily going to be an easy process,” he added. “We’re supportive of this. But this is essentially a Saudi process.”
Toner’s remarks come just a little more than a week after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly announced support for the Women2Drive campaign, a largely social media-based movement, which called for Saudi women to drive their own cars on June 17. Though there are no written laws preventing women from driving in Saudi Arabia, religious rulings by clerics — often enforced by religious police — have kept Saudi and foreign women from driving within the kingdom.
Clinton’s comments emphasized that the campaign was something Saudi women were carrying out on their own, without interference from the U.S. However, she also called their efforts brave, saying she was moved by the campaign. Clinton made her public statements shortly after being criticized for carrying out “quiet diplomacy” with Saudi Arabia, which is one of the United States’s allies.
As the U.S. State Department website puts it, “Saudi Arabia’s unique role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, its possession of the world’s largest reserves of oil, and its strategic location make its friendship important to the United States.” The U.S. is the kingdom’s largest trading partner, and Saudi Arabia also happens to be the largest U.S. export market in the Middle East, which likely explains why the U.S. State Department has been cautious when issuing statements about the driving campaign.
Still, members of Support Saudi Women want the department to condemn the detentions — the first reported arrests to take place since June 17 — that occurred earlier this week.
“Does it make sense to anyone that the representatives of the United States to the outside world have nothing to say when asked if arresting women for driving is wrong?” their petition overview asks. “This is an embarrassment to our country and an offense to women. It needs to be corrected immediately.”
Image via Change.org
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