Right to Vote But No Driving

September 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Saudi monarch grants kingdom’s women right to vote, but driving ban remains in force

By Associated Press

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Veiled Saudi women take photos of their children during a ceremony to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s Independence Day in Riyadh in this September 23, 2009 file photograph.

REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed/Files

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, considered a reformer by the standards of his own ultraconservative kingdom, decreed on Sunday that women will for the first time have the right to vote and run in local elections due in 2015.

For the nation’s women, it is a giant leap forward, though they remain unable to serve as Cabinet ministers, drive or travel abroad without permission from a male guardian.

Saudi women bear the brunt of their nation’s deeply conservative values, often finding themselves the target of the unwanted attention of the kingdom’s intrusive religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on the streets and public places like shopping malls and university campuses.

In itself, Sunday’s decision to give the women the right to vote and run in municipal elections may not be enough to satisfy the growing ambition of the kingdom’s women who, after years of lavish state spending on education and vocational training, significantly improved their standing but could not secure the same place in society as that of their male compatriots.

That women must wait four more years to exercise their newly acquired right to vote adds insult to injury since Sunday’s announcement was already a long time coming — and the next local elections are in fact scheduled for this Thursday.

“Why not tomorrow?” asked prominent Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Hawaidar. “I think the king doesn’t want to shake the country, but we look around us and we think it is a shame … when we are still pondering how to meet simple women’s rights.”

The announcement by King Abdullah came in an annual speech before his advisory assembly, or Shura Council. It was made after he consulted with the nation’s top religious clerics, whose advice carries great weight in the kingdom.

It is an attempt at “Saudi style” reform, moves that avoid antagonizing the powerful clergy and a conservative segment of the population. Additionally, it seems to be part of the king’s drive to insulate his vast, oil-rich country from the upheavals sweeping other Arab nations, with popular uprisings toppling regimes that once looked as secure as his own.

Fearing unrest at home, the king in March announced a staggering $93 billion package of incentives, jobs and services to ease the hardships experienced by some Saudis. In the meantime, he sent troops to neighbor and close ally Bahrain to help the tiny nation’s Sunni ruling family crush an uprising by majority Shiites pressing for equal rights and far-reaching reforms.

In contrast, King Abdullah in August withdrew the Saudi ambassador from Syria to protest President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on a seven-month uprising that calls for his ouster and the establishment of a democratic government.

“We didn’t ask for politics, we asked for our basic rights. We demanded that we be treated as equal citizens and lift the male guardianship over us,” said Saudi activist Maha al-Qahtani, an Education Ministry employee who defied the ban on women driving earlier this year. “We have many problems that need to be addressed immediately.”

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Clinton Backs Saudi Drivers

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Andrew Quinn

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Azza Al Shmasani alights from her car after driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh June 22, 2011. Saudi Arabia has no formal ban on women driving. But as citizens must use only Saudi-issued licences in the country, and as these are issued only to men, women drivers are anathema.

REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday praised “brave” Saudi women demanding the right to drive, but she tried to avoid an open breach with a close U.S. ally by saying the Saudis themselves should determine the way forward.

The Saudi driving ban has been publicly challenged in recent weeks by women who have risked arrest to get behind the wheel. Clinton, one of the world’s best-known advocates for women’s rights, has come under mounting pressure to take a stand.

“What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right, but the effort belongs to them. I am moved by it and I support them,” Clinton said in her first public comments on the issue.

Clinton’s carefully phrased remarks appeared to be an attempt to balance her deep-held beliefs with the need to keep smooth relations with Riyadh in an era of huge political changes sweeping the Middle East and concern about oil supplies.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have seen their traditionally close ties strained in recent months as popular protests erupted in a number of Arab countries including Bahrain, where Saudi security forces were called in to restore order.

Prior to her remarks, the State Department had said that Clinton was engaged in “quiet diplomacy” on the driving ban — drawing a fresh appeal from one Saudi women’s group for a more forceful U.S. stance.

“Secretary Clinton: quiet diplomacy is not what we need right now. What we need is for you, personally, to make a strong, simple and public statement supporting our right to drive,” the group, Saudi Women for Driving, said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

Clinton did just that on Tuesday, although she repeatedly added the caveat that the issue was an internal matter for Saudi Arabia to sort out.

“This is not about the United States, it is not about what any of us on the outside say. It is about the women themselves and their right to raise their concerns with their own government,” she said.

Clinton raised the issue in a telephone call with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Friday and said the United States would continue to support full universal rights for women around the world.

Clinton said mobility was important for women to both find jobs and help care for their families.

“We will continue in private and in public to urge all governments to address issues of discrimination and to ensure that women have the equal opportunity to fulfill their own God-given potential,” she said.

Saudi Arabia — a key U.S. security ally and important oil supplier — is an absolute monarchy which applies an austere version of Sunni Islam. Religious police patrol the streets to ensure public segregation between men and women.

Besides a ban on driving, women in Saudi Arabia must have written approval from a male guardian to leave the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.

Riyadh is also an important factor in both Yemen and Syria, where protests have challenged autocratic leaders and left Washington trying to balance its support for democratic reform with concerns over stability and security in the region.

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