Saudi Women’s Rights Beyond Driving

June 24, 2011

By Moshtayeen Ahmad

On June 3 and June 20, the campaign: Saudi Women for Driving (سعوديات يطالبن بالقيادة ) lobbied and sent a petition to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to support their June 17 initiative advertised on Twitter and Facebook to drive in Saudi Arabia. Clinton’s initial response involved “quiet diplomacy” where she just spoke with Saudi Foreign minister Saud AlFaisal. Unfortunately, this was not enough for the Saudi women to accomplish their goal.

However, after being pressured for not living up to her saying “women’s rights are human’s rights,” she made a carefully-crafted public statement this week: “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. They have the right to contribute to society and provide for their children and their families, and mobility, such as provided by the freedom to drive, provides access to economic opportunity, including jobs, which does fuel growth and stability.” Even though she has now issued her first ever public statement supporting the women, she refrained from criticizing the Saudi Monarchy’s discriminatory policies against women. For Clinton, it is necessary to continue this support and move to core issues in attaining women’s rights in the Saudi monarchy, legal agency and the right to vote, something the State Department did not address.

Also her efforts should not just end at a statement “supporting,” women rights in the desert kingdom, but as secretary of state, she should issue specific policy efforts that hasten changes in the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Clinton promotes a grass roots movement from within and this is commendable. Nevertheless, the obstacle continues to exist and the Saudi monarchy’s obstinate male-dominated mindset will be hard to overcome. Saudi Women for Driving have used various social networking sites to advertise their movement. This shows that these women are up to date on their technology and educated adequately to gain access to essential abilities. However, the Saudi women need international backing to avoid dangers from the strict Saudi government-sanctioned Wahhabi influences that have been at odds with Islamic teachings.

If this support is not encouraged by Ms. Clinton, then this statement is providing false hope for women in Saudi Arabia. It is understandable for Clinton to avoid souring relations with our Saudi allies, especially when so much oil is banked on it. Mindful of the concern, the women of Saudi Arabia referenced it in their letter as well. On the other hand, if one believes in an issue, such as guaranteeing women’s rights worldwide so strongly, it means more than to just talk the talk. It is necessary to walk the walk. Giving women the right to mobility, and eventually other rights, would allow female participation in the government and potentially help prohibit the harming of relations in the future. Secretary Clinton is an influential character worldwide. Her input, encouragement and support are necessary and beneficial for the women of Saudi Arabia in attaining women’s rights and eventually improving relations with the Saudis.

Along with Secretary Clinton, there must be support from others as well. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, more commonly known as CEDAW, is supposedly the “international bill of women’s rights.” The ironic thing is that Saudi Arabia actually signed this convention. Therefore, this convention has been unsuccessful in granting the Saudi women their rights. In this instance, Saudi women should have more assistance from the UN, as they have the moral obligation to persuade the Saudi government to give their women more rights. These rights do not only include basic rights such as driving and playing sports, but also more pertinent rights as well, including political participation and voting, a right that is granted internationally. If CEDAW was successfully applied in nations such as Austria, Bangladesh, Colombia, etc., then it should be effective in the Saudi monarchy as well. CEDAW has honorable intentions that need to be recognized by the government, especially because it is ratified it in their state.

In the time of the Arab Springs, with violent situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, this issue of women being able to drive in Saudi Arabia may not seem as significant. However, granting women’s rights is important in various aspects. The country becomes more developed and it will improve the image of Islam in the West. It must be reiterated that Islam does not object to women driving, working or traveling. Women will be more capable to do daily activities in a timely fashion and having them become mobile will increase the productivity rates in the country. It is in America’s best interests to support the Saudi women and gradually bring an end to this gender apartheid.

Moshtayeen Ahmad is an associate of the Institute for Gulf Affairs

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