Within days of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he said that the question of women driving in the Kingdom is “best left to Saudi Arabia,” a Kuwaiti woman was arrested in Saudi Arabia for driving her father to the hospital. The woman, who lives on a border town between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, is being held in Saudi custody pending an investigation.
Saudi and Kuwaitis in border communities regularly cross the border, with residents in the communities often a mixture of both nationalities. The woman’s father, a diabetic, was too ill to drive himself to the hospital where he needed to go for a treatment.
Kerry made the remark at a press conference in Riyadh in response to a reporter’s question about whether Saudi women should be allowed to drive. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are denied to right to drive. Saudi Arabia also restricts women from being in public without a male guardian. They also must have permission to leave the country from their guardian.
Kuwaiti women, in contrast, are free to obtain driver’s licenses. Since 2005, Kuwaiti women are also allowed to vote and run for public offices. Those rights came after years of battle with hard-line legislators aligned with Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and its interpretation of sharia law. Saud’s King Abdullah has said that women will be able to vote in local government election in 2015 but will only be allowed to serve on unelected bodies at that time, garnering them little influence to make or pass laws.
“With respect to the issue of women driving here in Saudi Arabia, it’s no secret that in the United States of America we embrace equality for everybody, regardless of gender, race, or any other qualification,” Kerry said.
“But it’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events,” Kerry continued, adding, ““There’s a healthy debate in Saudi Arabia about this issue, but I think that debate is best left to Saudi Arabia.”
Responding to Kerry’s remarks, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy tweeted, “Kerry abandons human rights in #KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia]! ‘It’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its social structure.’ ”
Saudi women have staged a number of demonstrations to protest the ban on driving, an issue that has become emblematic of the struggle for basic human rights for women in the Kingdom. The latest protest was held on October 26 with another planned for November 31.
Kerry’s predecessor, former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, a known defender of women’s right’s also gingerly sidestepped the issue of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, earning the ire of human rights groups and journalists around the world.
Pushed by these groups, as well as Saudi women activists, Clinton finally broke her silence on the issue saying, “It’s not about what any of us on the outside say,” she said. “It is about the women themselves and their right to raise their concerns with their own government.”
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