Why Hillary Clinton hasn't weighed in on Saudi women's right to drive

A group calling itself Saudi Women for Driving says it is perplexed by Hillary Clinton’s ‘silence’ on the issue. But there could be several reasons she has not spoken publicly about it.

In this image made from video released by Change.org, a Saudi Arabian woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 17.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, arguably the world’s best-known advocate of women’s and girls’ rights, is facing criticism for not jumping on the bandwagon of a women’s cause recently in the news: the right of Saudi women to drive.

A group calling itself Saudi Women for Driving sent Secretary Clinton a letter Monday, asking her, “Where are you?”

“We write to express our deep concern over the US government’s public silence on the issue of Saudi women’s right to drive,” said the letter, which was signed by the group that described itself a “coalition of leading Saudi women’s rights activists, bloggers, and academics.”

Last week, a group of Saudi women staged the largest protest ever of the ban on women driving legally in the kingdom. No women drivers were arrested, as has occurred in the past, but Saudi officials reported that about 30 women driving vehicles were escorted to their homes and advised against breaking the law.

In its letter, the group acknowledged that a number of congresswomen, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, did issue statements of support for Saudi women last week. But the group said it was perplexed by Clinton’s “silence” on the issue, given “your decades-long journey as a champion of women’s rights all over the world.”

But defending Saudi women’s right to drive can be a tricky cause to take on – as one advocate of American ideals in the Bush administration, Karen Hughes, discovered during her time in office.

On a 2005 trip to the Saudi kingdom that included meetings with Saudi women, Ms. Hughes – then the undersecretary of State for public diplomacy – received pushback from women when she addressed the driving issue and described her right to drive as “an important part of my freedom.”

Some of the women Hughes met described the US focus on the driving interdiction as emblematic of the West’s desire to impose its concept of human rights on other cultures. One woman doctor said a driver’s license paled in importance compared with her right to have obtained a medical degree and to practice her profession.

Clinton, whose aides did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the Saudi letter, may have remembered the much-discussed comeuppance that Hughes got on the driving issue. The letter may also have been viewed at the State Department as a bit of baiting: Its distribution – and the inclusion of the telephone numbers of the secretary’s public-affairs staff – was organized by Change.org, the liberal social-change advocacy group.

Yet another possibility is that Clinton is following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. As secretary of State, Dr. Rice addressed issues of democracy and freedom on her Middle East forays, but pointedly left alone the issue of women’s right to drive.

Clinton herself has not exactly been silent of late on rights issues – from Syria to Africa and specifically Libya, where reports of sexual assaults as a tool of war have prompted concerns.

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