http://www.nytimes.com Hillary Rodham Clinton’s advocacy for women’s rights – as First Lady, Senator and now Secretary of State – is well known. And yet she found herself facing criticism for not being outspoken enough on one issue: Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving.
In a series of letters and statements this month, a coalition of Saudi activists has pressed Mrs. Clinton to use the State Department’s bully pulpit to support its campaign against the kingdom’s ban, expressing disappointment earlier Tuesday that she had not yet spoken out. Then she did.
“What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right,” Mrs. Clinton said, when asked about the criticism at an appearance with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and their Japanese counterparts at the State Department. Of the women’s campaign, she added, “I am moved by it, and I support them.”
The campaign — waged largely online inside Saudi Arabia — called on women to drive in collective protest last Friday, an event that appeared to draw a much smaller number than organizers had hoped.
On the day of the protest, Mrs. Clinton did discuss the matter by telephone with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, though the State Department’s spokeswomen, Victoria Nuland, declined to detail the conversation. She said Monday that while Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy for women speaks for itself, there were times for “quiet diplomacy.”
(Ms. Nuland made her own views clear, though, in a briefing last week: “I can’t imagine, personally, what it would be like not to be able to drive a car.”)
Quiet diplomacy did not mollify the coalition, called Saudi Women for driving. “For the United States’ top diplomat to make no public statement about such developments sends exactly the wrong message to the Saudi government and, more importantly, to the women of Saudi Arabia,” the group said in a statement earlier on Tuesday.
Even when she did speak out, though, Mrs. Clinton did so gingerly, seemingly wary of creating a new diplomatic rift in the already strained relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. She emphasized that the protesters were acting on their own initiative, not that of the United States, underlining the kingdom’s suspicion of foreign influence, especially Western influence.“I know there is an active debate in Saudi Arabia on a range of social issues,” she said. “For our part, 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. But I want to, again, underscore and emphasize that this is not about the United States. It’s 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.”