Female U.S. senators to Saudi king: Let women drive!

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Fourteen female U.S. senators sent a letter to Saudi King Abdullah on Tuesday, calling on him to lift his nation’s ban on women drivers.

“Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with such a ban on women driving,” the senators wrote. “Maintaining such a restriction stands in stark contrast with the commitments your government has made to promote the rights of Saudi women.”

The legislators’ support for Saudi women comes in the wake of international outrage at the ban and the largest women’s rights protest in Saudi history.

“We welcome the support of so many U.S. senators,” Saudi Women for Driving said in a statement. “After more than 150,000 people from all over the world have joined our Change.org campaigns demanding that Saudi women be given the right to drive, it’s high time that American leaders start taking the lead, and demanding that Saudi women be afforded the most basic human rights.”

After initially declining public comment on the protest, which arose in late May when a Saudi mother was jailed for violating the ban and driving her own car, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement of support for the movement. (RELATED: Exclusive: Cain to hold roundtable discussion with American Muslim leaders)

“What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right, but the effort belongs to them,” said Clinton. “I am moved by it and I support them, but I want to underscore the fact that this is not coming from outside of their country. This is the women themselves, seeking to be recognized.”

Read the letter, signed by U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Susan Collins (R-ME), here:

Dear King Abdullah:

As women members of the United States Senate, we write in support of the increasing number of Saudi women and men calling for the removal of the driving ban on women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As you know, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with such a ban on women driving, and maintaining such a restriction stands in stark contrast with the commitments your government has made to promote the rights of Saudi women.

We appreciate that the government of Saudi Arabia has taken steps to advance women’s rights. For example, we were pleased to see the appointment of the first woman deputy minister in Saudi Arabia and the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology—the only university in Saudi Arabia that allows women to study alongside men and where women are allowed to drive motor vehicles on campus. These are important steps, but more must be done and lifting the driving ban would be a critical step forward.

In June 2009, the government of Saudi Arabia accepted the majority of the recommendations put forward by the United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, including to “[a]bolish all legislation, measures and practices that discriminate against women… In particular, to abolish legislation and practices which prevent women from participating fully in society on an equal basis with men, including… limitations on freedom of movement, the prohibition on women driving and restricted access by women to work, public places and commercial facilities.”

Given this commitment, we strongly believe it is time to abolish the prohibition on women driving once and for all, especially in light of Saudi Arabia’s role as a newly elected member of the board of UN Women—an entity dedicated to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women worldwide.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” And according to the Arab Charter on Human Rights which Saudi Arabia ratified in April 2009, “Every individual residing within the territory of a State shall have the right to liberty of movement.” The prohibition on women driving motor vehicles, even in cases of emergency, makes it impossible for citizens to exercise a basic human right.

We strongly urge you to reconsider this ban and take an important step toward affording Saudi women the rights they deserve.

Thank you for your consideration.

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