(Update: Adds reaction from Saudi scholar)
(CNSNews.com) – The people of Saudi Arabia know where the United States stands on the issue of women being allowed to drive, but it’s up to Saudis to make those decisions, Secretary of State John Kerry said in Riyadh on Monday.
A U.S.-based Saudi scholar and critic of the monarchy said the remarks revealed a “xenophobic” attitude towards Arabs.
On a visit aimed at allaying the kingdom’s concerns about U.S. policies in the region, Kerry, during a joint press appearance with his Saudi counterpart, Saud al-Faisal, was asked a number of question about the sensitive issues of Syria, Iran and Egypt, before a reporter asked, “I was wondering what your take is on women driving in Saudi Arabia?”
“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,” he began.
“But it’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events. I know there’s a debate. We actually talked about this at lunch,” Kerry continued.
“There’s a healthy debate in Saudi Arabia about this issue, but I think that debate is best left to Saudi Arabia, the people engaged in it, all of whom know exactly where we in the United States of America stand on this issue.”
The remarks appeared to be a small step backwards from a comment last week by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who in response to a press briefing question said, “We support the full inclusion of women in Saudi society,” adding, “So, certainly we would support their ability to drive.”
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said Kerry’s remarks, while not surprising, “are shocking as they expose cultural ignorance and xenophobic attitudes towards the Arab people.”
Kerry would never think of saying the same thing about China, for example, he said.
“Unless Kerry and his colleagues reform their cultural view of Arabs, this policy will never change.”
“Kerry abandons human rights in #KSA! ‘It’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its social structure,’” tweeted American Islamic Forum for Democracy president M. Zuhdi Jasser.
On October 26, Saudi women renewed a sporadic campaign that goes back a number of years to take to the wheel despite the prohibition.
The interior ministry issued warnings against “opening venues to sedition which only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned, intruders, and opportunity hunters,” but the campaign went ahead and more than a dozen women were stopped in their cars and fined by police. Already a similar protest is planned for November 31.
The ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia has become a symbol of a far wider lack of gender equality in the conservative Islamic kingdom, where women must have permission from a male guardian to travel.
There have been small advances in recent years. Women have not been allowed to stand or vote in local government elections, although King Abdullah announced in 2011 that they will be allowed to with effect from the next round, in 2015. Women will also be able to serve on an unelected body which has limited powers to draft laws and advise the king.
After years of resisting, Saudi Arabia just last year finally allowed two women to compete in the Olympic Games – and then virtually ignored their achievement.
The gender disparities remain stark, however.
According to the National Society for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization, 58 percent of Saudi university students are women, but less than half a million women – of a total population of some 19 million citizens – work.
In the latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s annual “Global Gender Gap” report, which evaluated 136 countries for gaps between women and men in the areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival, Saudi Arabia took 127th position.
The kingdom is running for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in an election to be held next week.
During an earlier protest, in mid-2011, Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows for not speaking out early and forcefully in favor of the right of Saudi women to drive, despite a record of championing of women’s rights around the world.
Only after Saudi women activists and journalists questioned her public silence, did Clinton offer support when questioned on the subject during a press availability – and even then she stressed several times that the calls were coming from inside the kingdom and not from the U.S.
“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,” she said. “It is about the women themselves and their right to raise their concerns with their own government.”