While most of Washington was stuck in the ideological gridlock of the debt ceiling debate, a bipartisan coalition of female Senators came together Tuesday to urge King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to finally allow the women of his country to drive legally. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars women from driving a vehicle -- bicycles included.
Fourteen of the 17 female senators, including Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter to the Saudi king that reads, in part:
"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.”
This consortium was led by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Others who signed included Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).
While the letter acknowledges that the king has appointed Saudi Arabia's first female deputy minister and has created a university that allows men and women to study side by side (and drive side by side on streets enclosed by the campus walls), the senators assert that "more must be done" and that lifting the driving ban is a critical step in the right direction.
Although women have defied the ban periodically since the 1990s, the campaign to end the archaic law gained traction in May when 32-year-old engineer Manal al-Sharif was imprisoned for over a week after she defied the unwritten but heavily enforced ban. Dubbed the "Saudi Rosa Parks," al-Sharif posted a video of her freedom drive on Youtube.
Mobilized via a Facebook campaign, a group of 30 to 40 more Saudi women got behind the wheel in dissent on June 17th, and they have been driving ever since. In the past month, several have reportedly been arrested.
In a press release, Change.org called the demonstrator's resistance the largest women's rights protest in Saudi History, noting that the protest has spread far beyond the Middle East. The organization claims that its group Saudi Women for Driving has garnered the support of over 160,000 people from over 156 countries through social media.
The Senators' letter rides on the coattails of that social media campaign, which successfully urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speak out in support of Saudi women's right to drive.
After a Change.org petition urging the Secretary to take a stand against the driving ban reached over 20,000 signatures, Clinton quit what a State Department spokesperson described as "quiet diplomacy" and publicly announced, “What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right… I am moved by it and I support them.”
Saudi Women for Driving recently petitioned Subaru to stop selling cars to Saudi Arabia until women have the right to drive.