The Awkward Moment When The State Department “Celebrates” Saudi Women Being Allowed To Drive

We’re just happy!” State Department spokesperson Heather Naurt said with a huge grin on her face.

The AP journalist immediately rains on her parade, “Would you still say they [Saudi Arabia] need to do… a lot more with women’s rights?”

“I think we’re just happy today…” she said, this time with a frown, trying to hold back her angry scowl.


Well that was awkward: the State Department’s celebration party was over fast. It’s like those embarrassing moments when parents catch themselves excessively gushing with praise over a horribly ill-behaved and out of control child that actually manages to sit still for a brief moment, or happens to do one minuscule task correctly.

As we reported previously,  Saudi Arabia made the unexpected announcement that its longtime ban on women driving in the hardline Islamic kingdom is set to be lifted. The decree comes just days after President Donald Trump slammed the US ally’s human rights record during remarks at the UN. The new policy will reportedly take effect starting on June 24 of next year, after a Saudi commission examines implementation procedures, which includes having to train police on how to interact with women – something unusual in a country where women are not even allowed direct communication with men who are not their family members or guardians.

Some activists and pundits are now non-ironically hailing the significance of today’s decision as monumental in that Saudi Arabia has the dubious distinction of being “the last country on earth to allow women to drive.” Well, this is true enough, yet there is something comical and at the same time deeply tragic in seeing feminists and western pundits alike celebrating the kingdom’s “progress”. It is not known for sure whether or not Saudi women will be able to drive without their male guardians, though it’s not likely given that Saudi state media reported the royal decree as noting that driving will take place “in accordance with Sharia law.” According to the New York Times:

As recently as the past few years, women caught driving have been assigned to a special ‘terror’ court which has issued multiple months-long sentences for what were essentially acts of protest. So no one should break out the champagne (also banned in Saudi Arabia) to celebrate the spectacle of fanatical Wahhabi clerics and religious police overseeing a program of “Sharia-compliant” female driving just yet.

And this truly pathetic state of affairs within one of America’s closest Middle East allies is perhaps what makes today’s State Department press briefing so awkward. Spokesperson Heather Nauert’s gleeful and overexuberant reaction to news of the Saudi decree created an awkward moment as AP correspondent Matt Lee tried to remind her that Saudi Arabia is still among the most repressive states in the world when it comes to human rights, and especially women’s rights.

Two years ago, we addressed the irony that Saudi Arabia was a leading candidate to lead a UN panel on human rights despite an international uproar at the time about the country’s beheading of a teenaged political dissident (Saudi Arabia was eventually chosen to lead the panel). The influential panel helps shape the UN’s human-rights policy and reports on violations. Earlier this year, the country was again bizarrely selected to lead the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a powerful committee focused on women’s rights.

Is it possible that Trump’s calling them out, or perhaps other pressure from UN quarters resulted in the small change in Saudi treatment of women?  And we also wonder, what freedoms will the country’s repressive regime acquiesce to next? Will it be suffrage for women (they’re already involved in political life, though they can’t vote)? Or perhaps allowing them to show their faces in public?

Top photo | Saudi women visit the Saudi Travel and Tourism Investment Market (STTIM) fair in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)




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