Clinton raises women's driving ban with Saudis

WASHINGTON Mon Jun 20, 2011 3:12pm EDT

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the African Union Commission at the African Union Commission headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 13, 2011. REUTERS/Susan Walsh/Pool

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the African Union Commission at the African Union Commission headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 13, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Susan Walsh/Pool

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a strong advocate of women's rights, has raised Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving with the kingdom's foreign minister, the State Department said on Monday.

Clinton spoke to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on Friday to discuss a range of regional issues, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.

"In that that conversation they talked about Yemen, they talked about Syria and the subject of driving did come up," Nuland said.

Rights groups have publicly pressed Clinton to weigh in on Saudi Arabia's driving ban, which has been publicly challenged in recent weeks by Saudi women who have risked arrest to get behind the wheel.

Nuland declined to give further details of Clinton's conversation with Prince Saud but said her relatively soft approach to the issue did not mean Clinton viewed the issue as unimportant.

"I think she is making a judgment on how best to support universal rights for women," Nuland said. "There are times when it makes sense to do so publicly and there are times for quiet diplomacy.

"The secretary has been engaged, as have others, in quiet diplomacy on this subject."

Saudi Arabia -- a key U.S. security ally and important oil supplier -- is an absolute monarchy which applies an austere version of Sunni Islam. Religious police patrol the streets to ensure public segregation between men and women.

Besides a ban on driving, women in Saudi Arabia must have written approval from a male guardian to leave the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.

Two women were recently arrested for defying the driving ban and others have been inspired by challenges to authority across the Arab world to post accounts and pictures of themselves driving.

Clinton has advocated forcefully for women's rights during her U.S. political career and as the Obama administration's top diplomat -- although she has at times had to temper her message, particularly for conservative Islamic countries.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have seen their traditionally close ties strained in recent months as popular protests erupted in a number of Arab countries including Bahrain, where Saudi security forces were called in to restore order.

Riyadh is also an important factor in both Yemen and Syria, where protests have challenged autocratic leaders and left Washington trying to balance its support for democratic reform with concerns over stability and security in the region.

(Editing by Bill Trott)

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