A ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia is gearing up into a major political row.
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Saudi women are banned from driving cars, travelling overseas abroad, opening a bank account or working without the permission of a male relative.
Attempts by the government to relax the laws meet constant dissent from the powerful clergy.
As police crackdown on women behind the wheel, protests have taken on an international context following the arrest of a Kuwaiti woman driving her sick father to hospital.
Kuwaiti drivers often cross the border.
In Kuwait, the government and clergy have a more relaxed attitude to women’s rights and allow them many freedoms denied in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi women dissidents have also staged driving rallies to protest against the law.
More than 60 women have been arrested during the demonstrations.
Sixteen of the women were fined £50 each for the offence and their male relatives had to sign a pledge promising not to let them drive without permission.
Now, US Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken out publicly about the ban while on a visit to the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
In a diplomatic speech he explained the USA felt that everyone had equality, regardless of gender, race or any other qualification.
“That said, this is an issue for the Saudi Arabian government. The nation must make internal decisions about social and equality issues,” he said.
However, the US government has expressed the view that women should have more independence in Saudi Arabia and other countries where their rights are restricted.
One of the fears of the Saudi government is an undercurrent of dissent that could break out into an Arab Spring revolt similar to the unrest that has hit other Arab states – like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia has huge numbers of well-educated women and young men who feel discriminated against over their rights and ability to work.
Traditionally, the nation employs masses of expats to run public services and private businesses.
Recently, the government has announced changes to employment laws and is expelling many expats so Saudi nationals can find jobs.
The government has also announced a program of developing ‘women only’ cities to give work and educational opportunities to dissatisfied women.
The debate has spread to the internet with a YouTube video of a man singing a ‘No Woman, No Drive’ of Bob Marley’s famous hit ‘No Woman, No Cry’ that has amassed almost 4,000 hits.
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