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Hillary Clinton Worried She Could Hurt The Fight To Lift Saudi Ban On Female Drivers

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 2/10/2015 Amanda Terkel
ATHENA IMAGE © Hassan Ammar/Associated Press ATHENA IMAGE

WASHINGTON -- In 2011, women in Saudi Arabia were increasingly organizing and speaking out about their country's ban on female drivers. But for weeks, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was silent, disappointing many activists who knew about her long record on global women's rights. 

A new email released by the State Department on Wednesday reveals that Clinton was privately supportive of the women's fight but worried that by speaking out, she would hurt their cause.

In May 2011, a Saudi woman named Manal al-Sharif launched a Facebook page called "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself." Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars women from driving. The Facebook page quickly attracted thousands of supporters and international attention. 

On May 22, authorities arrested Sharif for driving. She was attempting to publicize the issue ahead of a large protest planned for June 17. Officials released her about a week later because of "pressure from inside and outside" Saudi Arabia, according to another activist. 

The following day, Clinton emailed former top State Department aide Anne-Marie Slaughter and shared the good news of Sharif's release, revealing the role she played: 

Assume you saw the good news. We sent our messages thru embassy upon advice that oublic [sic] comments by me would hurt her and her cause. And we learned that women intend a big demo in June. So let's hope change can happen even there--

Activists, meanwhile, were wondering why Clinton wasn't doing more publicly. The coalition Saudi Women For Driving posted an online petition asking the secretary of state to get involved and sent a letter asking, "Where are you when we need you most?"

On June 20, reporters asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland whether Clinton was staying quiet out of respect for the Saudi government, which is a U.S. ally on other international issues. 

"I don't think anybody can question the secretary's commitment to universal human rights for women," Nuland said. "I think she is making a judgment on how best to support universal human rights for women. There are times when it makes sense to do so publicly, and there are times for quiet diplomacy."

The next day, however, Clinton spoke out for the first time, publicly throwing her support behind the cause.

"What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right," Clinton said. "This is about Saudi women themselves, they have joined together. They are acting on behalf of their own rights."

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