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Saudi women risk jail - for driving during Obama’s visit

President Obama meets with King Abdullah
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Obama’s European foreign relations repair trip ended in Saudi Arabia. His last stop came with considerable criticism from 70 bipartisan lawmakers who asked the president to discuss human rights’ violations of women and minorities who live under strict Sharia Law in the desert Kingdom.

According to the White House, the purpose of the trip was to reassure King Abdullah that the U.S. shared their concerns with Syria and Iran. Not on the agenda was a discussion on women’s rights.

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As many as 100 Saudi women risked jail time while driving cars near the King’s Palace during President Obama’s visit. It’s hard to believe, but it’s still illegal for women to drive or leave the home without a male escort. Many female activists’ said they wanted to highlight the Kingdom’s harsh treatment of women and ensure broader democratic reforms were discussed during Obama’s brief stop.

It wasn’t.

“It’s been 23 years since the first campaign of this sort and there’s no progress on this issue, we’re hoping this time is different and this time will work and it will have the authorities give us our right to drive, but so far they are giving us confusing messages. There’s nothing clear about it and no clear punishment,” Tamador Alyami, Saudi Arabian writer & female driving activist told The New Yorker.

However, President Obama’s two- hour meeting with the ailing King did not focus on women’s rights, but rather America’s role of protecting the Kingdom, monitoring the ongoing Syrian War and Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons. It’s ironic that both Syria and Iran allow women to drive and before the Syrian Civil War, women were free to work and lead fairly western lives.

“President Obama's visit offered a crucial opportunity to raise a series of human rights issues from discrimination against women to the repression of independent human rights activists and freedom of expression and assembly,” Amnesty International's Saudi researcher Sevag Kechichian said. “His failure to publicly voice his concerns over the dire state of human rights in Saudi Arabia is disappointing and a real missed opportunity.”

It shouldn’t surprise the president, but the same social media that put him in the White House is a primary method of communication in Saudi Arabia.

“Use of the social network in Saudi Arabia has exploded since the Arab Spring, making that country the fastest-growing market in the world,” according to marketing research firm Global Web Index.

Many Middle East experts say if tensions rise inside Saudi Arabia, like many other Arab Spring participants, the first thing to be suspended will be popular social media sites further restricting women’s rights.

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