What’s a little gender apartheid among friends?

During the past few days with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being in Washington and dominating the spotlight, we’ve been ignoring the millions of people who thanks to America’s catering shamelessly to an alleged ally are living in conditions painfully akin to apartheid. They are disenfranchised. They have no official political voice. They are trapped, ...

HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images

During the past few days with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being in Washington and dominating the spotlight, we've been ignoring the millions of people who thanks to America's catering shamelessly to an alleged ally are living in conditions painfully akin to apartheid.

They are disenfranchised. They have no official political voice. They are trapped, prisoners in their own homeland.

During the past few days with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being in Washington and dominating the spotlight, we’ve been ignoring the millions of people who thanks to America’s catering shamelessly to an alleged ally are living in conditions painfully akin to apartheid.

They are disenfranchised. They have no official political voice. They are trapped, prisoners in their own homeland.

They are of course, the women of Saudi Arabia.

This week, one of those women, Manal al-Sherif was arrested — for a second time — for driving a car. Acting as part of an Internet coalition of 12,000 women called "Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself," Sherif was protesting the Saudi ban that is just one among many laws, practices, and customs that lock women into a second class existence in the kingdom. As a consequence of these constraints, women cannot enter a government building through the same entrance as men, cannot go out in public unaccompanied, and must have a male guardian to act on their behalf on even the most banal legal issues. Women can’t vote. They can’t hold high office. While women represent 61 percent of Saudi university graduates, they represent only 5 percent of the work force.

In fact, among all the countries of the world, Saudi Arabia is the only one in which women are prohibited from driving and the World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked the country 130 out of 134 on issues of gender equity.

The twelve million or so women who live in Saudi Arabia, outnumber the four million Palestinians three to one. Yet you don’t see a lot of protests in the Arab World…or from Jimmy Carter…condemning the conditions in which they live, despite the fact that on many levels they are far worse than anything confronted by the residents of the Palestinian Territories.

That’s not to minimize the legitimate claims of the Palestinians. Quite the contrary, it is to underscore just how much work must be done throughout the Arab world to achieve even the most basic human rights.

That said, the U.S. response to Sherif’s arrest was underwhelming…especially given Secretary of State Clinton’s extraordinary record of advocacy on behalf of women’s rights worldwide.

"We understand," said the State Department spokesperson, "There’s an active debate on a lot of these social issues in Saudi Arabia, and we trust the government of Saudi Arabia to give careful consideration to these voices of its citizens as they speak about issues of concern."

Really? We "trust" the government of Saudi Arabia on this? When their record on this is worse than almost any country in the world? Is there no limit to the pandering that an ocean of oil will justify? And where are the criticisms of those who fault America for looking the other way too often on Israel? What makes these twelve million Saudis less important than those 4 million Palestinians?

If the answer to that question weren’t so clear, this situation wouldn’t quite as tragic.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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