(LHN) Concluding a week that had already seen growing international attention around a petition by Saudi women for full-fledged citizenship, the activists behind the #IAmMyOwnGuardian campaign added a surprising and powerful ally to their ranks: First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. In an emotional speech during a Clinton campaign rally, Mrs. Obama condemned the appalling treatment and oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, including barbaric practices such as the flogging of rape victims.
“This is not normal,” said Mrs. Obama, her voice shaking with emotion. “No woman deserves to be treated this way. None of us deserves this kind of abuse.”
Having just hosted the International Day of the Girl — her last event in the White House — and meeting with young women from Saudi Arabia and around the world, Mrs. Obama observed that “it has been a week of profound contrasts.”
“Many of these girls have faced unthinkable obstacles just to attend school, jeopardizing their personal safety, their freedom, risking the rejection of their families and communities. So I thought it would be important to remind these young women how valuable and precious they are. I wanted them to understand that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls.”
After detailing the systematic denial of basic rights of women in Saudi Arabia, the First Lady went on to describe the country’s dismal record on human rights more generally. Highlighting the death sentence of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a protestor who was arrested at the age of 17, Mrs. Obama noted that her speech was taking place on the one-year anniversary of al-Nimr’s mother begging President Barack Obama to save her son from crucifixion.
“We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we?” Mrs. Obama asked rhetorically. “It is cruel. It’s frightening.”
“The fact is that a head of state we are allied with has, over the course of his lifetime, done things to women that are so shocking, so demeaning that I simply will not describe any of them here today,” Mrs. Obama stated. While she stopped short of mentioning the ruling King Salman al Saud or his family by name, she was likely referring to the rampant sex crimes, torture, and murder of female slaves committed daily with impunity by Saudi royalty.
Adding to the “week of contrasts,” the First Lady’s speech coincided with growing criticism of the Obama administration’s role in possible war crimes as part of the Saudi-led coalition currently bombing Yemen. A double-tap strike on a funeral on the Saturday before Mrs. Obama’s speech killed over 100 civilians.
Commentators have noted that Mrs. Obama’s speech is particularly brave in light of the steadfast and vital support of the Saudi regime by both President Obama and the Clintons, and coming just weeks after Congress voted to override the president’s veto of a bill allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia. President Obama has personally approved the biggest arms sale in US history — worth $60 billion — to the Saudi regime, and his State Department “welcomed” Saudi Arabia to head the UN Human Rights Council.
But as the First Lady put it herself: “I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. So while I’d love nothing more than to pretend like this isn’t happening, and to come out here and do my normal campaign speech, it would be dishonest and disingenuous of me to just move on to the next thing like this was all just a bad dream.”