Last week, Saudi Arabia, a country that does not boast a strong record on human rights, was chosen to sit on the Executive Board of UN Women, a panel that seeks to advance women’s rights around the world. It is unfathomable that a country, in which women are not even allowed to have a driver’s license, could be elected to help the cause of women worldwide.
In Saudi Arabia, sharia'h law shapes family law and life. There is no minimum marriage age, at least not yet. Women need their guardian's permission to go to school and travel. They are often not allowed access to the same places that men are. Women cannot associate with men that are not their direct relation, and if arrested for this crime can be charged with prostitution. Women have very limited political participation and are represented less than 1% in government appointments.
How is it that a country with such unequivocal human rights violations, particularly against women, could even be considered by the United Nations for a panel on women’s rights? And while the U.N. rejected Iran’s bid (and rightfully so!), why is it that Saudi Arabia was elected on to the panel? If there is one country whose record on women’s rights is worse than Iran, it is Saudi Arabia.
It seems as though Saudi Arabia’s less contentious position in the world afforded it the right to be on the panel, which unfortunately is a step backward for women’s rights. This sends the message that as long as a country is willing to play nice with the major powers, they will turn a blind eye to blatant human rights violations within that country.
It cannot be denied that Saudi Arabia has been and remains an important ally, particularly to the United States, in the Middle East. And in return for Saudi Arabia’s strategic position and significant oil wealth, we sell them arms and overlook their weak human rights record.
This hypocrisy not only damages the credibility of the United States and in this case the United Nations too, but also diminishes respect for the U.S. among citizens of the Arab world, as the decision does not fall in line with the Western liberal values - especially human rights - that the U.S. so adamantly preaches to others.
There is a strong and growing women’s movement in Saudi Arabia. The first organized protest in the Kingdom’s history revolved around women’s right to drive. Recently, women were given the right to participate in the industrial and commercial chamber elections in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam. King Abdullah is working to make reforms that allow women more rights, but these changes will inevitably be slow. If being on the board of U.N. Women strengthens the women’s movement within Saudi Arabia, then that will be a great step forward. But realistically, is it possible for Saudi Arabia to work to advance women’s rights around the world, when women have few to no rights within their own country?
Photo Credit: Ranoush