AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI
Chair Global Council of Women’s Intercultural Network
Electing Saudi Arabia, a country that is ranked 141 out of 144 Gender Gap Global Index in 2016 to United Nation’s Commission of the Status of Women (CSW), a commission that is defined as “ the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. “is like putting China or Iran in charge of eradication of death penalty in the world. It is disheartening and absurd. But, it is not the first time that we encounter such elections/appointments.
Back in 2010, when Iran was a candidate for Human Rights Council, I wrote in an article titled “ The Politics of UN Human Rights Council and Iran’s Candidacy” and stated “ The candidacy of Iran for the UN Human Rights Council is comparable to electing apartheid South Africa to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination or to awarding the US for humane treatment of detainee’s right after the world was shocked with pictures revealing sexual torture and humiliation of naked prisoners.” Iran did not secure the seat at UN Human Rights Council but was elected in 2010 to the Commission on the Status of Women and it still holds the seat till 2018.
On April 19th “ The Council elected by secret ballot 13 members to four-year terms, beginning at the first meeting of the Commission’s sixty-third session in 2018 and expiring at the close of the sixty-sixth session in 2022: Algeria, Comoros, Congo, Ghana and Kenya (African States); Iraq, Japan, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan (Asia-Pacific States); and Ecuador, Haiti and Nicaragua (Latin American and Caribbean States). “
Under the cover of a secret ballot, only seven countries voted at the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meeting in New York did not write Saudi Arabia’s name down on their ballot papers. Of the 54 members of the ECOSOC, 23 are the United States, Australia, Brazil, Japan and 10 members of the European Union (plus three Western European countries not in the E.U.) A simple calculation shows that 47 out of 54 countries agreed that Saudi Arabia deserved a slot from 2018-2022. The 10 E.U. members are Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The three non-E.U. European members are Andorra, Bosnia and Norway. It seems one would expect that at the very least, several European countries also opened door for Saudi Arabia to be elected to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
Saudi Arabia is now one of 45 countries sitting at a commission to “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women,” according to the UN.
The gender segregation of men and women who are not “Mahram “means any interaction of a woman with a man who is not her father, brother, husband and son is not lawful (unmarriageable kin). According to Sharia Law, every woman should have one of the above man as her guardian. Under the global pressure to change the antiquated gender policies of Saudi Arabia, in March 2017 Saudi Arabia launched its first ever girls’ council meeting which some of the western media also called it an “encouraging initiative “. But, there was a problem. When the pictures of the inaugural meeting of Qassim Girls Council went public, the platform consisted of 13 men and no women. While it was officially stated that women were involved in organizing and launching the event, but they were watching the event in an another room linked via video. The state gender policies clearly forbid men who are not “Mahram “ to a woman to mix — a state policy that is strictly being enforced. So, when the image of 13 men embarking on Qassim Girls Council went viral, it was neither funny or satire. It was the reality of gender segregation of one of the most powerful friends of western democracies in the Middle East.
Other than Qassim Girls Council, other initiatives and efforts have seen recently been undertaken. The kingdom is the ONLY country that women are not allowed to obtain driver license. In 2011, activists launched a campaign to encourage women to disregard official state policy that effectively prohibit them from driving. Campaigners urged women to post images and videos of themselves behind the wheel on social media. But the campaign failed to change the law. Also, there has been efforts to challenge Saudi guardianship laws which prevent women to seek employment without the permission of their male guardian. The few new appointments of women as the chief executive of a bank or the country stock exchange are symbolic steps taken by Riyadh to change the image of a country that in 2017, still it’s most public buildings including banks, offices and universities, have separate entrances for women and men. Parks, beaches and public transportation are segregated in most parts of the nation and there are criminal charges against unrelated men and women for any encounter although the deep rooted patriarchal system always consider more severe punishment for women. Women just recently gained the right to vote but the guardianship laws consider women in permanent legal minors. Compulsory hijab also in Saudi and Iran and gender engineering to keep women out of public places are among other barriers to women’s rights and dignity.
One might question then what is the rationale behind the “friendship” of such a country with western liberal democracies? Let us remember that Saudi Arabia is one of the major military spenders of the world with a military budget in 2015 amount for 87.2 billion and rank the third highest after US and China. Most recently in Feb 2018, while the White House declined to discuss its plans, but it was leaked that a roughly $300 million precision-guided missile technology package for Riyadh will be approved.
The support of Helen Clark, the former administrator of the UN Development Program and prime minister of New Zealand, was shocking. In her tweet she “justified “and supported the appointment . She tweeted “It’s important to support those in the country who are working for change for women. Things are changing, but slowly.” While when Iran became member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women United State and many other western countries expressed concern that the membership of Iran will damage the credibility of the Commission. But others with the same philosophy of Helen Clark, justified it as it will being Iran “to the fold “. The reality is that these are the politics of UN and UN politics and it is hard to even imagine that these decisions bring about significant changes to the gender inequality and gender segregation neither in Saudi Arabia nor in Iran that women have relatively more agency compare to Saudi Arabia.
While a multilayer strategy at global, regional, national and local level is needed to make gender equality a possibility, but these appointments are short of contributing to it.