The United Nations recently announced that Saudi Arabia was elected to a seat on the UN Women’s Rights Commission. The Kingdom is now one of 45 countries sitting on a panel charged with promoting women’s rights and shaping global standards on gender equality.
The words “Saudi Arabia” and “women’s rights” do not seem as though they belong together; but, in time, this election may prove to be a step closer towards helping women in Saudi reach true empowerment.
KSA is often associated with a lack of women’s rights. Western activists continue to be outraged, for instance, by the country’s male guardianship laws, which restrict a woman’s right to make independent choices unless permitted by her male guardian. So, the question is why did the UN appoint a country with a reputation for gender inequality to sit on the institution’s gender equality commission?
Since the news was announced on April 22, it has sparked reactions among rights groups, many of whom oppose the decision. Their argument is that the UN has given the go-ahead to a country that has entrenched a policy of gender segregation between unrelated men and women. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap, for instance, ranks KSA 141 out of 144 countries.
It is always easy to read any news and immediately criticise it, but it’s important to put it in context. If Saudi Arabia is now part of the commission, then that means the UN is encouraging the state to be accountable for its actions against women. Eventually, this will – hopefully – encourage Saudi Arabia to introduce new laws that promote equality.
Change does not happen overnight. It can be slow, but efficient. Former New Zealand Prime minister Helen Clark, who recently retired as an administrator of the UN Development Programme, defended the election.
In the campaign for women’s rights, it is vital that defenders of equality draw upon the movement’s positives. We should remember that in August 2013, it was reported that Saudi Arabia’s cabinet had approved a ban on domestic and other abuse for the first time. The new law set penalties for all forms of physical and sexual abuse, both at home and at work. The law was a long overdue move towards recognising women’s rights. Just like any new law, however, it takes time before the theory becomes practice.
Another positive change that has taken place in Saudi Arabia is the comfort people feel when on social media. Reuters reported this year how Saudi women have found, a new innovative way to break their silence and expose stories of harassment, rape and physical abuse. The #Break_Your_Silence_Speak_Up went viral among Saudi women who started sharing their stories that would have normally gone untold. Meanwhile, Oglivy & Mathe, a major New York-based marketing company, published – in association with the charitable organisation King Khalid Foundation of Saudi Arabia – the country’s first anti-domestic abuse advertisement in international newspapers. The campaign, titled “No More Abuse”, included a woman wearing a burka with a bruised eye (some things can’t be hidden) and was designed to promote the legislation to criminalise domestic violence.
Equality requires codified laws in not only Saudi Arabia, but the entire Arab world so women can be aware of their rights and violators can be punished for their acts of violence or inequality.
Saudi Arabia elected to promote women’s right by the UN Women’s Right Commission should help the country work towards better laws for women.
They are not comparable currently to the Western world, but we can argue that women’s rights are unique to every country. There is no one-size-fits-all policy that can be applied everywhere. One change is better than no change.
Rola El Chami is the operations manager for a firm that provides company information on the Middle East & North Africa. She was born and raised in Norway to parents from the Middle East. She writes about human rights, and lives in Oxford, UK.
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