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Saudi Arabia to helm UN women’s forum: an irony lost on no-one

How has Saudi Arabia, notorious for human rights abuses, been appointed to lead the UN commission on gender equality despite continuing to imprison women activists advocating for basic rights, asks MARYAM ALDOSSARI

THE appointment of Saudi Arabia to lead the UN commission on gender equality and women’s empowerment isn’t just a slap in the face of the long struggle against women’s rights violations in the kingdom; it’s a mockery of the global fight for gender equality.

Hardly surprising, considering Saudi Arabia’s knack for getting what it wants, even if it means getting away with murder, as the case of Jamal Khashoggi grimly demonstrates. Now, the kingdom is on a mission to sell itself to the Western world as a beacon of women’s empowerment — what better way to do this than by heading the UN’s gender equality initiative?

Since rolling out Vision 2030 in 2016, Saudi Arabia has masterfully orchestrated performances for the Western gaze, delivering well-crafted gestures that often earn applause from the West for their supposed strides in modernising the conservative kingdom — all part of the grand narrative championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Women, interestingly, have been thrust into the spotlight in this stage, showcased as the prime beneficiaries of the kingdom’s “sincere” attempts to empower its long-neglected female population — actions some might naively hail as heroic.

This promotional gambit, designed to flaunt women’s empowerment within its borders, seems to be hitting its mark. Western media has been quick to praise Saudi Arabia’s superficial reforms, such as lifting the driving ban for women, letting them into football stadiums, and tweaking the male guardianship laws to allow women over 21 to travel without male consent.

The theatrical flair of Saudi Arabia’s reform efforts is evident in the timing of their announcements. Take the calculated reveal of the first Personal Status Law on International Women’s Day in 2022 — surely no coincidence.

This legislation set a minimum age for marriage while still clinging to the male guardianship requirement for women, signalling the kingdom’s choreographed steps toward change. However, these actions barely scratch the surface. When a son can still be a woman’s guardian simply due to his biological sex, it’s clear that Saudi Arabia’s commitment to real reform is only skin-deep.

In this elaborate spectacle that Saudi Arabia, which we’ll call “the women empowerment empire” for this discussion, presents to the world, there’s a glaring omission: the ordeals of the unsung heroines behind the curtain. These are the Saudi women activists who tirelessly fought for women’s rights reforms, only to be “thanked” with imprisonment.

Take Loujain al-Hathloul’s story, imprisoned for pushing for the right to drive and opposing the restrictive male guardianship system. Even as Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive in 2018, the same year of Hathloul’s arrest, the underlying message was unmistakable: the regime dictates change, it isn’t petitioned for it.

Al-Hathloul’s case is not an anomaly but part of a disturbing trend where Saudi authorities routinely detain or restrict travel for women advocating for their rights. In 2020, Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student from the University of Leeds, was arrested while visiting her family in Saudi Arabia.

She was later charged with a staggering 27-year prison sentence and an equivalent travel ban, a punishment for her tweets in support of women’s rights. Similarly, Nourah al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison and a matching travel ban for her critical tweets about Saudi human rights abuses and her calls for the release of political prisoners.

In 2022, Manahel al-Otaibi was targeted for posting photos without an abaya (traditional dress) and advocating for more liberal dress codes and the end of male guardianship laws. The roster of imprisoned women, which includes even secondary school students, continues to grow — all penalised with severe sentences for their peaceful activism.

Can a nation that systematically silences women for asserting their rights genuinely lead the UN’s premier body on women’s rights and gender equality? Even if this appointment is only for two years, it is a stark insult to every activist suffering in prison and a blatant disregard for feminists around the world.

The recent years have shown us a widespread onslaught against women’s rights, from Florida, where recent abortion laws severely limit women’s autonomy over their own bodies, to male sex offenders being placed in women’s jails in Scotland, to the lynching, kidnappings, and gang rapes of women and girls in Haiti, to the stoning of women to death in Afghanistan, and the plight of Palestinian women, who face dire conditions, giving birth without essential medical care or anaesthesia — all stark reminders of the ongoing global struggle for women’s rights.

In light of these stark realities, the UN’s choice to place Saudi Arabia at the forefront of women’s rights feels not just out of place but also exposes a deeply worrying gap between actions and ideals. It raises the question: how can an organisation committed to global human rights overlook such glaring contradictions in its leadership choices?

This move by the UN sends a clear message that women’s equality might be negotiable, leaving us to ponder whether the UN has lost sight of its foundational principles or if this is merely the latest in a series of oversights, diminishing the genuine fight for feminism. Is the international community’s commitment so shallow that no better champion could be found, or was Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s leader, simply unavailable for the role?

Maryam Aldossari is a senior lecturer in organisation studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on gender inequality in the Middle East.


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