It is no secret that Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records in their treatment of women and girls. So it was a bit of a shock to wake up to the news that Saudi Arabia will now be part of the United Nations Commission for the Status of Women, joining 44 other countries in 2018.
It is a cruel joke considering that in Saudi Arabia there is discriminatory male guardianship and formal policies and practices that forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother or son. Women are not allowed to drive vehicles and were only recently allowed to vote in municipal elections. Last year a woman was flogged for checking her husband’s phone without his permission. Thus in Saudi Arabia, a woman is dependent on a man from birth to death, with absolutely no identity for herself.
Yet ironically, the Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. One of the focus areas is to hold a ministerial segment to reaffirm and strengthen political commitment to the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as well as their human rights which would be hard to do with Saudi Arabia.
Even more surprising is that it received 47 out of 54 votes in a secret ballot which suggests that at least 5 EU countries would have voted for it and India could be one of those in its favour as well.
Fortunately, not everyone at the UN agrees with including Saudi Arabia. “Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief. It’s absurd,” Hillel Neuer, the UN Watch chief, said.
This feels like yet one more step backward for women’s rights. The President of the United States boasted about “grabbing a woman by her pussy” and has dozens of sexual assault allegations against him and seems not at all apologetic about it. Closer to home, we have just elected a Chief Minister of the largest state in India who has extremely regressive views of women. He believes they need protection, not independence. He warns that women who acquire male traits turn into demons or ‘rakshasas’ and hence need protection, for their own good and for the good of the society.
Such relaxed attitudes by governments or people in power, sends a message to the public that women’s rights hardly matter and that violence against women and girls is acceptable. It not only translates into subsequent policy action like cutting down on budgets to improve gender equality, or grants for teaching law enforcement staff on how to respond to sexual assault and domestic violence, but it also encourages men to perpetrate more violence. We have seen the rise of vigilantism in form of Anti Romeo squads in Uttar Pradesh and in Maharashtra, an all-male panel has gone ahead with a bill to make sex determination of a foetus mandatory.
While we have progressed a lot across the world in furthering women’s rights and improving the situation with regards to gender equality, we still have a long way to go to achieve true equality and the realisation of human rights for women. Therefore it is worrisome that a country like Saudi Arabia is part of the UN Commission on the Status of Women because if they don’t believe in agency for women and girls, they will never ensure it is put into practice.