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Women Beware: Saudi Arabia to Help Shape Global Standards for Female Equality

Saudi women are forced to keep their faces and bodies covered outside the home. (Tribes of the World / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Medea Benjamin

By Medea Benjamin

Saudi women are forced to keep their faces and bodies covered outside the home. (Tribes of the World / CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s hard to sink to a greater depth of hypocrisy than voting Saudi Arabia onto a United Nations Commission charged with promoting women’s equality and empowerment. And yet, on April 23, that is precisely what the U.N. Economic and Social Council did. Of the 54 countries on the council, 47 of them agreed to add Saudi Arabia to a four-year term on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

How did the United States ambassador to the U.N. and the democratic champions of Europe vote? The ballot was secret, and is it any wonder that the U.N. representatives refuse to reveal their votes? What is undeniable, however, is that the Saudis could not have received 47 votes without support from the Western democracies.

The Saudi regime is notorious for its abysmal treatment of women. Outside the home, women are forced to wear an abaya, a loose-fitting black cloak that conceals the shape of their bodies, and a hijab, or headscarf, to cover their hair. The fundamentalist dress code is enforced by zealous religious police who fine and beat women who dare to violate the code. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to ban women from driving, a practice that severely limits women’s independence and autonomy.

Saudi Arabia is unquestionably the most gender-segregated society in the world. The government enforces sex segregation in virtually all workplaces except hospitals, and fines businesses that fail to comply. In food outlets, including U.S. chains such as McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken, all lines and eating areas are separated to keep unrelated men and women apart. The men’s section is usually the airy, front section, while the women and children are relegated to the back, shielded from public view. The majority of public buildings have separate entrances for men and women. Some even ban women from entering.

The most oppressive aspect of life for Saudi women is the strict guardianship system. This system requires every female, from birth to death, to have a male guardian who controls her ability to travel, study, work, marry or even seek certain forms of medical attention.

Saudi women campaigning for women’s rights denounced the addition of Saudi Arabia to the U.N. Commission. “Allowing this oppressive regime to join a commission designed to empower women makes me feel personally violated and invisible, and it is demoralizing for us as activists,” an anonymous Saudi woman seeking asylum in the United States told me. “It sends a message that for the international community, Saudi wealth and power are more important than women’s lives.”

Saudi Arabia is probably the worst country in the world to be put on a women’s commission shaping global standards on gender equality, not only because of its treatment of Saudi women but also because the regime uses its oil wealth to export misogyny abroad. Saudi Arabia spreads its reactionary version of Islam through the thousands of mosques and schools it builds overseas, as well as through the funding of extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida affiliates. Wherever Saudi influence appears around the world, women lose rights and autonomy.

For Saudi Arabia, a top U.S. ally, a position on the Women’s Commission is a way to further whitewash its image and keep the organization from shining a spotlight on Saudi abuses. This was the same rationale for the regime to seek, and obtain, a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. While such positions may burnish the image of the Saudi regime, they tarnish the image of the U.N. itself, showing that money takes precedence over the principles of human rights and equality that the United Nations was created to uphold.

One can only imagine the suggestions the Saudi reps will come up with when addressing the U.N. Commission’s mission to assess the challenges to gender equality. It is doubtful they will ever suggest that the Saudi regime itself, and its support from Western allies, is a global obstacle that women must struggle to overcome. So it is up to women everywhere to call for the Saudis to be kicked off the commission so that it can be a space truly dedicated to the empowerment of women.

Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of the women’s peace group Code Pink and author of the book “Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.”

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