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Greene: UN getting Saudi Arabia’s input on women’s rights: hypocrisy or illumination?



The United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women “is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.” They are considered “instrumental in 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.”

Like most government boards, this commission doesn’t really do that much. In fact, most people didn’t even know it existed until Saudi Arabia was elected to a four-year term as one of the 45 commission members on April 19. The same Saudi Arabia where the gender gap was ranked 141 out of 144 countries in 2016. The irony of this was not lost on the internet, which exploded at what they saw as blatant injustice and hypocrisy.

As per UN tradition, the voting process was done in secret; however, analysis shows that at least five European countries voted in favor of the appointment. This has caused major strife in Europe, where the refugee crisis has left many women feeling unsafe and unprotected by their governments. Many of these fears have been validated by an alarming number of attacks on women in the streets and by authorities in multiple European countries advising women not to go out at night alone.

This culture clash seemed to have hit its peak (at least in media coverage) around New Year’s 2016, but Saudi Arabia’s appointment to the CSW has brought back a lot of those feelings of betrayal. Citizens across Europe have been demanding to know how their governments voted. Ireland, Sweden and Norway have all refused to reveal their position, despite facing political backlash. Belgium has admitted voting yes, and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel even came out with a formal apology, saying he regretted the decision.

Abdullah Alshabanah, a second-year student at UO from Saudi Arabia, said he was surprised to hear Saudi Arabia was selected for the commission because most people associate the country with their guardianship system dictating women are not permitted to work, travel, marry or get medical attention without permission from a male guardian.

Alshabanah disagrees with this perception of his home.

“Unfortunately, the media negatively promoted my county regarding women and many other issues,” Alshabanah said. “There might be a large number of countries in which they are far [more] advanced with women’s rights than my country, but people more often misjudge Saudi Arabia.”

He cites many ways Saudi Arabia has improved its treatment of women. 

“Women are equally paid, 60 percent of higher education students are women, they have the right to vote, they are members of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, and most importantly, they are respected by the community,” Alshabanah said. “Also, Saudi women no longer need male permission to receive services … It is true it is not enough and women deserve more, but things take time.”

Alshabanah particularly hates people’s fixation on Saudi women not being allowed to drive. 

“There are more important issues that need to be discussed. People, mostly non-Saudi, look at it from their own perspective and measure it based on their culture without realizing the cultural differences,” Alshabanah said.

Some politicians seem to agree with Alshabanah’s take on the matter: Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, tweeted, “It’s important to support those in the country who are working for change for women. Things are changing, but slowly.”

While many in the West find Saudi Arabia’s treatment of gender concerning, those worries don’t often don’t match up to how the issues are perceived in the Middle-East. (Creative Commons)

While this might have seemed obvious to a political insider like Clark, I  was completely taken aback by Alshabanah’s position on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Despite never paying much attention to women’s rights in the Middle East — unless it was to shake my head in dismay — or to the UN other than the occasional skeptical observation, I was immediately up in arms over this appointment, just like the rest of the internet.

Alshabanah’s statement has opened my eyes to a fact I never even considered that none of the news coverage I read — from liberal, conservative, American, or European outlets — had input from Saudi women, the very people we are fussing about.

As a Western woman who has grown up surrounded by very specific ideas about what it means to be liberated, I’m sure the conditions women face in Saudi Arabia would seem oppressive and horrific to me. But I would be looking at the situation from a very one-sided cultural perspective, and I would be looking at the situation in a time vacuum, ignoring the conditions from only a decade or two prior.

Perhaps it is hypocritical to place Saudi Arabia on the Commission on the Status of Women, but the appointment isn’t really going to change our lives, and part of that commission’s job is to document the lives of women across the globe. Obviously, the lives of Saudi women are very misunderstood in the West, where our picture of the country seems tainted by a dated media representation.

Perhaps this is not the travesty we initially thought, but an opportunity to encourage more positive development and to create a more realistic perception of the country — good and bad.  


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Patience Greene

Patience Greene