UN’s Next Chief for Women’s Rights Is a Nation With an ‘Abysmal Record’ on the Issue — Saudi Arabia 

The Kingdom could be ‘womenwashing’ its reputation to improve its international standing.

AP/Amr Nabil
Saudi police women, who were recently deployed to the service, from right to left, Samar, Alaa, and Bashair, stand alert in front of the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, during the annual hajj pilgrimage at Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca. AP/Amr Nabil

Meet the next chief of the United Nation’s top forum for women’s rights and gender equality — Saudi Arabia. Despite a poor human rights record, the Kingdom won a bid to lead the Commission on the Status of Women, a committee of 45 UN member states that pledges “to promote gender equality and to promote women’s empowerment.”

Member states could have protested the bid by Saudi Arabia as the only candidate to chair the Commission’s yearlong session. They expelled Iran from it in 2022 following a government crackdown on protests around the death of a woman who improperly wore a hijab, Mahsa Jina Amini. Instead, the states unanimously confirmed the new post on March 28, a victory for the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdulaziz Alwasil.

Saudi Arabia’s last-minute push for the chair previously held by the Philippines and meant to be taken over by Bangladesh is seen by critics as an attempt to burnish the Kingdom’s image. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as part of his special project, Saudi Vision 2030, is also investing billions of dollars into professional sports leagues in an attempt to improve the country’s economy, tourism, and reputation — a move widely seen as “sportswashing.”

“Womenwashing” is one way to view this development at the UN. The state-run Saudi Press Agency said in a statement that the chairmanship affirms the Kingdom’s “interest in cooperation within the framework of the international community in enhancing women’s rights and empowerment,” as well as “the special attention and care the Kingdom’s leadership pays to woman empowerment and rights.”

Yet even Saudi Arabia’s own UN mission’s website says the government is not a leader on this issue: “Saudi Arabia is tiptoeing on women progress, but the road is still long to go.”

Like all other legislative bodies of the UN, the Commission operates on an election or rotation system, so the chairmanship vote is a result of action by member states themselves, not the secretary general, António Guterres. 

“That being said, every member state has the responsibility to uphold the commitments they’ve made to international human rights standards when they joined the UN,” the spokesman for Mr. Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, tells the Sun. “That is especially true for those countries who sit on committees and who chair those bodies.”

Ahead of the decision on March 28, several human rights organizations urged UN members to reject Saudi’s bid for the chairmanship on women’s rights. “Saudi Arabia’s abysmal record when it comes to protecting and promoting the rights of women,” Amnesty International’s deputy director for advocacy, Sherine Tadros, said in a statement, “puts a spotlight on the vast gulf between the lived reality for women and girls in Saudi Arabia, and the aspirations of the Commission.”

The Saudi government has implemented some reforms in recent years. In 2018, women were given the right to drive, and wearing hijab, the Islamic headscarf, is no longer obligatory in public. Yet many severe restrictions remain in place. Saudi women must obtain a male guardian’s permission to marry and face travel bans and criminal punishment if they challenge the rules. 

One activist, Manahel al-Otaibi, has been detained since 2022 after her social media posts challenged the country’s male guardianship laws and the requirement for women to wear a body-shrouding abaya. Prosecutors say she was “defaming the kingdom at home and abroad, calling for rebellion against public order and society’s traditions and customs, and challenging the judiciary and its justice.” 

Ms. Otaibi’s fate is a warning sign. The Kingdom’s upcoming penal code, according to a draft leaked by Amnesty, criminalizes acts of speech that are protected under international law, as well as consensual sexual relations, homosexuality and abortion. Amnesty says it fails to protect women and girls from all forms of gender-based violence. 

The New York Sun

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