The UN and Saudi Women

Saudi womenAs revolutions and reforms sweep the Arab world, Saudi women continue to push for their rights. Inspired by their sisters in Egypt and Tunisia, a national women’s movement called Saudi Women Revolution has coalesced with clear and wide-ranging demands. Chief among them is the ability to participate in the political process, including voting and running for election.

This issue is especially relevant given the kingdom’s recent announcement of the second-ever nationwide elections in September 2011. Women will not be allowed to participate, just as they were not allowed to participate back in 2005. The government has provided the same reason both times: too few women have proper identity cards, making it difficult to count, manage, and regulate their votes.

Discrimination begets discrimination. Women began receiving personal identity cards in 2000. More than a decade later, the roll-out has clearly been far too slow. Women barely count as full citizens under the law, through no fault of their own. Yet as a result they are being further penalized.

Enter the UN?

Saudi women have new recourse, now that a new UN agency devoted to global women’s rights has emerged. Launched in early-2011 with former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet at the helm, UN Women bills itself as “the lead driver and lead voice advocating for gender equality and women’s empowerment globally.” It will provide funding and support to governments and national advocates in their efforts to improve women’s rights, operating along global norms of gender equity while navigating sensitive cultural and religious boundaries.

One of the agency’s key goals in its first 100 days is greater women’s participation and leadership. Supporting Saudi women’s advocates to push for their inclusion in September’s election, and also achieve their broader rights agenda, should be UN Women’s first task. UN Women should do this in accordance with its mission, to guarantee the organization’s longevity and success, but most of all out of respect and obligation to Saudi women.

In addition to voting rights, the Saudi Women Revolution is demanding an end to guardianship laws, the ability to drive, and protective measures against early marriage and gender-based violence. After meeting these demands, the group says, the Saudi government should convene a powerful council of women leaders who will usher in a new era of women’s empowerment in the kingdom.

UN Women should take their cue from this cadre of advocates and express public support for their efforts now, since elections are just six months away. In November last year, UN Women stepped squarely in the middle of Saudi gender politics by electing the country to its nascent executive board. Amid vociferous objections, Saudi Arabia won a seat in lieu of Iran. Despite criticisms of what was perceived as the ultimate paradox, UN Women failed to release a statement or defense. Here is a prime opportunity to justify this decision. UN Women should leverage Saudi Arabia’s participation to guide swift and meaningful action on this issue.

Modest Reform

Since succeeding to the throne in 2005, Saudi King Abdullah has overseen modest advances in women’s rights, including some improvement in women’s freedom in the public sphere, the establishment of the first co-ed university, and the appointment of the first female cabinet member. Yet the pace has been glacial for many, and a 2010 Human Rights Watch report called efforts “largely symbolic.”

Women in Saudi Arabia continue to face systematic discrimination, much of which hinges on strict guardianship laws that require male companionship or permission in marriage, travel, driving, and the pursuit of education and employment. Women lack the right to vote or run for political office, and are disadvantaged by the country’s family law, which weights divorce and custody heavily toward the man.

Saudi Arabian law is based on the observance of Islamic law (sharia) and its strictest interpretation according to the country’s conservative form of Islam called Wahhabism. Saudi women lack the civil rights they do in part because of this interpretation of Islam, which complicates the struggle for these rights. Many such restrictions have no explicit basis in the Koran but are instead constructions of conservative judicial interpretation.

Holding Saudi Arabia accountable on women’s rights has proved difficult, and will likely remain so. Five years after the 2005 election, nothing much has changed despite clear recommendations from global governing bodies and human rights groups. The country ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) but only with reservations that allow a deferral to sharia in the event of conflicting CEDAW stipulations. When it comes to gender equity, nearly every CEDAW stipulation will likely conflict with the conservative interpretation of sharia.

UN Women should use its newly minted global platform to call attention to the discrepancy between Saudi Arabia’s promises and deliveries, with the message that continued disregard of women’s rights is unacceptable. Working constructively with government members and women’s advocates, UN Women is uniquely positioned to broker new progress that would set the country and the agency on a right path.

The success of Saudi women’s efforts to secure their rights does not depend on UN Women’s support, but that support could be instrumental. Conversely, the success of UN Women depends on its ability to act deftly and swiftly on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s women.

Jessica Mack is a global reproductive rights advocate and feminist blogger. She is senior editor at Gender Across Borders, a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine Blog, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.