Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Saudi Arabia spot on UN women agency triggers outcry

November 14, 2010


The United Nations has set up a new super agency to better fight for the rights of women around the world including Afghanistan. This week UN Women, as the new body is called, held elections to choose countries to sit on the board and the results have triggered a storm of criticism even before the new agency formally comes into being next January. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia were in the running for a seat, and while Iran got displaced at the last minute in the vote, the Saudis are through.

And that has provoked the wrath of rights activists and commentators.  The idea of the conservative desert kingdom, where women cannot drive or take significant decisions without the permission of a male  relative or work as supermarket cashiers, leading a global fight for the promotion of women’s rights is hard to accept, they say. How can you take the UN seriously, asks Greg Scoblete in a short piece on  Real Clear World’s Compass blog headlined  : Saudi Arabia bastion for women’s rights.

When the results of the vote were announced, the United States warmly welcomed the defeat of Iran, saying it would have been an inauspicious start to the board, had  they won. But what about the Saudis, asks Ami Horowitz, a documentary film-maker, in an article in The Huffington Post. How can Washington or the UN justify their leadership of a high-powered body set up to promote gender equality and empower women.

Horowitz proceeds to list cases reflecting the plight of women in Saudi Arabia including the most famous  case of  “The Girl of Qatif.”. This refers to a 2007 verdict in which a 19-year-old woman from the town of Qatif was sentenced to 200 lashes of the whip after she was gang-raped by seven men. The court blamed her for being alone with an  unrelated man. The rapists were handed sentences ranging from two years to nine years in jail. The woman was later pardoned which commentators said at the time was the result of an international outcry over the judgement.

Indeed in a rather ironic twist, the Saudi team showed up at the Asian Games in China just days after winning that seat, without a single woman in  their 180-strong squad. Iran actually comes off far better in this respect ; its 395-strong squad at the Games consists of 92 female athletes. Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues, said that while the United States, the European Union, Australian and Canadian diplomats went on an overdrive to ensure Iran wasn’t on the  board, they didn’t seem to resist as strongly the Saudi seat on the high table. Is it because the Saudis are big donors ? Eltahawy writes:

Once again, women are the cheapest bargaining chips, thrown on the table to silence and appease allies and “major donors.

What’s the message  going out to countries such as Afghanistan where women are especially vulnerable ?

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