U.N. watchdog disappoints Saudi women journalists

February 18, 2008

Yakin Ertürk at her news conference in Riyadh, 13 Feb. 2008/stringerThe U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Ertürk, was in Saudi Arabia last week. She has just issued a report (official text here) that calls on the government to create a legal framework based on international human rights standards, including a law criminalising violence against women. It listed severe limits on women’s freedom of movement and ability to act in a whole range of family and social areas, from marriage, divorce and child custody to inheritance, education and employment. Her committee gave the Saudis a grilling at a hearing in Geneva last month. Yet, when she met the media in Riyadh at the end of her visit, the young female Saudi journalists there left the room muttering about how disappointed they were with her approach. “She didn’t say anything. This was just general stuff that people are aware of,” one complained. What’s up?

What they noticed in Ertürk’s comments was the degree to which she seemed to accept the official argument that Saudi society had “special characteristics” — khususiyya in Arabic — that constituted a valid frame of reference for assessing the country’s rights record. Khususiyya is a well-worn term that anyone who tries to criticise Saudi values hears in response. It’s used elsewhere in the Arab world as well, either by religious figures facing down liberal trends in society or governments opposing calls for political reform. Reformers throughout the Arab world see the term as a kind of a blanket “cultural exclusiveness” argument that seeks to shut down all serious discussion of political or religious change. It was once mocked by Saudi liberals themselves in the popular television comedy show Tash Ma Tash.

A Saudi woman doctor, 23 Oct. 2007/Ali JarekjiInternational pressure over Saudi women’s rights has been growing. Ertürk’s visit was part of an effort by Riyadh to persuade outsiders the situation was improving. She was able to announce that officials had promised to allow a couple forced to divorce by a religious court to live together again. There apparently was no movement on other issues such as the ban on women driving cars, which has become a kind of litmus test of reform in the country.

Ertürk tried to play down the importance of the ban and implied that allowing women to get behind the wheel would simply be tokenism. “The driving issue has become a characterising symbol for this country. No doubt it is important because it deprives or limits women’s freedom of movement,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen with the driving issue, I haven’t discussed it, it didn’t come up in our discussions, I don’t have a sense of how soon this will be resolved. If the ban on driving is going to continue, I think there is a need to provide transportation possibilities for people to get around, especially those who cannot afford to have a car and a driver. Whatever the preferred norm is in a country, the obligation of the state is to provide alternatives.”

And khususiyya? Ertürk said she saw patriarchal norms, values and law around the world. “It is this aspect that characterises societies across civilisation and across countries that we should try to understand and see how deviations from this norm have occurred historically, and how Saudi Arabia within its own realities can deviate to the advantage of rights and rights of women,” she said. Even Sweden, she argued, had some way to go in securing equality and justice for women. The women journalists listening to this could only dream.

Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, 6 Feb. 2008/Ali JarekjiA Turkish sociology professor, Ertürk clearly understood the cultural minefields inherent when trying to apply global rights standards in different contexts around the world. But her argument that the state should provide more transport if it would not let women drive missed the point. Islamic clerics in Saudi Arabia do not want to see the driving ban undermined by an alternative world of women’s taxi, bus, monorail or beach buggy services that can bring women into sinful contact with men. They firmly believe that women should be at home raising children and not out on Main Street tempting men with their charms.

The leading state-appointed cleric in Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, has already attacked the committee’s report on women’s rights as disrespectful and “spiteful for our religion and country“. In a Friday sermon in a Riyadh mosque, he defended the rules segregating women from unrelated men by arguing that allowing men and women to mix was to turn them into no more than animals.

Liberals throughout the Arab world say they have found to their cost that they get nowhere with conservative political or religious authorities by accepting their frame of reference for discussion or playing it diplomatically in the hope of a concession.

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