Saudi Arabia: Place on the board of UN Women 'a sad joke'

The Star

It took years to make the United Nations' newest agency, UN Women, a reality, and then just one day to effectively kill it. Death was effected by allowing onto its board a kingdom where women are not just infamously prohibited from driving but are also virtual minors who need a male guardian's permission to travel and to have surgery — and must be covered from head to toe in public. As one of two countries guaranteed seats as emerging donor nations, Saudi Arabia essentially bought its way onto the board of UN Women, which is dedicated to gender equality around the world. Just three days after securing an automatic seat, Saudi Arabia gave us a reminder of just how oxymoronic its place on UN Women is, when its team showed up at the Asian Games in China without a single woman among the 180-strong delegation.

Iran, another country with a dismal women's rights record, lost its bid for election to the board of UN Women after furious back-channel diplomacy by the United States and its allies. Still, at the games, which started in China on Saturday, Iran will field 92 female athletes in its 395-strong delegation. Welcome to the ugly world of wrangling over women's rights records depending on whether “we” like you or not.

Don't misunderstand — Iran deserves to be kept out of UN Women. Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi had warned just before the vote that it was a “joke” that her country was in line to get a place on the board. But she said the same of Saudi Arabia, rightly pointing out that its women's rights record was worse than Iran's.

It's not as if the UN was unaware of that abysmal record. After all, who could forget the farce that ensued when a Saudi delegation appeared for the first time before the UN women's rights panel in Geneva in 2008 and absurdly insisted that women in their country faced no discrimination?

But the most ludicrous claim came when the UN committee asked why Saudi men could marry up to four wives. With a straight face, a Saudi delegate — a man, of course — explained that it was to ensure a man's sexual appetite was satisfied legally if one wife could not fulfill it.

Not surprisingly, then-UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Erturk, soon went to Saudi Arabia on a 10-day fact-finding mission.

So where was the outrage on voting day, Nov. 10, as Saudi Arabia's “generous contribution” landed it on UN Women's board?

Distracted, at best.

U.S., European Union, Australian and Canadian diplomats had been working hard to kick Iran off the list of 10 countries from the Asian region up for election to the board. Iran — which for weeks has been threatening to stone a woman for alleged adultery — does not belong on the board.

But it was disgusting to hear American ambassador to the UN Susan E. Rice celebrate Iran's defeat and yet, when pushed on Saudi Arabia, say only that she would “not deny that there were several countries that are going to join the board of UN women that have less than stellar records on women's rights, indeed human rights.”

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

Why are countries such as Saudi Arabia eager to join international bodies like UN Women? Because it translates into clout — membership in a powerful new agency — with very few obligations.

In 2000, Saudi Arabia ratified an international bill of rights for women but stipulated that the country's interpretation of Islamic law (Sharia) would prevail if there were conflicts with the bill's provisions. So why sign in the first place? Especially as that interpretation is where so much discrimination against women originates — polygamy, half inheritance allotted to a man, little access to divorce and child marriage among them.

Other countries also hide behind those reservations, which begs the question of why they're allowed to sign conventions they effectively neuter.

It's worth noting here that the U.S. hasn't ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, so it doesn't stand on the firmest of ground when it wants to lecture others.

And a day after the U. N. Women fiasco, the U.S. joined China, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and others in opposing the call of a UN General Assembly human rights committee for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Human rights groups have vowed extra scrutiny for Saudi Arabia, and some Saudi women have said it could help them to have that additional spotlight on the kingdom. But as long as Saudi Arabia has that way out — the religion card — it makes a mockery of the system.

Saudi activists courageously fight against a compendium of horrors that girls and women face, but international acquiescence to oil — the kingdom sits on the world's largest reserves — and the fact that Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's two holiest sites too often guarantee it a free pass.

If UN Women is to have any bite, it should focus on justice for Saudi women and not on their country's “generous contributions.”

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues