Widespread Criticism Follows Saudi Arabia Joining U.N. Women's Rights Group

Tom O’Connor

Widespread backlash has followed Saudi Arabia's election to the top United Nations women's rights body, with critics pointing to the kingdom's extremely restrictive gender laws.

Saudi Arabia is set to join the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women for a four-year term, from 2018 to 2022, after a U.S.-sponsored secret ballot was held among the 54 members of the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, according to U.N. Watch, a non-governmental organization that first reported the outcome of the vote. The group's executive director, Hillel Neuer, took to social media to blast the international body's decision, citing Saudi Arabia's record as one of the most gender-segregated nations on Earth and its staunch unwillingness to adapt to progressive views on women's rights.

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"Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief," Neuer wrote on his official Twitter account. "It’s absurd—and morally reprehensible."

"This is a black day for women’s rights, and for all human rights," he added in another post.


Saudi women arrive to attend Janadriyah Culture Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 8, 2016. Critics of the kingdom's restrictive gender laws reacted with outrage when Saudi Arabia was elected by secret ballot to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women for the 2018-2022 term. Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

A number of women's rights organizations also spoke out, accusing the U.N. council and its member states of hypocrisy for adding the only nation in the world in which it is illegal for women to drive to the 45-member council that is "exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women." Women in Saudi Arabia may not travel unless accompanied by a husband or a male guardian, known as a mahram, who is a member of her family and is not eligible for her to marry under Islamic law. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of global women's rights organization Code Pink, says the U.N.'s credibility is harmed by Saudi Arabia's inclusion in the international body.

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"The way the Saudi regime treats women is appalling and to have them on this commission for the status of women is so sad, so disheartening and so revolting," Benjamin tells Newsweek.

She adds: "You have to wonder what does it say about the U.N.? What does it say about our values?"

Code Pink held a summit last March intended to challenge the U.S.'s close diplomatic and financial relationships with Saudi Arabia, and a number of Saudi Arabian women have reached out to the organization looking for assistance and empowerment.

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One such woman, a 31-year-old graduate student of medicine, came to the U.S. looking to further her career, but was accused by Saudi Arabian authorities of breaking the kingdom's harsh gender codes. She has since applied for asylum for fear she would be imprisoned, beaten or even ultimately executed upon her return to Saudi Arabia. She accused the commission and its member states of ignoring the everyday plight of women living in Saudi Arabia.

"There's no way they could know what women in Saudi Arabia go through every day," she tells Newsweek, asking not be identified because she is currently seeking asylum. "I feel betrayed and kind of invisible."

Other organizations such as The Middle Eastern Feminist, headed by Kurdish activist Hawzhin Azeez, and social media users around the world also reacted with outrage to the outcome of the U.N. vote.

Some of Saudi Arabia's attempts to address its record on women's rights have been met with criticism. Last month, Saudi Prince Faisal bin Mishaal bin Saud and his wife, Princess Abir bint Salman, introduced the Qassam Girl's Council, in order to "open up more and more opportunities that will serve the work of women and girls." The council's opening ceremony, however, was attended only by men, while women watched a live feed in a back room.

In addition to being set to join the U.N.'s women's right group, Saudi Arabia was selected last March to the chair the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, despite receiving widespread condemnation for alleged human rights violation at home and abroad in its war against the Houthi movement in Yemen. Saudi Arabian authorities carried out their 30th execution of 2017 Monday, according to Human Rights Watch's Adam Coogle.

The U.N. sent out a press release Wednesday mentioning Saudi Arabia's addition to the U.N. Commission for the Status of Women, but has not commented since. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have not yet offered any official statements on the matter.

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