Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia addresses the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York on September 21.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia is a fiercely, even violently, religious nation.
Deera Square (also known as Chop Chop Square), where beheadings are carried out for offenses such as blasphemy or homosexuality, is a testament to the brutal seriousness with which Saudi Arabia guards its traditions at home.
Of course, there is a Janus face to this fanaticism. It is an open secret that royals fly abroad to enjoy the pleasures of the West, while at home they give free rein to reactionary clerics to treat women like chattel and demonize Westerners.
Cleaving to a hardline and literal interpretation of Shari’a law and strongly influenced by pre-Islam Beduin customs, Saudis have never claimed to be anything but zealots and bigots who view the female sex as inherently subordinate and deserving of abusive treatment. Nearly every society must grapple with balancing ancient traditions with freedoms.
For the Saudis it was always a no-brainer. And they are proud of it.
The world community has done little to champion human rights in Saudi Arabia. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom’s denunciation of Riyadh in 2015 for flogging Raif Badawi for purportedly criticizing Islam was a rarity.
But neither has there been a campaign to tout the Saudis as champions of gender equality or religious diversity or to nominate them for distinction in the field of human rights.
Yet, a UN body has done just that. Saudi Arabia was elected last week via secret ballot in the UN Economic and Social Council to the 45-member UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Saudi Arabia, a country that has in place a system of institutionalized male dominance, has now been tapped to monitor the status of women in the world. Vital decisions for Saudi women, such as availing oneself of medical care, enrolling in a university or traveling abroad, must receive the approval of a father, brother or other male relative.
Every Saudi woman has a designated guardian that essentially runs her life. This guardian can be many years younger, less educated and less responsible. Often gender is his only perceivable advantage.
A litany of prohibitions regulates the lives of the Saudi woman. She is not permitted to drive, she cannot wear clothes or makeup that “show off beauty” but must wear an abaya (long cloak) and a head scarf. Government buildings, hotel lobbies, restaurants, public transportation, parks and other public places are strictly gender-segregated.
Women face harsher punishment than men for unlawful mixing. Women are not allowed to try on clothes when shopping, as though the very thought of a partially dressed woman behind a dressing-room door is too suggestive.
Why would the UN appoint Saudi Arabia as a defender of women’s rights, a country where a woman cannot even open a bank account without her husband’s permission and received the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections just two years ago? It should not come as too much of a surprise. After all, this is the same UN whose Human Rights Council enforces Agenda Item 7, which dictates that Israel’s purported human rights violations must be raised and discussed every single time the UNHRC convenes. More UNHRC condemnations are made against Israel than against all other countries in the world combined.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, has pledged to change what she calls the “culture” of the international body. She has already done much to combat the knee-jerk criticism directed against Israel that characterizes so much of UN discourse. Perhaps her next order of business will be to help ensure that countries like Saudi Arabia are singled out for their human rights violations. It would be fitting if Haley’s strong female leadership became the driving force for a campaign within the UN to condemn Saudi Arabia for the suppression of half of its population.
The UN once was and might again be a force for good in the world. The potential is boundless for an institution that brings together all the nations of the world. Wars can be prevented; blatant human rights abuses can be stopped; the damage resulting from famine and natural disaster can be ameliorated. All this and more can be achieved through dialogue and cooperation.
However, before any of this can happen, the UN must have a minimum level of self-respect that prevents it from appointing Saudi Arabia to a council responsible for safeguarding the rights of women.