Saudi Arabia on the Status of Women Commission?

In politics today, anything is possible. Yet sometimes events occur that are so ridiculous that you sit bemused for days, wondering how this could be.

On April 25, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women voted – nearly unanimously – to make the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamist nation of Saudi Arabia a member for the next four years. Although it was ranked 134th worldwide out of 145 on gender equality, Saudi Arabia will join the commission’s 45 other countries.   

It makes very little sense to include a nation in which women are so oppressed on a commission with the goals of “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women.”   

Women in Saudi Arabia are treated as second-class citizens. The law requires them to have a male guardian, who oversees them from birth until death and makes all critical decisions. Additionally, a woman is forbidden to obtain a passport, marry, or travel abroad without the approval of her male guardian, usually a family member or spouse.

Women can even be jailed for disobeying their guardians. Last November, a Saudi woman filed a report of abuse against her brother and was arrested for disobedience. Saudi Arabia also limits women’s ability to engage in basic tasks, such as driving, that the West sees as fundamental. It is the only country in the world that will not issue driver’s licenses to women.

Why should women not drive? In 2013, a member of the Ulama, Saudi Arabia’s body of religious scholars, claimed that women’s ovaries and pelvises could be damaged by driving, thus inhibiting their reproductive abilities. He told Saudi news source that driving “could have a reverse physiological impact. Physiological science and functional medicine … [have found] that it automatically affects ovaries and rolls up the pelvis. This is why we find, for women who continuously drive cars, their children are born with clinical disorders of varying degrees.” Two years before, the Majlis al-Ifta’ al-A’ala – Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council – published a report in conjunction with a professor from King Fahd University which claimed that allowing women to drive would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce,” and that within ten years no virgins would be left in Saudi Arabia.

You honestly can’t make some of these things up.

At the time of Saudi Arabia’s addition, New Zealand’s prime minister said it is important for the UN commission to include countries that are beginning to make changes for women, no matter how slow the change. A Girls Council held in March in Saudi Arabia is supposed to be evidence of this “change.” The only problem – there were no girls on this council. It was composed entirely of men. Women were told to sit in a separate room.

Saudi Arabia has made small improvements by letting women have greater access to education and jobs, but they still lack many basic rights that we take for granted here in America.

Belgium’s prime minister has since stated that he regrets his country’s vote to include Saudi Arabia. (He claims that the vote came unexpectedly, forcing diplomats to choose without consulting colleagues.)

Hopefully the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the commission will improve the situation for women there, but I doubt it will. The government’s and much of society’s policy toward women draws from Wahhabism – an extremely conservative form of Islam – and the Ulama, who play a large role in influencing governance. It is unlikely that the Ulama that enforced policies which, in 2002, forced girls back into a burning school because their heads were not covered will accept a fundamental shift in beliefs on women’s rights.

We can only hope that Saudi Arabia’s inclusion on the commission will persuade it to relax its policies against women.