How serious is King Abdullah about women’s rights? – not just as the king, but as a father and husband too

Despite small reforms, Saudi women are still not treated as full legal adults

Share

When the story broke earlier this month of four Saudi princesses allegedly confined to their Jeddah home by members of their own family, the kingdom soon went into damage control mode.

Within a week, several British newspapers started calling Human Rights Watch, asking if we knew about a news pitch from a UK public relations firm claiming that the Saudi authorities were about to make a “major announcement” on women’s rights.

We didn’t, but in just a few days’ time, Saudi was due to appear at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to address its rights record.

So on March 19, when Saudi began presenting to the UN, we - along with many journalists – were watching with great interest.

But the “major announcement” never came.

Instead Dr. Bandar al-Aiban, president of the Saudi government’s Human Rights Commission, informed the Human Rights Council of various small but positive steps the government has taken on women’s rights. He mentioned that Saudi women will be able to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, and alluded to a new law issued in August 2013 to protect women from domestic violence – the first regulation in the kingdom’s history that criminalises domestic abuse. He spoke about how the kingdom is “taking steady strides to improve all walks of life” for women.

But the bizarre PR pitch received by journalists suggests the Saudi authorities want the British public to focus on  these small positive steps on women’s rights, and steer the conversation away from the king’s daughters.

Saudi authorities have employed a similar strategy with gusto over the past two years, with a flurry of press statements and news stories citing every “first” for Saudi women, such as the first woman lawyer, newspaper editor, deputy minister, Shura Council members, and so on.

These steps are important, and show that positive incremental reform on women’s rights is likely to continue. But as last week’s events demonstrate, Saudi authorities also use these small gains to obscure major shortcomings on other women’s rights issues.

For example, while the domestic violence law that Dr al-Aiban alluded to is a step forward, it has a major flaw: it contains no clear enforcement mechanism, leaving all implementation up to an unnamed “specialised agency.” It is not known who would enter the private sanctity of the home to intervene where women are being abused or threatened with abuse. We also don’t know how authorities will define the terms “exploitation” or “abuse.”

Read more: YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN: THE GULF STATES ARE EVIL EMPIRES IF YOU'RE A WOMAN

The alleged confinement of King Abdullah’s daughters grabbed international attention because it involves the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia. But in fact all men in Saudi Arabia – not just the ruling elite - are allowed to exercise complete control over the movement of their adult female relatives. If they choose to restrict women’s movement, it’s not clear whether authorities would even consider this abuse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite some small reforms, Saudi women are largely denied the right to be treated as full legal adults like their male counterparts, be they the king’s daughters or any other Saudi woman. The male guardianship system requires women to seek permission from their male guardians – their father, brother or even their son – to travel abroad, access higher education, and undergo certain medical treatments or procedures. Sex segregation and the ban on women driving relegate them to second-class status.

 We simply don’t know, for instance, how the new domestic abuse law is to have a serious impact on abused women when in many cases women would require logistical support or transportation from male relatives, who themselves may be the abusers, to report abuses or escape abusive situations.

Dr al-Aiban had said that “women in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and with direct support of … King Abdullah … are encouraged and supported in order for women to participate in all areas of life.” If this is to be true, King Abdullah – as the highest authority in the kingdom and the male guardian of his wives and unmarried adult daughters – needs to go beyond baby steps. He should put an end to the male guardianship for all women, including the requirement for the guardian to approve travel abroad, and rescind the ban on women driving. Anything less than this would be window dressing at best, or at worst an attempt to obscure the fact that Saudi Arabia still systematically discriminates against women.

Ultimately King Abdullah needs to show he’s serious about women’s rights – not just as the king, but as a father and husband too.

Rothna Begum is a Middle East women’s rights researcher and Adam Coogle is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee