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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine