A year ago, we had the triumphant pleasure of watching the celebrations when an all-female pilot crew landed a plane in a country where women are forbidden from driving. This week, we watched that same country (where women also need the permission of a male guardian to travel, work, or even leave the house) get elected onto the UN gender equality commission. Yes, Saudi Arabia, a country ranked 141 out of 144 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (just above Syria, Pakistan and Yemen) will now serve on the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, which is apparently dedicated to “the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”
The irony would be laughable if it wasn’t so deeply tragic. The commission, which claims to be instrumental in promoting women’s rights, says its aims include increasing women’s leadership opportunities and political participation (Saudi women could not vote until 2015, and then only in local elections), promoting economic empowerment (Saudi women need a man’s permission to open a bank account), and ending violence against women (domestic abuse was legal in Saudi Arabia until 2013, and is still regularly unreported and un-prosecuted). Saudi Arabia will now be one of 45 countries tasked with upholding those aims across the world.
So what does Saudi Arabia’s shock appointment to the commission tell us? The answer is very little about gender equality, and more about the procedures of the UN. The vote election took place as a secret ballot, rather than the standard UN format of rubber-stamping nominations behind closed doors – Saudi Arabia got 47 out of a total of 54 country votes. According to UN Watch, at least fifteen developed democratic countries on the Economic and Social Council must have voted in favour. There are ten EU countries on the list (Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, and the UK), meaning at least three of these countries were happy to have Saudi Arabia on the commission. Let the guessing game commence.
Sweden has a pro-feminist government and, along with Finland, regularly tops global lists for gender equality. France, Germany and Belgium are core EU members that have been instrumental in pushing through pro-women EU directives like maternity leave and anti-discrimination legislation. Ireland and Italy might be proudly Catholic with some questionable attitudes towards women’s reproductive rights, but it’s hard to imagine Irish and Italian women quietly accepting their fate if their governments decided to take a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s book and ban them from driving. As for Estonia and the Czech Republic, while these former Soviet states may not be overtly feminist, these countries have always had high female workforce participation and women active in public life. Then of course there’s the UK – don’t forget Theresa May’s trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, where she assured gender equality advocates in Britain that her trip was not a signal she condoned Saudi’s policies, but would be an “inspiration for oppressed women”.
At least three of these countries either secretly decided basic human rights like the ability to leave the house without permission didn’t matter, or made a dispassionate judgement that it was more important to keep Saudi Arabia friendly for other reasons. Who knows what deals may have been made in backrooms beforehand, about Yemen, IS, weapons, or energy? Diplomacy is a repeated game, after all.
So let’s assume that, in these countries, it’s relatively rare to find politicians like Philip Davies (standing to be re-elected as an MP in Shipley, tried to block legislation to protect domestic violence victims, active anti-feminist campaigner on the UK parliamentary equalities committee). That means these EU governments think so little of the Commission on the Status of Women, and by extension the UN in general, that they’re prepared to sit by and allow this bizarre situation for the sake of whatever it was they wanted from the Saudis. That they were even prepared to consider this is a pretty dire indictment of the UN’s perceived efficacy.
All this means that, while Saudi Arabia’s newly-acquired vote on gender equality is outrageous, absurd, and a blow to Saudi women, it probably won’t make the commission any less productive than it already was.