Behind a Thousand Veils

By Marie Peffenköver

In the desert state Saudi-Arabia, a traditional Islamic monarchy at the Persian Gulf, women have ever since been “chameleons” – they remain almost invisible, adapted to their social circumstances and hidden by their society behind a thousand veils. With only very limited rights to even leave their home (only with a male guard), the prohibition to work without their husband’s allowance and the subordination of females to their male relatives in all social, economic and political matters, the Gulf Kingdom has attracted great criticism from Western human right associations.

Especially the justification of these limitations on women’s rights by Saudi-Arabian leaders who refer to the Islamic law, the “Sharia”,  the teachings of the prophet Mohammed (“hadith”) and the Quran, the Islam’s central scripture, has led to what Samuel Huntington once called a “clash of different civilizations”, of different moral concepts and religious attributes. Thereby, the traditional Islamic states who embrace the so-called Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam, feel to be flooded by the interference of Western values and culture into their own outlines of living. Consequently, reaching international agreements in this regard is a tough business, keeping the United Nations busy with bargaining about any possible improvements.

For this reasons the UN’s Council on Human Rights (UNCHR) has scheduled a meeting to discuss this topic with the international plenary, aiming at issuing a Resolution that ameliorates the status of women within the Saudi-Arabian state.

Although a decisive breakthrough in this regard is highly unlikely, the member States of the UNCHR have designed a Draft Resolution which, if it becomes passed in its entirety, can mean a significant step towards a freer and more just Saudi Kingdom.

At the centre of Resolution 60/251 lies the creation of a new institution to “protect Human Rights, particularly women’s rights, in Saudi-Arabia” (Article 2). This institutions is supposed to be supported by the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to regard the improvement of the women’s situation on a regular basis (Article 1) as well as the launch of the position of an Ombudsman to provide a forum of interaction where women can be informed about their rights (Article 2c). Additionally, states such as the Netherlands and Sweden have tabled the open access of the Internet for women to, as the Swedish Delegate put it, “offer them an opportunity to encounter the values and culture of the Western world”.

Needless to say that these propositions faced a number of criticisms. While the Delegate of Saudi-Arabia itself expressed Saudi-Arabia concerns about the content that young women might be confronted with on the Internet, the Delegate of Iran found direct words to voice his scepticism regarding the proposed institution on women’s rights. “It looks like a Wikipedia entry”, he explained and added that the Draft Resolution would “leave lots of questions but offer only few answers”.

Caution is as well advocated when scrutinizing the coercive force of the resolution at stake. As the Delegate of the Netherlands put it, “how shall we [the UN] punish non-compliance on the side of Saudi-Arabia?” This statement appears to be even more accurate considering the rather moderate success of previous Human Right Resolutions on the behalf of women’s rights in the Gulf state.

Moreover, although the majority of the Draft Resolution’s Articles were accepted with a huge majority (eight countries in favour, four countries against), also the majority of them (especially Articles 1, 2 and 8) could only be passed against the resistance of Saudi-Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Thailand and Lebanon – the very states who are seen as the core causes of infringements to women’s rights.

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In December 2015, Saudi women were allowed to vote for the first time, causing the so-called “spring for women”

Although the global media reported in December 2015 that Saudi-Arabian women were now allowed to vote and to register for being voted for the first time in History, one needs to be cautious whether this proclaimed “spring for women” will present a long-lasting and sustainable breakthrough. This, however, is highly unlikely given the result of the UNCHR’s meeting. Rather, women in Saudi-Arabia might continue to hide behind a thousand veils – the chameleon is likely to re-take its previous colour of oppression.

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