WRITTEN BY: LUCIE P. NORRIS
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died on Friday, the 23rd of January 2015, aged 90, weeks after a press release said that he was suffering from pneumonia and had to be admitted to hospital
The international community paid their respects, either via press releases or by flying directly to Saudi Arabia. France’s President François Hollande; England’s Prime Minister David Cameron; Spain’s King Felipe VI; America’s President Obama followed by a US delegation; and many more chose to fly directly to Riyadh where the funeral was to take place.
While paying their last respects they took the opportunity to meet the new ruler; the late King’s brother, King Salman. Overall, dignitaries from more than 10 countries met with the new King
In the multiple tributes paid to the late King, there is one, however, that particularly struck me.
Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), praised King Abdullah as being a « strong advocate of women ». Her exact words were:
«In a very discreet way, he was a strong advocate of women. It was very gradual, appropriately so probably for the country. I discussed that issue with him several times and he was a strong believer ».
Her words made something in me twitch and I had to look more closely into it.
Lagarde’s statement made me want to know more about the former King’s policies for women and for the Saudi population as a whole.
__ Women in Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah’s reign
TheGuardian reports that several reforms were introduced during his term as King so women would play a greater role in Saudi Arabia.
In 2009, he appointed a woman in the Council of Ministers, to be a representative of women’s interests in education; a historic first.
In 2011, in what TheGuardian qualifies as a ‘landmark ruling’, women were granted the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections. The King is, however, still choosing the candidates.
In 2013, 30 women were appointed to the Shura council, the representative body providing the King’s cabinet with recommendations in diverse policies.
NGO Human Rights Watch declared that, the real (and only?) gain women actually benefited from during the King’s reign, was the opening of new employment sectors for women.
But these measures are only one side of the story. We have always been taught never to satisfy ourselves with only one perspective so let’s take a look at the other side of the picture, shall we ?
__ The reality of women’s condition in Saudi Arabia
Enumerating all the constraints and restrictions women suffer from might take a while, so I will focus on some of them.
You’re more than welcome to read more about it and form an opinion of your own.
There is the male guardianship system in which women are forbidden from « obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son » reports Human Rights Watch.
There is the ban on driving for all women. Thereby, thanks to the reform introduced by the late King, they are now allowed to work, but need to be driven to work by a man. Quite convenient.
Should I mention here Loujain al-Hathloul and Mayssa al-Amoudi, two women, face terrorist charges for daring to drive a car ? It is not clear, though, whether it is the act of driving a car or voicing their opinion on the regime online that will get them to court. Either way, this is equally dreadful.
On this topic there is an anecdote about King Abdullah and Queen Elizabeth II, from 1998, that re-emerged these days and that I found worth sharing. If it did not help the women’s cause, it at least sent a loud and clear message to King Abdullah about the Queen’s position toward the driving ban in his country. When invited to Scotland by the Queen, King Abdullah was offered a tour of the property. He realised, to his surprise, that it would be the Queen herself driving him around. The story even says he had to ask her to slow down a bit. Well done, Reine Elisabeth !
There is the ban on going out alone. Were women to decide to walk to work, to a park, to the polls, to wherever, someone (that is, a male family member) would have to accompany them.
There is the obligatory veil. Do not get me wrong, I have nothing against wearing a veil. I just believe in free choice and not having it imposed upon women.
There is the claim by two of late King Abdullah’s daughters that their father held them under house arrest for more than a decade, forbidding them to leave the house or travel alone.
There is … so much more to say about women in Saudi Arabia (reading uncensored fashion magazine, trying clothes on when shopping, go swimming, to name a few things they are also forbidden to do) that we could go on for a while.
It seems that I am not the only one being a little concerned about Christine Lagarde’s words. Amnesty International wrote that she « does a great disservice to the women imprisoned, detained and harassed in Saudi Arabia for simply asserting their rights ».
French radio-commentator Sophia Aram presented her daily chronicle, on radio France Inter , wearing a veil to ‘honor’ King Abdullah ‘very discrete’ advocacy for women : «It was so very discrete that I didn’t see what he did for women » she said with humor. She went on ironizing that with all this discrete advocacy « in one or two millenniums, maybe in Saudi Arabia, women will have the same rights as men. »
She ended her chronicle mentioning Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabia blogger, condemned earlier this year to be flogged 50 times each week until reaching the 1000 lashes originally planned in his sentences.
This leads me to the next point I want to address : human rights in general in Saudi Arabia.
__ The poor human rights record of Saudi Arabia
Free speech, as long as you agree with the government.
On the most talked about human rights’ violations to take place at the moment in Saudi Arabia is the case of blogger Raif Badawi, condemned, for creating the website ‘Saudi Arabian Liberials’, and promoting free speech, to a decade imprisonment and 1000 lashes, being given to him weekly by way of 50 each time.
Sadly, the case of Raif is not an isolated one.
Also imprisoned for his views is human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, serving a 15 years sentence for criticising the government’s human rights policy and record during an interview.
The photographer and Human Rights activist Fadhil al-Manasif is also serving a 14 years imprisonment sentence mainly for helping journalists cover the 2011 protests in Saudi Arabia.
These cases are manifold and serve to prove that Saudi Arabia has still a long way to go in terms of free speech.
But this is not the only field in which Saudi Arabia has a poor record.
Torture and Degrading treatment
Amnesty International spokesman Neil Durkin said that King Abdullah’s human rights legacy was “disastrous”, pointing the fact that “endemic torture in police cells and in prisons” remained.
Human Rights Watch asserts that « Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest and torture and ill-treatment in detention. »
In their 2012 report, HRW also insist on the point that people do not always know what they are charged for. Saudi Arabia having no penal code, judges « largely define criminal offenses at their discretion. »
Let’s not forget the country still applies the juvenile death penalty despite its use being absolutely prohibited under International law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37 states that neither « capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age ». However, in its report on executions of juveniles worldwide (up to date: 2013), Amnesty International writes that 3 children were executed in 2013, all of them in Saudi Arabia.
There is also the case of the migrant workers.
Amnesty International published a report addressing the issue of Indian migrant workers and the indigent working conditions they face on a daily basis : forced labour, mandatory 18-hours work a day, the ever-growing threats and fear, wage payments problems, …
Human Rights Watch reports that, even though the conditions improved for the 9 million migrant workers currently working in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of thousands of them were deported and reported abuses by the security forces. This came so far as to force Kenyan, Indonesian, Nepalese, and Philippian governments to enact new policies to warn their citizens what they could expect moving to Saudi Arabia.
Even though Saudi Arabia abstained from ratifying the UDHR in 1948 – mainly because of a disagreement on Articles 16 and 18 terms in relation to, respectively, marriage equality and changing one’s belief or religion – is it enough of a reason to violate all the human rights principles established in international humanitarian law ?
Should we also wonder why the European Union so often fails to publicly condemn Saudi Arabia human rights violation for the exception of the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament?
The reforms undertaken by King Abdullah are very little compared to the work still to do in a country where voicing your opinion leads you to public flogging and driving a car, if you are a woman, leads you in court facing terrorist charges.
King Salman, his successor, is known for being primarily anti-reform. Do we have to assume, then, that the brief but nonetheless hopeful reforms undertaken in the past years, will remain were they are, that is in the past ?
To finish on a more optimistic note, Saudi Arabia sees a growing number of young men and women raising their voices to demand changes and human rights altogether. The song No Women No Drive; The October 26 #Women2Drive Movement, are amongst the most famous events carried out to raise awareness and protest in favour of more Human Rights. Will the long-awaited change come, once again, from the new generation ?
Only the future holds the answer, but we will keep looking closely into it.
For further information see:
Challenging the Red Lines – Stories of Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia <http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/saudi1213webwcover_0.pdf>
World Report 2013 – Saudi Arabia – HRW : <http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/saudi-arabia>
World Report 2013 – Saudi Arabia – Amnesty International : <http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/saudi-arabia/report-2013>
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