UN’s Selecting Saudi Arabia To Lead Women’s Rights Forum May Advance The Cause – OpEd


This position, combined with the reforming zeal of Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman, could make the KSA a model for other conservative Islamic countries.

The UN’s decision to give the chair of the “Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)” to Saudi Arabia on March 27 has been roundly condemned by human rights groups and the media citing that country’s “abysmal” record on women’s rights.

Interestingly, there were no rival candidates and no dissent either at the CSW’s annual meeting in New York. The decision was proposed by the group of Asia-Pacific States on the Commission.

Human rights groups, however, found it anomalous. How could the chair be given to Saudi Arabia when its women are manifestly deficient in rights, they asked.

Sherine Tadros, the head of the New York office of Amnesty International, told the The Guardian that whoever is in the Chair will be in a key position to influence the planning and decisions in the matter of women’s rights. This being so, the question that is asked is: What progress could one expect in the CSW’s activities with the highly patriarchal Saudi Arabia in the chair?

But there may be sense in getting a conservative country like Saudi Arabia to lead an international women’s rights organization. Any advancement in women’s rights in the world can be meaningful only if the less advanced or progressive societies are made part of it. The best way to rope them in is by involving them and even giving the leadership to them.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) should not be condemned to be in a cocoon if there is to be global progress in women’s rights. It is particularly necessary to get the KSA involved because it is an acknowledged leader of the Islamic world.

Another thing that the progressive world has failed to acknowledge is that KSA is socially and culturally progressing under the stewardship of Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman (MBS). His “Saudi Vision 2030” is very progressive though it will not meet all the criteria of the West. Ultra conservative societies can only be gently and incrementally nudged to change.

Personal Status Law

KSA’s Personal Status Law (PSL) of 2022 is a case in point. The PSL is Shariah-based but is modified by modern judicial practices. It grants women the legal freedom to decide on who they will marry. The legal guardian cannot prevent the marriage if the woman wants to marry someone who is equal to her. Women can file lawsuits and review their marriage contracts (see: https://www.roedl.com/insights/saudi-arabia-personal-status-law-reform-human-rights).

The spouses may demand the annulment of the marriage contract if one of them fails to fulfil an agreed condition. The wife has the right to unilaterally dissolve the marriage contract.

Marriage of persons of under 18 years of age is banned though the court can give consent to a lower age in some cases. Both the fiancé and the fiancée have the right to dissolve an engagement. The new law contains regulation of marriage from engagement to divorce including khul´o (Arabic word for the wife´s divorce request).

For the first time the law explicitly regulates that children´s custody is for the mother.The husband is obliged to provide food, shelter, clothing and other necessities for his wife, even if she is wealthy.

The new law strengthens the rights of divorced women who have raised children without financial support from the father of the child. 

Vision 2030

In the last few years, Saudi Arabia has been slowly but steadily transforming itself from being a medieval anachronism to being a modern country under the tutelage of MBS.

The determined assertion of State power over religion under the Crown Prince has put KSA on the path to becoming a fully modern country by 2030 but without losing its Islamic identity.    

Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam founded in Arabia in the 18 the. Century is still the official creed of the KSA, and Sharia is the basic law. But both have been refined to suit modern times.

MBS has acquired ascendency over the clerics and the latter accept his reforms. But he has taken care to see that the changes made are incremental and measured, so as not to upset the applecart.

The changes may seem piecemeal but they add up to a lot, say Yasmine Farouk and Nathan J.Brown, in their paper entitled: “Saudi Arabia’s Religious Reforms Are Touching Nothing but Changing Everything ” ( Carnegie Endowment for International Peace June 2021).

MBS has enabled women to drive, has thrown open public jobs to women and has allowed Hollywood and Bollywood-style public entertainment which could be watched by men and women together. Mariah Carey as well as Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Shilpa Shetty have performed to raving Saudis.

Religious Reform

Under MBS, Wahhabism is being made to yield to a milder, liberal and tolerant version of Islam, despite threats from radical groups like the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh as it is known in the Arab world. KSA has banned the Tablighi Jamaat saying that it is “one of the gateways to terrorism.” 

MBS has said that KSA’s religious doctrine is no longer “committed blindly to Wahhabism or to any certain school or scholar.”

Under the new system, political authority has a decisive voice in place of the religious voice. The monarchy and not the religious establishment dictates public policy. This has led to the removal of impediments to political, social, and economic changes.

MBS is no democrat in the Western sense, but he is using his authority to bring about radical changes in a very deeply conservative society. It could be a model for other conservative Islamic societies like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Not Cast in Stone   

Fortunately for MBS, the Wahhabi order is not as change-resistant as it is thought to be, point out Farouk and Brown. Historically, the Wahhabi movement has evolved through interactions with other approaches and through internal competition. Today’s changes are adaptive in the same way.

Under MBS, religious structures are more directly linked to the Royal court and tend to sanction what the latter decides. The “Council of Senior Scholars” which is the apex of KSA’s religious structure, allowed women to drive when the State decided to do so in 2018. 

Similarly, the Council has taken the lead in denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood when the regime dubbed that movement a terrorist threat. The Council’s own regulations suggest that its first and foremost task is to “advise the ruler when requested.”

However, MBS sees the utility of keeping ultraconservative figures in their positions in the Council. It has allowed the State to keep them on the leash, Farouk and Brown say. 

In October 2020, a Royal decree made the Attorney General a member of the Council of Senior Scholars. The Attorney General is not an Islamic scholar but his presence ensures that what the Council says is in accordance with State policy and is within the legal system of the State.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs plays a major role in directing the clerics. Imams have come under the strict supervision of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Friday sermons are standardized and digitally monitored across the Kingdom to weed out ultra-conservatism.

Farouk and Brown say that the authorities have sacked or marginalized Imams who oppose social liberalization; instigate strife by praying against specific individuals or countries and sects; or discuss politics.

(This report appeared in Ceylon Today dated April 1, 2024)

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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