Saudi Arabia, Lagging on Women’s Rights, Is to Lead U.N. Women’s Forum

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Saudi Arabia won an uncontested bid to lead a United Nations body dedicated to women’s rights for the 2025 session, bringing condemnation from human rights groups that argued that the kingdom had an “abysmal” record on women’s empowerment.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.N., Abdulaziz Alwasil, was elected chairman of the Commission on the Status of Women, a U.N. body whose aim is to protect and promote women’s rights around the world.

The Saudi state news agency wrote that the country’s new chairmanship “confirmed its interest in cooperating with the international community to strengthen women’s rights and empowerment” and highlighted strides the country had made toward greater social and economic freedom for women.

But the decision drew scathing criticism from human rights groups. Amnesty International’s deputy director for advocacy, Sherine Tadros, said in a statement that Saudi Arabia had an “abysmal record when it comes to protecting and promoting the rights of women.” She argued that there was a “vast gulf” between the U.N. commission’s aspirations and the “lived reality for women and girls in Saudi Arabia.”

The commission, established in 1946, has 45 members that are selected based on geographic quotas. No vetting process is required for a country to be elected to the commission, and there is also no requirement that it meet certain standards of gender rights to join.

Saudi Arabia had been expected to win the chairmanship, which typically lasts two years, and its bid was reported to have drawn no dissent from other member states.

Women in Saudi Arabia, a conservative Islamic kingdom, were barred from driving until 2018, and they were long subject to a pervasive system of control called guardianship that required them to obtain permission from a male relative in order to travel abroad, marry and make other important life decisions. For decades, religious police officers roamed the streets hunting for unmarried couples and shouting at women to cover up.

Since 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 38-year-old de facto Saudi ruler, has significantly loosened many of those restrictions as he oversees a plan to remake the country’s economy. Women are pouring into the workplace in record numbers, and the gender segregation and strict dress codes that shaped public life are gradually dissolving.

Saudi women say that it has become easier to divorce and obtain custody of their children. Although they still need the approval of a male guardian to marry, a requirement across many Arab countries, some women have successfully appealed to judges to override their guardian’s decision.

Nevertheless, in a World Economic Forum report on the global gender gap last year, Saudi Arabia ranked 131 out of 146 countries. By law, the kingdom’s ruler must be a male member of the royal family. While several women have ascended to high-ranking positions, all of Prince Mohammed’s key cabinet members and closest advisers are men. Many female immigrants to the country, particularly domestic workers, face significant restrictions on their freedom of movement and other basic rights.

The crown prince has also overseen a sweeping crackdown on domestic dissent, arresting hundreds of Saudis across the political spectrum, including many of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists and several women who criticized government policies on social media. Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who campaigned against the driving ban, was imprisoned from 2018 until 2021 and remains barred from traveling abroad.

“A country that jails women simply because they advocate for their rights has no business being the face of the U.N.’s top forum for women’s rights and gender equality,” Louis Charbonneau, a director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Saudi authorities should demonstrate that this honor was not completely undeserved and immediately release all detained women’s rights defenders, end male guardianship and ensure women’s full rights to equality with men.”

The Saudi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Saudi women “have been granted the means of empowerment and become an active partner in the nation’s development and elevation,” the kingdom’s state news agency said in its report.

In 2022, Iran was removed from the same U.N. commission in a U.S.-led vote that came months into Tehran’s crackdown on uprisings driven by women and young people who have been demanding an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule. The resolution was the first time a member state was removed from the U.N. women’s body.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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