Progress lacking in Saudi Arabia on women's rights

Theresa Gattung: Progress lacking in Saudi Arabia on women's rights

In February last year Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish Foreign Minister, denounced the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia.

Women cannot travel, conduct official business or marry without the permission of their male guardians and there is no minimum age for marriage so girls can be forced into child marriages. Women are forbidden from driving and women campaigning for the right to drive have landed in jail. She also condemned blogger Raif Badawi being sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes for his website championing free speech.

Medieval methods she said and a cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression. Who could argue with any of that one might have thought? She said it was unethical for Sweden to continue its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

Then came the backlash. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden. The United Arab Emirates followed suit. Saudi stopped issuing visas to Swedish business people. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 56 Muslim majority states, accused Sweden of failing to respect the worlds rich and varied ethical standards.

Ethical standards so broad they appear to encompass merciless flogging of bloggers and child marriage.

The Gulf Cooperation Council condemned her "unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia".

Apart from a powerful piece in The Spectator the western media hardly covered events. Other countries showed little inclination to voice support. Sweden, a country of 10 million people, is also the world's eleventh largest arms exporter. Saudi's denial of business visas to Swedes threatened other companies' profits too, not just the arms industry.

The Swedish establishment were infuriated. 30 chief executives signed a letter saying that breaking the arms trade agreement would jeopardise Sweden's reputation as a trade and cooperation partner. King Carl Gustaf himself told Wallstrom he wanted a compromise. Saudi Arabia turned criticism of its own brutal version of Islam into an attack on all Muslims.

In December Saudi Arabia held elections in which women voted and won political office for the first time. Saudi women won 20 seats, 1 per cent of the roughly 2,100 municipal seats, largely powerless in the authoritarian monarchy. More than 130,000 women registered to vote compared with 1.4 million men.

Gender barriers prevented women from participating fully in the political process. They had to rely on men driving them to the polling places because of the ban on women driving. Female candidates were prohibited from campaigning directly to men and could only speak to them from behind a partition or through a male spokesperson.

Former King Abdullah started the push to allow women in Government in 2011. Abdullah took some steps to advance women's rights and to widen employment opportunities. He oversaw the first legislation that criminalised domestic violence and appointed the first female minister. In 2013 he appointed 30 women to the 150 member advisory Shura Council which recently ruled that divorced and widowed women have the right to family identity cards and to register children to school. Slow progress but some progress.

Women's rights always take a back seat. Yes, there can be flurries in the media when a person is publicly sexist, witness Chris Gayle's recent comments to a female journalist, but when a politician tells the truth about women in a brutal misogynistic culture she encounters condemnation if it doesn't suit the prevailing economic imperative.

It took 200 years to abolish the slave trade. Some of the most powerful economic interests of the day opposed it. Fortunes were being made and those benefiting were not going to give up easily.

The peak years of the Atlantic slave trade were 1690-1807 when around 6 million Africans were transported to the Americas. As the trade grew voices of objection were largely ignored or marginalised.

Supporters of the slave trade were successful in dealing to opposition. They argued the slave trade was necessary and in fact beneficial to Africans. They used delaying tactics, suggesting the need for more investigation. They presented themselves as reformers by revising slave codes and improving conditions.

The economic value of the slave trade was highly visible - in the massive ship building, sugar and tobacco industries, amongst others.

At times what happened to the enslaved was barely believable. In the 1780s that evidence began to circulate throughout Britain. The campaign unleashed by the abolitionists, many of them Quakers, designed to shock the British people started to work. It became apparent to more and more people that the benefits of slavery came at a terrible price, inflicting suffering on a vast scale.

Historians are divided on whether Britain paid an economic price for abolishing slavery. It is clear though that at the time Parliament voted to outlaw the slave trade the British public believed that taking the right moral stand was more important than the economic consequences.

So what did we do in New Zealand last February when Margot Wallstrom made her remarks? Did we show our support in any way? I don't know what we did last February but last January we lowered the New Zealand flag to half-mast to pay our respects to the recently deceased Saudi King.

There's more than one sort of inconvenient truth.

Theresa Gattung, The New Zealand Herald