Friday 24 October 2008 (25 Shawwal 1429)

      Human rights: Let's strike the right note
      Abeer Mishkhas | Arab News 
      Saudi Arabia's human rights body, we learn, is preparing its first 
official report to be presented to the UN. As we wait to see what the report 
includes, newspapers have published a comment by the deputy head of the Human 
Rights Commission (HRC) that makes one wonder if the report will be candid 
enough. As Okaz newspaper published on Monday, the deputy said that those who 
claim that there is discrimination in the Kingdom between men and women are 
simply "ignorant people." The Kingdom, he pointed out, has signed the UN treaty 
against discrimination on the basis of sex. What is more, the country is 
following the Shariah that, he said, guarantees women their full rights. 

      The deputy has made two points that he could have done without attacking 
critics or calling them ignorant. The report should speak for itself, and 
before the report is out, reality speaks even more eloquently. The second point 
the deputy made about Saudi Arabia being a signatory to the UN treaty does not 
automatically means we follow the treaty in all respects. What alarms me though 
is the defensive attitude we seem to adopt against any criticism, whether 
internal or external. The human rights body should be tolerant of criticism and 
receptive to suggestions from people, and should answer those criticisms with 
logic and evidence to support its arguments. Simply ruling out critics as 
"ignorant" does not add to the credibility of the human rights organization. 

      The deputy said the country follows the Islamic system that ensures women 
their full rights. Usually such a statement would stop people from going any 
further. But we have to say that if there are any cases of discrimination 
against women in Saudi Arabia, it is not Islamic law that is at fault. The 
statement, "We are implementing Islamic law" does not always work to dissuade 
people from analyzing the situation objectively.

      However, on the practical side of things, we have to ask if what the 
deputy said about "ignorant people" is realistic or even useful for the image 
of the official human rights body.

      Facts say that Saudi women are still facing discrimination, whether in 
work, in courts and in society at large. Various reports have appeared in the 
press about forced divorces, child marriages, abuses by legal guardians and 
women being forbidden from practicing sports or even watching sports events. 
The story of Fatima and Mansour and their forced divorce serves as an example 
of glaring discrimination, in which women are subjected to tribal and social 
pressures and consequently deprived of their right to a stable family life. If 
there are no other examples of discrimination, the forced divorce cases that 
have been reported in the Saudi press can serve as a reminder to the HRC that 
all is not well on the ground.

      What we need at this stage is some self-criticism and frank reviews of 
our problems and, most importantly, acceptance that as a normal society we do 
have shortcomings. Talking about those shortcomings does not make us 
"ignorant"; it will only make us more sincere in addressing our problems, 
instead of being defensive about them.

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