August 2019


The fourth industrial revolution risks leaving women behind

Fighting office sexism in Latin America

How ‘bride price’ reinforces negative stereotypes: a Ghanaian case study

Fleeing Gender Apartheid

The fourth industrial revolution risks leaving women behind

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is, ostensibly, upon us. The term was coined in 2016 by Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Form.

Broadly, it refers to the collapsing of boundaries between the physical, digital and biological spheres. More specifically, it’s about the digitalisation of all kinds of systems and processes. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is at the forefront of this reality. This involves systems that, as the European Commission puts it, “display intelligent behaviour by analysing their environment and taking actions … to achieve specific goals”.

AI is used today in everything from face and speech recognition technologies to image analysis software. It’s also a cornerstone of self-driving cars and advanced robotics.

Part of this “revolution’s” promise is that AI and similar technologies will be used to drive economic growth, development and positive societal change. But critical inquiry is urgently needed to gauge what effects the fourth industrial revolution is having and will have on vulnerable, marginalised populations.

In South Africa, there has been some discussion around the elitist discourse in which conversations about the fourth industrial revolution are happening. Some have pointed out the need to ensure that policy linked to these changes address all stakeholders’ needs. Others have explored its potential effects on inequality in the country’s job market. But there has been little discussion around how women specifically may be affected.

This is a worrying oversight. The world of the fourth industrial revolution looks set to be one dominated by forms of knowledge and industries – like science and technology – that have long been dominated by men.

In addition, many of the opportunities the fourth industrial revolution is thought to offer are internet based. Yet, as a recent study has shown, women tend to have less access to internet based technologies than men do in Africa. This means that the impact on women’s lives and work opportunities becomes a critical concern.

The future of women’s work

The future of work has been one of the key discussion points in the context of new technologies and the fourth industrial revolution.

With the increase in automaton, those working in “routine intensive occupations” – such as secretarial or call centre work – are considered likely to be replaced in the workplace by computers, which are thought to be more efficient and less costly. Robots are being prepped to replace care-worker jobs. These types of professions, along with others that are particularly vulnerable to being replaced by robotics or computers, are generally occupied by women.

In South Africa, where the labour market is already more favourable to men than women, this presents a serious concern.

There are other reasons to worry. The gender digital gap in South Africa, and on the African continent more broadly, is only widening, with women having lower digital literacy, less access to internet based technologies, and less relevant online content to men. This suggests that women may be left out of increasingly digital work opportunities too.

In addition, due to the burden of care and domestic duties women tend to carry on top of paid work, women have significantly less time than men to undertake further education and training. That means they won’t easily be able to boost their digital skills.

These realities reveal some of the gaps in South Africa’s existing policy objectives around the fourth industrial revolution. For instance, the country’s White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation is to provide information and communications technology training at all levels. But given the problems I’ve outlined, women are less likely than men to benefit from this.

So what can the country do differently?

Lessons and research

For starters, it could learn from other countries. In Ghana, an initiative called STEMbees not only promotes science, technology, engineering and maths training for women and girls; it also addresses social issues such as digital safety. There could be lessons here for South Africa.

The country should also consider how technology can be used to empower and help women rather than shutting them out. There are many examples of this globally.

Along with this learning, South Africa needs to thoroughly research and understand the effects of the fourth industrial revolution on women and the barriers – whether educational, social or technological – to accessing and utilising internet based resources.

Policy responses to promoting women in STEM need to holistically address both the lack of women in STEM fields as well as the structural factors that have led to this situation.


By : Rachel Adams (Research Specialist, Human Sciences Research Council)

Date : August 5, 2019

Source : The Conversation


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Fighting office sexism in Latin America

‘So many things need to change’: How two women with ‘big dreams’ created a ranking system measuring gender equality in Latin America’s companies.

“I first defined myself as a feminist when I was 14,” recalls Maria Perdomo – known as Mia to her friends. “I was re-reading an old diary recently, and it’s there. There’s an entry which reads: ‘I understand I am a feminist.’”

The 32-year-old, from Bogotá, Colombia, has now made feminism her business. Perdomo is the co-founder of Aequales, an organisation striving to promote gender equality in the workplace. It’s also the home of the first-ever gender equality ranking system for companies in Colombia and Peru.Founded four years ago, Aequales began with 40 corporations on its books. Now it has 800 and has expanded to Mexico – and Perdomo and her business partner, 31-year-old Andrea de la Piedra from Lima, are only just getting started.

“We aren’t going to stop until we’re in every Latin American country,” Perdomo says. “We have big dreams.”

‘So much change needed’

Aequales turns a profit by offering training to companies which covers unconscious bias, female leadership, long-term strategies, gender-neutral recruitment processes and even “new masculinity” workshops for men that include topics like gender violence and bias.

It’s a radical approach in a region where many men still believe women don’t belong in the workplace. The co-founders faced “a lot of scepticism” when they launched Aequales, primarily from business leaders who simply did not understand why it was necessary to implement gender equality. 

“Even when they did understand, they didn’t want to pay for it,” Perdomo says. “’Why would anybody pay for gender equality services? Why do we need gender equality?’ These were just some of the questions we were asked. Making companies realise they have a problem and then charging them to solve it? That was difficult.”

One 2018 report found gender inequality in business costs countries around $160 trillion because of the difference in lifetime earnings between men and women. A 2015 report from management consulting firm McKinsey Global Institute found advancing female equality in the workplace could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025. But even when women’s participation in the workforce increases, as it has in the LatAm region over the past decade, from 47% to 52%, it doesn’t mean participation is equal. Women in LatAm are more likely to participate in informal or less productive work, rather than high-wage jobs.

Perdomo describes female economic empowerment – together with reproductive rights – as “the most important aspect” of female freedom. “A woman with money or economic independence is a woman who can escape violence, make decisions for herself and her children, and have power,” she says.

Only 7% of board members in Peru are women - Andrea de la Piedra
But it is not just about pay. “Even when women do have pay equality, the issue of not having enough flexibility to be mothers has come up in every single workshop we have carried out with female leaders,” she says. “Paid paternity leave, female leadership goals and female CEO quotas are all important targets to strive towards.”

Although education for women in Colombia is fairly progressive – as are attitudes towards women in government office – the National Statistics Office (DANE) reports the gender wage gap is still around 20%. This is despite Colombia ranking 36th in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 gender gap report.

“Colombia is ahead of so many other countries in Latin America regarding gender equality, so people say ‘oh this is nonsense, there’s no need to talk about that anymore, we live in an equal society’,” Perdomo explains. “But there are still so many things that need to change.”

Chance meeting

It has been a long road to get to where Aequales is now. Perdomo has a degree in psychology, a masters in human rights from the London School of Economics and, in 2014, was selected along with 28 other Latin Americans to participate in a four month-long leadership programme at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

“There, I realised I could combine feminism with entrepreneurship and it could be a more effective way for me to make an impact, rather than working for an NGO. If I could reach money and power, then I could really help change people’s lives.” At Georgetown Perdomo, then 27, shared a room with 26-year-old de la Piedra, who was on the same leadership course.

De la Piedra was working as a journalist before she met Perdomo, work that had sparked an interest in gender issues. “I applied to Georgetown knowing I wanted to create a social enterprise. When I met Mia, that path became even clearer.” Perdomo recalls: “I lent her a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. And I asked her if she wanted to build a project with me. The rest is history.”

Perdomo returned to Colombia with no job, having quit her position at the Ministry of Education to attend the bootcamp, and “nothing to lose”. She and de la Piedra entered a competition in Colombia for entrepreneurs called “Ventures” and won $5,000, which was enough to get their project off the ground. They grew their capital by offering private consultancy services to organisations, meaning they “never needed investors or donations”.

Perdomo and de la Piedra are heads of their own respective countries’ Aequales branch, but manage international projects, such as the rankings and Mexico, together. In 2020, however, they see their responsibilities changing as they take on more global roles as the business expands.

At the beginning Aequales looked for clients through cold calling, something Perdomo says had little impact. But once they had a few big multinationals on board, other companies were eager to follow. It took 18 months before Aequales reported its first profits, and the company now has eight full-time salaried employees across Colombia and Peru, and 10 part-time employees.

“Only 7% of board members in Peru are women,” says de la Piedra, explaining what drives her. “And the salary gap between genders is 29%. Every year we have more interest in our rankings. The first year we only had 22 companies on board. Last year, we had 275. But we still have a lot of gaps to close.”

‘Badge of honour’

Perdomo says Aequales has benefited from volunteers and business experts willing to help it get off the ground. Now, the company is well known across both private and public sector businesses in Colombia for its annual gender equality rankings. Participating is free, encouraging as many companies as possible to get involved. Aequales gathers data from a questionnaire which looks at areas like pay, recruitment processes, structure, work/life balance, inclusive communications – i.e. gender-neutral language – and promotion procedures. The companies are then ranked according to this data.

 Paid paternity leave, female leadership goals and female CEO quotas are all important targets to strive towards – Mia Perdomo
The system has been well-received, says Perdomo, who describes it as “the most recognised gender equality mechanism for employment in our countries”. She says the top corporations in Peru and Colombia now use the rankings as a yardstick. “It’s been extremely useful for companies’ reputations, and they use it in communications with their stakeholders to show their commitment to gender equality.” In Colombia, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and Pfizer topped the most recent rankings, while in Peru, the companies were ranked in three different groups based on employee numbers, with SAP, Accenture and Konecta taking the top spots.

The Aequales group functions as a members-only club; any company that is a member can use the logo on emails, marketing products and websites. Perdomo says that having an Aequales stamp proving ‘PAR’ status – meaning pair in Spanish, a nod to employing one woman for every man – is “a badge of honour”. 

It’s also helped build the company’s profile. “Business leaders approach us because they’ve heard about Aequales from other companies,” she explains. “They ask us to speak in meetings about how to achieve gender equality.”

There have been some unusual challenges along the way, including finding the right employees. “We’ve had to train every single person from scratch,” Perdomo explains. “Because it is such a new concept for people. What we do at Aequales is not taught in university, and people do not learn this in other jobs.”

And the size of the task can occasionally feel daunting.

“To see women treated as equals in Colombia… it would be what I hope most for,” Perdomo says. “But, as ambitious as I am, as much as I want it, I do not think I will see that happen in my lifetime.”


By : Lucy Sherriff 

Date : August 16, 2019

Source : BBC Worklife

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How ‘bride price’ reinforces negative stereotypes: a Ghanaian case study

Marriage is an institution common to all cultures. Very often it’s accompanied by transfers – in most cases in the form of payments – between the families of the groom and the bride.

These payments can be categorised into two: dowry and bride price. The dowry, more common in Asian countries, involves payments made by the bride to the groom and his family. Bride price, on the other hand, refers to the payments that a prospective groom and his family make to a prospective bride and her family. It is a very common cultural practice in Africa.

Historically, bride price payment served to validate customary marriages in most African societies. It strengthened new family bonds created by marriage and legitimised children born to marriages.

Ghanaian society has undergone major changes to its cultural practices over the past years. One that’s altered significantly is bride price. In the old days, payment was a family affair. A woman’s bride price was paid by her groom and his family. Bride price was not negotiated: the groom and his family usually decided on what and how much to pay. This would be voluntarily and willingly paid to the family of the bride.

Before Ghana was colonised by the British in 1867, bride price did not involve cash as cash had not yet been introduced into the Ghanaian economy. Instead, it included items such as bottles of schnapps, ornaments, clothes and cowries for the bride’s mother, father and brothers.

But times have changed. Bride price payment has become a more individual practice. A groom mainly funds the expenses of his marriage, though some families still provide financial support to their sons during marriage.

An even more drastic evolution is the involvement of cash and bargaining. The amount to be paid is rigorously negotiated by the families of the groom and the bride. The current practice is that the groom usually asks for a list from the bride’s family. Although bride price lists may vary among families and ethnic groups in Ghana, most lists include items such as bottles of schnapps, ornaments, clothes and cash for the bride`s mother, father and brothers.

The items on the demand list have also taken on a modern look. Some families demand electronic devices such as mobile phones, laptops and iPads as bride price. Several factors, such as the groom’s wealth and status, and the bride’s level of education, determine how much a groom pays as bride price.

Although bride price custom has significant cultural and social functions, there are latent, unrecognised and unintended consequences of the practice.

Our study set out to explore how bride price payment shapes cultural and gender identity and husband-to-wife abuse in Ghana.

We found that there were social and psychological implications of the practice of bride price. In Ghana paying the bride price is taken primarily as a cultural constant that has to be fulfilled. But, as our research shows, it has both social and psychological implications for the men who pay and for the women for whom it is paid.

Despite our findings, the practice of bride price is a sensitive cultural issue, and to suggest its proscription is likely to be slow – or to fail.

Gender identity

We conducted semi-structured focus group discussions and in-depth individual interviews with 32 participants, made up of 16 perpetrators (men) and 16 victims (women) from rural and urban Ghana. The participants’ ages ranged from 24 to 60.

Our classification was based on the participants’ self-reported experiences. That is, we classified female participants with self-reported experiences of physical or sexual abuse, or both, from current or past marital partner as victims, and men who had inflicted physical or sexual abuse, or both, on a current or past marital partner as perpetrators.

Our study discovered that both male and female participants thought bride price practice was necessary for achieving desired masculinity and femininity in Ghana. Female participants saw it as an important part of womanhood, bestowing respect and dignity in marriage. Men, on the other hand, viewed it as a necessary condition for male identity in society. Failure to fulfil it could greatly undermine their identity and dominance in marriage.

Participants suggested that the definition of women’s identities, and their sense of self-worth in marriage, was determined by men through the payment of bride price. It was evident in our study that bride price could lead women to appear worthless unless paid for, and to be treated however a man wants.

For example, in response to whether or not bride price practice should be proscribed, one female participant from a rural area said:

No. How can we abolish our tradition? I will not agree that a man should walk into my house and take my daughter without a bride price.

Also, male participants in the study described bride price tradition as a material condition for maintaining culturally assumed masculine identity and authority in marriage. Having a bride-priced wife was seen as a masculine accomplishment.

We also found that paying the bride price meant there was an implicit moral obligation on a woman’s part to respect and obey her husband’s commands and wishes. Psychologically, the practice created an ownership mentality in men. This may lead them to see their wives as their ‘purchase’ over whom they exercise unfettered authority, including physical and psychological abuse.

For instance, a male participant revealed that:

I believe bride price is part of the reason [why husbands abuse their wives] because it shows that I have acquired you from your parents or family so they know I have to take care of you. If I take care of you then you must also obey what I say. Once the family accepts the bride price, they also accept that the woman is in my care and if anything should happen to her they will ask me.

Also, the exchange of items and money for a bride, particularly a high bride price, created indebtedness in the minds of both the bride and her family. This meant that when the husband mistreated his wife in marriage, the family felt they couldn’t intervene.

The payment of bride price was also associated with the perception of women as ‘acquired properties’ over whom men exercise authority and control. Based on the participants’ comments, we found that the transactional character of the practice could ‘objectify’ and ‘commoditise’ women in marriage.

Sense of ownership

Though our study showed that bride price tradition could reinforce negative stereotypes about male domination and female subordination in marriage, comments from the participants suggested that the practice is not regarded by women in Ghana as demeaning because they think it does not offend any communal morality or societal ethos. There was a communal sense of ownership of the bride price practice among men and women.


By : Stephen Baffour Adjei (Lecturer at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Education) 

Date : July 28, 2019 

Source: The Conversation

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Fleeing Gender Apartheid

This week marks a significant milestone for generations of Saudi women who have fought, bravely and tirelessly, for their rights. On Friday, the government issued announced it would allow women to travel and work without the permission of their “male guardians,” as previously required; the end to this portion of the male guardianship law has been a key fight in the women’s rights movement in the Kingdom, and many Saudi women and their allies are enjoying a well-earned moment of celebration.

However, it must be noted that this decision does not acknowledge the years-long struggle of activists and ordinary citizens to advocate for gender equality amidst egregious government crackdowns. Instead, the decree is presented as a top-down, unilateral decision, appropriating praise for the monarchy itself. We should also be wary that such decrees do not guarantee that all women will benefit equally from promised reforms—family members, social circles, employers and service providers often serve as de facto arbiters in the lives of women, and there is still great potential for repression to continue.

And, as always, we must view this latest reform in light of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Crown Prince’s ongoing detention of dissenters and female activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza-al Yousef. We must not allow this real, if belated, gain for women to obscure the Crown Prince’s larger, and more sinister, trajectory.

Layla waited until the dead of night on Sept. 18, 2018, before emerging from her bedroom. As she crept through the silent hallway, the sound of her heart was deafening. Downstairs, she slipped on her long black abaya and shouldered a purse containing her most vital possessions: her newly minted passport, which she’d smuggled from her father’s safe, and her official permission to travel, which she’d obtained by impersonating her father online to register with the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

After a few steadying breaths, she unlatched the three locks on the front door and slid into the street to hail a taxi. Moments later, she was bound for the Riyadh Airport and a one-way flight to Germany.

Layla (who prefers we use only her first name to protect her identity) knew her decision to flee would cost her everything. By the time she landed in Germany, her family had reported her to the police, triggering a criminal case against her.

By traveling without her father’s permission, she’d violated Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws, and the authorities’ response was swift. They froze her bank account, which contained her life savings, and suspended her Saudi National Identification account, rendering her effectively stateless. Within 24 hours of escaping her abusive family home, Layla found herself broke, disowned and alone.

“I lost everything in one day,” she says a few months later outside a refugee settlement in Germany. Her voice trembles with still-raw fear. “But only one thing mattered: For the first time, I was free.”

Layla had spent six years planning her escape from her abusive father and his stifling, prison-like home, but it wasn’t until she faced an impending forced marriage that she found the urgency to run. As she fled, she joined the hundreds of Saudi women who seek asylum abroad each year, risking imprisonment and violence to pursue a life outside the kingdom. Some, like Layla, flee domestic abuse or forced marriages, while others simply aspire to a life outside the network of social and legal constraints that define Saudi women as a class similar to children in key aspects of life.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system forms the linchpin to this nexus of control. Under these laws, women remain legal minors throughout their lives and are subject to the will of their male wali (“custodian”) in many crucial respects. As wards of these men, women must have their wali’s permission to obtain a passport, travel, marry or access a variety of other financial, social and even medical services.

“It means for my whole life I will be treated like a child, like less than a whole person,” Fatima, an asylum-seeker from Riyadh who also prefers to use only her first name, says, recalling her life under the wali system. “It means I live the life my father, and then my husband, choose for me, not the life I want.” Women who resist their family’s or guardian’s wishes may be charged for disobedience under the law and be subject to detention.

Saudi Arabia’s legalized gender subordination is often compounded by oppressive cultural practices, wherein a conservative wali may forbid his female charges from seeking work or even socializing with friends, often confining women to the home in the name of religious piety. “It all comes back to what the family is like,” Layla says. “If the father or husband doesn’t want the woman to leave the house, then it doesn’t matter what the laws are. She will be kept like a prisoner in her own home.” Layla says her father forbade her from going out, obsessively locking the doors to their family home and checking constantly to make sure his daughter remained in her room.

In cases of domestic abuse—which Saudi Arabia didn’t outlaw until 2015—women often feel unable to seek help. Despite a recent end to the ban on women drivers, many still do not have access to a car and so, logistically speaking, opportunities to report violence are often scarce. Saudi Arabia passed legislation in 2013 to address domestic abuse but still lacks any effective mechanism to investigate or curtail reported abuse, and authorities routinely side with the abuser, who is often the woman’s guardian.

“My friend was frequently beaten by a husband twice her age,” Fatima says. “I tried to push her to go to the hospital to file a report against her husband, but the hospital workers refused and told her to go to the police.”

These practices stand in direct contradiction to international human rights standards, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Saudi Arabia ratified CEDAW in 2000, but conditioned its participation with several reservations, including: “In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.” In a 2017 report on Saudi Arabia, CEDAW decried the kingdom’s “lack of comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation” and gender equality, and it called on the country to abolish the male guardianship system. (In a further set of ironies, the country currently sits on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and the U.N. Human Rights Council.)

Even when women like Layla and Fatima manage to escape abroad, they often discover that their liberation is only partial. Some have reported being contacted by Saudi government diplomats, who may attempt to coax or coerce them into returning to their families, as in the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a teenager who was intercepted by Saudi authorities in Thailand while attempting to flee the kingdom. In other cases, the Saudi authorities may interrogate or detain the women’s family members or attempt to extort the asylum-seekers into returning. Cases of disappearances and forced repatriation have also been reported, as in the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, who was intercepted in the Manila International Airport in 2017 and returned to Saudi Arabia. Her current whereabouts remain unconfirmed.

Saudi Arabia’s ongoing oppression of women is all the more striking in light of the regime’s recent claims of reform. At the same time Layla and Fatima were plotting their harrowing escapes, the Western press was celebrating the advent of a young Saudi prince, Mohammed bin Salman (widely referred to as “MBS”), who had risen to power touting an agenda of dramatic social and economic reforms. Promising to liberalize Saudi society and transform the kingdom into a global investment hub, MBS also actively portrayed himself as an ally of Saudi women. Proclaiming in an interview that women in Saudi Arabia were “absolutely” equal to men, he promised to boost women’s participation in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030. And in September 2017, the royal court announced an end to the country’s notorious ban on women drivers.

Yet even as MBS was hailed as a sign of a new Saudi Arabia, the crown prince was systematically betraying this professed progressivism. Just weeks before the driving ban was lifted, MBS jailed some of the kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists, many of whom had dedicated years or decades to peaceful advocacy for gender equality. The jailed women remain incommunicado, while multiple reports from human rights groups indicate they have undergone systematic torture and sexual harassment at the hands of their jailers. These abuses have been linked to Saud al-Qahtani, a close aid of MBS, indicating the crown prince is likely aware of, if not culpable for, the mistreatment of the activists. Another detainee, the Shia human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham, had been facing a possible death sentence for her activism, which made her the first Saudi woman threatened with execution for nonviolent protest.

In March, 11 women prisoners were brought before a judge in a Riyadh criminal court. They were charged with multiple crimes—including, according to Amnesty International, promoting women’s rights, calling for an end to male guardianship and communicating with the international press, global nonprofit organizations and other activists. Their initial arrests came alongside a wider crackdown on Saudi civil society, during which Saudi officials detained hundreds of citizens, including powerful government ministers and members of MBS’ extended family. At the same time, the crown prince put more and more pressure on the kingdom’s already deferential press to adopt an increasingly pro-government line, driving many, including murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, to leave the country.

For the Trump administration, strategic (as a counterweight to Iran) and economic (billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales) interests are more than enough to outweigh MBS’ escalating human rights abuses—up to and including the grisly assassination of Khashoggi. Early into the investigation of the journalist’s disappearance, Trump leapt to the crown prince’s defense, resisting international outrage and a bipartisan congressional push to sanction the kingdom.

Even as evidence of the Saudi royal family’s culpability mounted, Trump continued to affirm Saudi Arabia— and MBS—as a “spectacular ally.” After the CIA announced it had concluded with “high confidence” that MBS had ordered Khashoggi’s killing, Trump issued an official statement dismissing the findings and pledging to “remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

While past presidents often failed to properly address human rights or the concerns of Saudi women, many argue that the issue has taken a drastic turn for the worse under the current administration. “There is literally no advocacy by senior Trump officials on human rights anywhere in the Middle East, except Iran,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It gives the governments in the region a message that they can repress with impunity.”

Saudi human rights activist and scholar Hala al-Dosari agrees and adds that the ongoing U.S. support of MBS is a serious obstacle to genuine reform. “As long as he knows he has world powers backing him, especially men like Trump and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, he’ll take it as permission to continue his oppressive policies,” she says.

On the other hand, she notes, a significant push from the United States and other influential nations could have a profound effect. “MBS sees the Western audience as his main constituency. He wants to be accepted as an ally, and cares more about their opinion than his own people’s. At this point, our hope is in the international community.”

In the past, some Congress members and State Department officials have sought channels outside the White House to raise the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia. When she led the State Department, former Secretary Madeleine Albright established an office for women’s issues, calling out violations of women’s human rights as “criminal not cultural.” Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would later establish the International Women of Courage Award in 2007 and Saudi physician Samia al-Amoudi was one of its first recipients. (Samar Badawi, another Saudi woman who received the award, was jailed by MBS in 2018 and remains in prison.) In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Saudi women’s rights activists who rallied for the right to drive. “What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right,” she said.

More recently, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a new member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress, outlined her priorities on the committee, citing in a press release the need “to rein in arms sales to human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia.” In February, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a longtime advocate for women’s rights, joined a bipartisan group of senators to introduce the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2019. The bill calls for a partial cessation in arms sales and sanctions against persons involved in human rights abuses, among other measures. The House passed a similar bill on Feb. 13.

That same day, a bipartisan coalition in the House introduced a resolution specifically condemning Saudi Arabia’s ongoing detention and alleged abuse of women’s rights activists. “These brave champions should not be targeted and punished for advocating for their rights and empowering women and girls,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). She and her cosponsors called for the immediate and unconditional release of the women and urged the U.S. government to impose financial and travel restrictions on those responsible for their abuse. This House bill was unique in its focus on the plight of Saudi women prisoners, whose cases had been overshadowed for months, first by U.S. economic interests in Saudi Arabia and then by the global furor over Khashoggi’s murder.

Such marginalization of women’s issues is a lamentable pattern in U.S. foreign policy, says Melanne Verveer, former U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues. “Unfortunately, there is still a failure by many to recognize a commitment to women’s rights is a commitment to human rights and critical to every nation’s development and stability.”

On the issue of Saudi women’s rights in particular, Verveer, who now directs the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, says the
U.S. has often fallen short of its own values. “We’ve historically done a poor job of incorporating human rights in our agenda towards Saudi Arabia, but on the issue of women’s rights in particular there’s been deafening silence.” Verveer cites the Trump administration’s silence on the imprisonment and torture of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, as well as the systematic abuse enshrined by the male guardianship laws. “There are horrors being perpetrated,” she says. “We have to send a strong message that we cannot continue business as usual. We stand for more. We value human rights and democratic values.”

Verveer adds that while she believes that censuring Saudi Arabia, whether through sanctions or other means, is “the right thing to do,” the U.S. can engage in productive bilateral relations at the same time. “Women are often the canary in the coal mine. In places where women’s rights are denied, you’re likely to see many other negative outcomes, like instability and authoritarianism.” Verveer points to a U.N. Development Program study on gender justice in the Arab States region published in December 2018. The study, which examined the position of women in a variety of social and legal categories, scored Saudi Arabia poorly in areas such as constitutional protections, child marriage, reproductive rights and labor rights. Verveer says such indicators should be taken seriously by the Saudi and
U.S. governments alike. “When women are held back, entire societies are held back. We need to make this a strategic issue.”

The past decades have brought some institutional progress on this front. In 1995, President Bill Clinton established the President’s Interagency Council on Women, declaring his intention to put women’s rights “in the mainstream of American foreign policy.” Since then, there has been a significant increase in the number of U.S. policy actions related to women’s empowerment: from 12 actions in the final two years of the Clinton administration to 151 in 2011 alone. That same year, President Barack Obama released a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, emphasizing the need to include women in peace negotiations and security policymaking.

“So much comes back to leadership,” Verveer says. “We need more women at every decision-making level. We have a long way to go.”

While U.S. foreign policy does have the potential to influence Saudi leadership, Saudi women have been taking matters into their own hands for decades. Aside from the hundreds like Layla, Fatima and al-Qunun who have courageously sought escape, countless others have resisted Saudi Arabia’s gender apartheid from within. For more than half a century, women have been active participants in the country’s tenacious, if marginalized, movements for civil discourse and reform, with some hosting salons where activists could gather. In academia, professors like Hatoon al-Fassi (imprisoned by Saudi authorities in 2018) and Samia al-Amoudi have done much to push issues of gender into fields such as history and medicine.

In the 1990s, dozens of women took to the streets in Riyadh to call for the right to drive. All were arrested; many were placed under travel bans and many more still suffer personal and professional stigmatization. Over the intervening years, the movement slowly grew, with more women attempting similar demonstrations and facing similar consequences. The advent of Twitter brought new possibilities for organizing, as women, often held back by legal and physical barriers to assembly, began to meet one another online. “The obstacles women faced in their activism was really unbelievable,” says al-Dosari, the Saudi scholar and activist. “The greatest one was probably the inability to assemble together, to discuss, grow and support one another. Social media opened up a new space, if a limited one.”

Campaigns emerged, including #IAmMyOwnGuardian, which pressed for an end to the guardianship system, and the Baladi Initiative, which called for a greater role for women in Saudi society, including political representation. In 2015, women won the right to run and vote in local municipal elections—considered by some to be a largely symbolic victory in the absolute monarchy, but a heartening development for the dogged organizers. The next year, activists generated a petition with more than 14,000 signatures calling for an end to male guardianship, which Aziza al-Yousef, currently imprisoned by MBS, delivered personally to the royal court.

In 2019, such activism inside the kingdom is rare. The arrest of many key figures in the women’s and civil rights movements has sent a deep chill through the country’s activist and reformist communities. Some advocates fear even mild talk of reform could trigger charges of treason, driving many organizers into silence or self-exile abroad.

“Right now, the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia is really crippled,” says al-Dosari, who now resides in the U.S. “MBS has locked up the lead organizers as well as ordinary women, and everyone is terrified that they could become a target, no matter how careful they are.” Yet al-Dosari says she maintains hope for her country: “I believe in people—I believe in women. Just look at how much they’ve overcome over the decades.”

Like many Saudi women, al-Dosari rejects the argument that oppressive policies like the guardianship system are reflections of genuine Saudi culture: “It’s a creation of those who want control,” she says. “If the Saudi government really wanted to protect ‘culture,’ they’d stop locking up the activists who want to speak for the people.”

Still, this claim remains a popular justification for apologists of the patriarchy. In 2018, MBS defended male guardianship laws in an interview with The Atlantic. “Saudis don’t want to lose their identity,” he explained. “There are a lot of conservative families in Saudi Arabia… Some families like to have authority over their members.” Abolishing the guardianship system, he said, would lead to “problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters.”

In the meantime, “daughters” like Layla, Fatima and al-Qunun who find themselves in this position continue to face an excruciating choice: await their rights at the mercy of the patriarchal figures in their lives or undertake the dangerous and uncertain project of escape.

“I know I am one of the lucky ones,” Layla says. “Many women I know are still trapped by their families and by these laws. For them, it’s like living in slavery.” Since arriving in Germany, Layla has struggled to gain her footing in the asylum system, and she deals with anxiety as a result of her past trauma.

“It is hard for us,” she says of women asylees, most of whom, like her, have been cut off from their families and past lives. “But for some of us, there was no choice. But I think I do have hope. I have hope the future could be beautiful.”


Sarah Aziza is a New York-based writer who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Jordan, South Africa and the West Bank.


By : Sarah Aziza 

Date : August 2, 2019

Source : Ms. Magazine

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