Navi Pillay, the human rights chief for the United Nations, recently completed a tour of the six Gulf countries and discovered that women’s rights in those nations have improved. She had some sharp words for some countries, including Saudi Arabia, for the lack of employment opportunities but progress, she said, is evident.
Pillay is the right woman for the job. She’s no-nonsense and tough, but she recognizes that hammering away at Muslim countries for their deficiencies in dealing with their women and expatriate workers gets the UN nowhere pretty fast.
Here’s the assessment Pillay gave at a press conference the other day in Abu Dhabi: "Clearly the winds of change are blowing strongly throughout the region on a number of fronts — perhaps more strongly than we had anticipated when preparing this mission, and more strongly than many people in the outside world realize."
Still, she expressed concern that more attention be given to women’s rights, freedom of expression and migration. Treatment of expatriate workers, in particular, troubled her.
Pillay visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. She wasn’t specific in what progress she had witnessed but she was clearly impressed. But she seemed less impressed with the external perceptions of the Gulf countries.
She acknowledged "how the region is portrayed in the international media, particularly on issues related to women's rights and migrant labor."
"What I find admirable is that the issues are being addressed and advances are being made and this is the aspect that is unknown to the international community," Pillay said in a separate interview with the Gulf News.
No truer words could be spoken.
As if the international media couldn’t take the hint, Agence France Presse led its news story about Pillay under the headline “UN rights chief chides Gulf states over women's employment” with this: “UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Saturday criticized restrictions on women's employment in some Gulf countries and called for those barriers to be lifted.”
Not until the seventh paragraph did AFP acknowledge Pillay’s comments about progress in women’s rights before abruptly turning to allegations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of torture in some Gulf countries.
The Voice of America’s website was more balanced, leading with: “The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says more basic freedoms are being seen in Gulf Arab countries, but further progress must be made.”
Naturally, the Gulf News and the Khaleej Times touted the progress and downplayed the setbacks since the story was in their own back yard. The Khaleej Times couldn’t bring itself to write about any improvements needed in the Gulf.
Only the independent-minded Abu Dhabi-based The National played it tough among the Gulf newspapers: “The UN’s top human rights monitor called yesterday for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to give migrant workers more dignity and rights, and to eliminate the male guardianship system that gives men almost total control over spouses and female relatives,” wrote reporter Caryle Murphy.
To The National’s credit, Pillay’s praise in improved human rights followed in the second paragraph.
Pillay met King Abdullah, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Ministry of Justice Minister Mohammed Al-Issa and some Shoura Council members. She also spoke to a handful of students at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in an unpublicized visit. She met with no NGO groups.
Although Pillay indirectly criticized the international media for contributing to the misperceptions of the Gulf countries, none of the journalists attending the Abu Dhabi news conference could manage to put Pillay’s comments in proper context. I can’t speak for Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, but Saudi women account for nearly 60 percent of all university students. And the last I heard, Saudi female employment was up to 14 percent from a dismal 5 percent a decade ago. Yes, not particularly impressive numbers compared to 59 percent of the Emirati women employed in the UAE and 42 percent in Kuwait, but progress nonetheless. We know that a university education for a Saudi woman doesn’t guarantee employment, but clearly Saudi Arabia is on the path towards closing in on that goal.
Without this kind of context from the local press, Pillay’s comments, both the positive and the negative, are empty of meaning.