During the course making my movie U.N.Me (www.theunmovie.com) I have come across countless acts of absurd behavior by the U.N. This week gives us yet another shining example of such farce. The United Nations recently held an election for its new women’s rights group called, unimaginatively, U.N. Women, which was born from the merger of four other U.N. groups dedicated to women’s rights. (Perhaps the real story should be that the famously turgid bureaucracy of the U.N actually slimmed something down).
While many cheered the creation of this new group, assumed to be more efficient and effective than its predecessors, I have taken to pronouncing the group’s name as “Un-women” since that more accurately reflects who will benefit from the leadership of this new body: not the women they were supposed to protect but the leaders and governing bodies of countries that ignore the rights of women. But let’s start from the beginning. Some months ago, there was a heap of controversy in the lead-up to this group’s elections because Iran seemed destined to win a seat on its board. Yet, when the final scores were tallied, a surprise late entry by East Timor diplaced Iran’s bid for a seat. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice welcomed the results, saying, “we’ve made no secret that Iran joining the board of UN Women would have been an inauspicious start to that board … and we think it was a very good outcome today.”
Perhaps Ambassador Rice failed to keep reading the press release. If she did, she would have noticed that Saudi Arabia now presides over U.N. Women. That country is not exactly famous for being an egalitarian Mecca (yes, pun intended) of women’s rights. In fact the gender-apartheid kingdom’s record is so bad it is difficult to find a place to begin to describe it. I think that the case of “The Girl of Qatif,” accurately and nauseatingly exemplifies the plight of women in that country.
“The Girl of Qatif” was a newlywed with a big problem. A man, who was not her husband, possessed a photograph of her which she needed returned to ensure her safety. To retrieve the photo, she surreptitiously met him in his car, since unmarried women are not allowed to be alone with men. A band of seven thugs saw them together, dragged them out of the car at knife point and then gang raped them both. The Saudi authorities were quick to react to the incident and immediately arrested “The Girl of Qatif” and charged her with being alone with another man, and, referring to the gang rape, having sex outside of marriage. She was sentenced to jail and 200 lashes.One Saudi judge was so miffed by her constant complaining about the verdict that he told her she should feel lucky because, under a less lenient judge, she could have been hanged. And of course, who could forget the incident of the girls’ school in Mecca that was engulfed by fire? The state religious police would not let the girls out of the burning building because they were not dressed modestly enough. Fourteen young girls were roasted alive.
These are unfortunately not isolated incidents within the desert kingdom, but a pattern of behavior. Within the context of the morally inverse world where the U.N. resides, the election of Saudi Arabia to the U.N. Women’s group actually makes a lot of sense. It actually feels right. What is surprising and an outlier is not that the Kingdom was elected, but that Iran wasn’t. That may reflect more of a quota system being enforced rather than some kind of moral stand, as Iran is already well represented in the world of U.N. women’s rights. It currently sits on the governing board of the Commission on the Status of Women, another major U.N. women’s body.
While many of you may roll your eyes at the prospect of another rights violator in another important position within the United Nations, you should know that when it comes to the protection of the unprotected around the world, these bodies count for something. We may shrug our collective shoulders and snort at the countless examples of this sort of farce, such as Syria as the President of the Security Council or Sudan being elected to the Human Rights Commission, but believe me that Hezbollah and the Janjaweed slept better at night because of it. North Korea can starve its people and Iran can rape and hang its gays and political dissidents because they have the umbrella of protection in the form of their colleagues sitting on these bodies. As darkly comical as it is that Iran and Saudi Arabia are in these positions, we should not forget that there are women around the world being abused as we speak, that could truly be helped if we had effective bodies at the U.N. with their interests at heart. What is worse is that the United States has given its stamp of legitimacy to all of these bodies by actively participating within them. We were told by the Obama administration that by being more involved in the Human Rights Council, and other human rights bodies, the United States can influence these countries to reform themselves. Nice sentiments, but there is no evidence to support it. In fact the opposite can be said to be true.
So who do the women of the world have to turn to?