BBC silent on Saudi Arabia’s new UN commission seat

Those getting their news from the BBC will not be aware of the fact that Saudi Arabia has been elected to a four-year term on the UN’s women’s rights commission. As the Independent reported:

“The kingdom is now one of 45 countries sitting on a panel “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women,” according to the UN.”

UN Watch notes that:

“Saudi Arabia was elected by a secret ballot last week of the U.N.’s 54-nation Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Usually ECOSOC rubber-stamps nominations arranged behind closed doors by regional groups, however this time the U.S. forced an election […]

Saudi Arabia was also recently re-elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council where it enjoys the right to vote on, influence and oversee numerous mechanisms, resolutions and initiatives affecting the rights of women worldwide…”

No coverage of that story appears under the BBC’s ‘United Nations’ tag or ‘Saudi Arabia’ tag or on the BBC News website’s Middle East page.

That, perhaps, is somewhat less surprising when one remembers that just last year on International Women’s Day the BBC found it appropriate to ask its audiences “Are Saudi women really that oppressed”?

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BBC Trending’s preposterous International Women’s Day question

On International Women’s Day (March 8th) the question that BBC Trending found it appropriate to ask visitors to the Middle East page on the corporation’s website was “Are Saudi women really that oppressed?“.Saudi women on ME pge

In the text accompanying that video report, readers are told that what they know about the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia (including, apparently, its 2015 ranking by the World Economic Forum at 134 out of 145 countries) is a “stereotype”.

“Life for women in the Arab kingdom is often painted as one of repression, after all they are forbidden from driving and are restricted by male guardianship laws which deprive them of their independence.

And BBC Trending has covered several stories that have gone viral that show how these restrictions affect women’s lives.

But many of these stories also show how women are using social media to make their voices heard, challenging not only their own society but also the stereotype the world has of them.

So for the “Saudis on Social” series we asked Saudi women, if they are really that oppressed?”

In the video the BBC’s Mai Norman tells audiences that:

“When it comes to Saudi women, well, most of the world has a certain image: unequal and can’t even drive. But many Saudi women say that’s just a stereotype; it’s not the full picture.”

How the term “many Saudi women” is quantified or sourced is not revealed to audiences and neither – crucially – are the basic standpoints and beliefs of the report’s contributors. Viewers see an interview with a woman presented as Samer al Morgan who tells them that:

“The Saudi woman is completely different. There are many different types of women. I’m one of these women who doesn’t fit the image portrayed by western media.”

The speaker is apparently Saudi journalist Samer al Mogren and one has to wonder about BBC Trending’s framing of her words given the fact that in 2008 she recounted her own experiences at a major newspaper.

“Mogren worked for four years at the Saudi daily Al-Watan, enjoying a top-notch position where she supervised both men and women at the paper’s social affairs desk. Late last year, the editorial board changed hands, and from that point her skills were called into question. “I was totally marginalized,” she says. “I wasn’t consulted as an editor; I’d go home at six or seven in the evening after writing out the pages only to find that when the paper came out the next day, nothing I’d done was published. “I started to witness real discrimination against women. Women weren’t wanted there, except for a handful who were needed for administrative work. If there was a woman who was capable of making a decision, it wasn’t welcome.” Loath to capitulate to the whims of her new boss, Mogren decided to leave her job while she was ahead. “If I’d stayed there I’d have been buried,” she says. During her field work as a journalist, Mogren has interviewed countless Saudi women and documented their plight as second-class citizens in Saudi society. Mogren, who has since begun contributing to the Kuwaiti Awan, has revealed some horrific stories of violence against Saudi women and hopes to raise more awareness about this issue around the world, in particular in the Arab world.”

Norman goes on:Saudi women Trending

“So we’ve been asking Saudi women themselves: are women in the kingdom really that oppressed?”

Viewers then see Nourah al Shaaban – presented as an “executive director” of an unnamed organization say:

“As a Saudi woman I never felt oppressed in any means. We have in our parliament more than 30 women.”

Norman explains:

“She’s referring to the recent and long-awaited move to allow women the right to vote and take part in parliamentary elections.”

In fact, as the BBC itself reported, the December 2015 elections were for municipal councils “with few powers” rather than for a parliament as most viewers would understand the term. Many female candidates – apparently including women’s rights campaigners – were barred and those that did run were not allowed to address male voters face to face. Polling stations were segregated and the female candidates won approximately 1% of the contested seats.

Norman continues:

“So do they have a point? More women in Saudi Arabia graduate from university than men. Contrary to popular belief women in Saudi Arabia can work and in fact have found prominence in different fields.”

As Freedom House points out:

“More than half of the country’s university students are now female, although they do not enjoy equal access to classes and facilities.”

According to the World Bank, women made up a mere 20% of Saudi Arabia’s workforce in 2014 and the percentage of women holding ministerial level positions was zero.

The video does go on to highlight the issues of the extensive requirement for male guardians and domestic violence – described by Freedom House as follows:

“Women are not treated as equal members of society, and many laws discriminate against them. They are not permitted to drive cars and must obtain permission from a male guardian in order to travel within or outside of the country. According to interpretations of Sharia in Saudi Arabia, daughters generally receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers, and the testimony of one man is equal to that of two women. Moreover, Saudi women seeking access to the courts must be represented by a male. The religious police enforce a strict policy of gender segregation and often harass women, using physical punishment to ensure compliance with conservative standards of dress in public. Same-sex marriage is not legal. All sexual activity outside of marriage, including same-sex activity, is criminalized, and the death penalty can be applied in certain circumstances. A 2013 law defines and criminalizes domestic abuse, prescribing fines and up to a year in prison for perpetrators. However, according to analysis by Human Rights Watch, the law lacks clarity on enforcement mechanisms.”

The report closes with the following messaging – again including the foggy term “many women”:

“Clearly when it comes to rights there are still many battles to fight. However many women in Saudi Arabia say that labelling them as victims only makes those battles harder to fight.”

Obviously there are women in Saudi Arabia fighting the uphill battle for equal rights and some small gains have been made. However, this report fails to clarify to audiences that many of the issues facing Saudi women (and human rights campaigners in general) are rooted in the country’s legal system which is based on interpretations of Sharia law.

This report’s attempt to create linkage between the way in which the situation of Saudi Arabian women is portrayed in the Western media and their ability to make progress in changing laws created under that male-dominated legal system clearly does not hold any water.

Then again, neither does the preposterous question posed repeatedly in this report’s title and subsequent content or its whitewashing of parts of the subject matter through inaccurate and selective representation of the situation of women in a non-democratic theocracy in which they cannot even decide how to dress or open a bank account without male permission.

If anyone – including Saudi women – was expecting the self-styled “standard-setter for international journalism” to make the most of International Women’s Day to inform its audiences of the issues faced by women in one of the worst places on earth for gender equality, they will have been sorely disappointed.

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How the BBC whitewashed the issue of women’s rights in Iran

 

 

 

How the BBC whitewashed the issue of women’s rights in Iran

This is what Freedom House had to say about the status of women in Iran in 2014:

“A woman cannot obtain a passport without the permission of her husband or a male relative. Women are widely educated; a majority of university students are female. They are nevertheless excluded from most leadership roles. Women currently hold just 3 percent of the seats in the parliament, and they are routinely barred from running for higher office. Female judges may not issue final verdicts. Women do not enjoy equal rights under Sharia-based statutes governing divorce, inheritance, and child custody, though some of these inequalities are accompanied by greater familial and financial obligations for men. A woman’s testimony in court is given only half the weight of a man’s, and the monetary compensation awarded to a female victim’s family upon her death is half that owed to the family of a male victim. Women must conform to strict dress codes and are segregated from men in some public places.”

These are excerpts from the UN Secretary General’s review of human rights in Iran published last month:

“…women only account for 16 per cent of the labour force. According to the Global Gender Gap Index for 2014 of the World Economic Forum, the Islamic Republic of Iran ranked no. 137 out of 142 countries. Furthermore, men earn 4.8 times more than women. With regard to women in ministerial positions, the Index ranked the Islamic Republic of Iran no. 105 out of 142 countries, and there are few women in managerial or decision-making roles […]. The draft comprehensive population and family excellence plan, reportedly currently being considered by parliament, would further restrict the participation of women in the labour force. Preference for employment opportunities would be given, in order, to men with children, men without children, then lastly to women with children. Furthermore, teaching positions in higher education and research institutions would be reserved for qualified married applicants.

According to article 1117 of the Civil Code, a husband may prevent his wife from occupations or technical work deemed incompatible with family interests or his own dignity or that of his wife. The law may even prevent women from pursuing artistic activities. 

…child marriage remains prevalent in the country. The legal age of marriage for girls is only 13, and some as young as 9 years of age may be married with the permission of the court. In 2011, about 48,580 girls between the age of 10 and 14 were married; and in 2012, there were at least 1,537 girls under the age of 10 who were reportedly married.

…laws continue to allow for marital or spousal rape and discriminate between men and women with regard to the spouse’s ability to initiate and complete divorce. A woman is required to prove that a significant threat has been made to her life in order to be able to file for divorce. Such laws make it difficult for women to escape domestic violence and to protect themselves from any real and immediate risk to life or integrity.

Nationality laws in the Islamic Republic of Iran do not grant women equal rights when transferring their nationality to their children.

Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran are required to observe Islamic dress code in public places. The parliament reportedly recently approved a plan “on the protection of promoters of virtue and preventers of vice”, which would increase checks on improper veiling. […] The morality police strictly monitor all public places, including vehicles, and take action against those who do not adhere to the morality codes. Women who appear without an Islamic hijab risk arrest and imprisonment of between 10 days and two months, or a fine of up to 500,000 rials. Approximately 30,000 women were reportedly arrested between 2003 and 2013, with many others subjected to expulsion from university or banned from entering public spaces, such as parks, cinemas, sport facilities, airports and beaches.”

This is the opening paragraph of an article titled “How Iran’s feminist genie escaped” which was published in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page and in its ‘Magazine’ section on March 5th – in decidedly embarrassing proximity to International Women’s Day:Iran feminism art

“Iran’s 1979 revolution may have put an ayatollah in charge – but for women it had plenty of positive side-effects… in education, in the workplace, and even in the home, discovers Amy Guttman during a ride on the Tehran underground.”

Later on in the article, readers are told:

“Farah talks of the major changes Iranian women have experienced in the last 30 years […] On Tehran’s metro, I’m getting a spontaneous, unprompted lesson about gender equality in Iran.

Farah tells me it all began, not with imports from the West, but with the 1979 revolution. A confluence of access, education and a bad economy created a society where women now have independence, careers and husbands happy to help around the house with chores and children.

The revolution, Farah says, was very good for women.”

The article continues:

“The revolutionists supported women coming out of their homes to demonstrate. They used women to show their strength, but they never anticipated these women also believed in their right to exist outside the home,” Farah remembers.

Iran’s genies were let out of the bottle. The same genies have gone on to become active members of theological schools and hold positions as judges and engineers. […]

There’s no greater evidence of women in the workplace, than where we’re sitting, surrounded by women on their way to work. It’s another outcome the Ayatollah hadn’t expected, but with Iran’s economy battered by the revolution, women had no choice but to join the workforce.

“It forced men to acknowledge that their wives could go out and earn money,” Farah says. Growing up, Farah only remembers affluent families allowing girls to work outside the home. Now, she says, “Nearly all boys prefer to marry a girl who has a permanent job and good salary. Often the women work harder, and longer hours than their husbands, so they do more of the housework – cleaning and preparing meals.””

Of course the rosy picture painted by Amy Guttman’s sole source for this article – whom she economically describes as “my guide Farah” – is clearly at odds with the reality presented in reports such as those above. So who is Farah and why is her portrayal of the status of women in Iran so different from the accounts of numerous human rights organisations?

Amy Guttman is a freelance journalist and in addition to this article and the very similar audio version (from 11:22) made for the February 28th edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, her visit to Iran also prompted pieces for other media outlets. In one of those articles she correctly notes that:

“British, American and Canadian tourists must be accompanied by a guide at all times in Iran.”

Those guides must be approved by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. In other words, the sole source for the BBC’s multi-platform promotion of the notion that the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was “very good for women” is a regime approved minder.

And yet that fact did not prevent the organization which likes to describe itself as “the standard-setter for international journalism” from commissioning, publishing and broadcasting this cringingly transparent regime propaganda which whitewashes the serious issues faced by women in Iran.