This past week, news headlines about Saudi Arabia in the world’s press focused on three main events. In the first it was King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz’s visit to Japan and China. He was there as part of a month-long state visit to several Asian countries.
The next event concerning the kingdom that captured headlines was the visit to Washington by the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the King’s son, who is also the country’s Minister of Defence. He was in America on an invitation from United States President Donald Trump, who has often been castigated for his executive ban against citizens of six Muslim-majority countries (who would be denied entry into the US). Saudi Arabia, though, is not among those countries.
But it was the third event that unquestionably demanded the most headlines and along with it a fair share of ridicule as well. Saudi Arabia held its first ever Girls Council in the Qasim region to discuss issues faced by women and girls.
Women participate on the council and they were present at the launch too, but were in a separate enclosed area and streamed in on video link due to strict Saudi laws on gender segregation between unrelated men and women. The head of the Girls’ Council is Princess Abeer Bint Salman, but it was her husband and governor of Al Qasim, Prince Faisal Bin Mishal Bin Saud, who launched the event. He spoke at the event, saying he was “proud” to be at the launch of the council, which is the first of its kind in the country. “In the Qasim region, we look at women as sisters to men, and we feel a responsibility to open up more and more opportunities that will serve the work of women and girls,” he said.
While Saudi Arabia’s lack of gender diversity is hardly a surprise in a country where women must seek a male guardian’s permission to work, study or travel, the irony of a girl’s council being entirely void of any woman was not lost on the internet.
Publicity photos from the launch of Saudi Arabia’s new Girls’ Council have gone viral for all the wrong reasons — namely, the lack of women in attendance on stage. In the picture proudly posted online, only men are on stage, giving the impression that the Council dedicated towards the cause of females in the kingdom appeared to be run entirely by men! Princess Abeer, who chairs the council, was neither seen in the photograph nor was it reported that she had any say in the proceedings.
The story was immediately picked up by news services from Adelaide to Alaska, and they had a field day deriding the photograph showing thirteen men seated proudly on stage determining the fate and future of the fledgling Girls Council in the kingdom. One paper surmised: “For a country that’s known for its lack of women’s rights, the launch of Saudi Arabia’s first ever Girls’ Council, to discuss the welfare and empowerment of girls, was a promising initiative. But that’s all it is. All talk.” A European news outlet poked fun at Saudi Arabia’s track record of women’s rights, by saying: “Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia the Qasim Girls Council meets again to discuss women’s issues. Too important for women to be involved obviously.” A Canadian release said: “Feminists would have likely given full marks for theory, but zero for practice. When the Qasim Girls Council was launched on Saturday in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia there, would have been enthusiastic murmurings. But any optimism would have quickly evaporated when they saw pictures from the event: Thirteen men on stage and not a single female!”
Another compared the event with a photo session of Trump signing an executive order on abortion policy while surrounded by white men. No women appeared to be present during the signing ceremony.
Social media too reacted strongly to the official photograph. A female Saudi tweeted: “Notice something missing? We don’t exist in the magic kingdom!” A female called Rana uploaded the official picture with a caption, ‘This is not a joke, I repeat, not a joke. The first meeting of the Girls Council of Saudi Arabia.’ Another woman called Sarah had this to say: “Satire? Comedy? No. This is actually happening. The first meeting of the Saudi Girls Council ... with ZERO girls.” There were countless other tweets from those residing in the kingdom who spared no effort in coming up with statements ridiculing the event and the lack of representation by women.
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What is it about the presence of women on stage, in pictures or anywhere else, that scares men off, a Saudi professor wondered. “Is it our culture or tradition to closet women? Because if it is so, then we have no chance of joining other nations on the road towards a better tomorrow,” he said.
Are we to be forever embroiled in the triviality of appearances at the cost of progress? That is a question that all Saudis must ask themselves.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena