Picture released from the first meeting of Qassim Girls Council shows no girls, drawing widespread mockery and shining a spotlight onto Saudi Arabia’s woeful history of gender inequality and human rights abuse.

  • Inaugural Girls’ Council meeting in al-Qassim province releases photo of 13 men on stage.
  • Widespread mockery and dismay at how there could be no women involved in a women’s initiative.
  • Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative nations on earth, where women are unable to drive and homosexuality is punishable by death.
  • Early missteps for initially-promising drive for greater equality Vision 2030.

At first glance, it was an encouraging sign for a nation that regularly ranks near the bottom of global rankings of gender rights and freedom of expression.

Triumphantly launching the first committee dedicated to female issues in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Qassim Girls Council announced itself — intended to offer more opportunities for women and give them a voice in the country.

However the launch quickly backfired as commentators quickly noticed the singular lack of women in the photo, giving the impression that Saudi Arabia was allowing 13 old men to decide the state of the future for Saudi’s repressed female citizens.

In fact the women were in another room, linked through video. In Saudi Arabia, men and women with no relation to each other are not permitted to mix among many other restrictions to their freedom and human rights.

Can Saudi Arabia Ever Reach Equality?

The launch of  was led by Prince Faisal bin Mishal bin Saud, the province’s governor, who said he remained proud of the conference.

“In the Qassim 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.

The girls’ council is chaired by Princess Abir bint Salman who was not in the photograph. Princess Salman is Prince Faisal’s wife.

In Saudi Arabia, a rigorously enforced state policy of gender segregation keeps unrelated men and women away from each other. But there are signs that the country may be moving toward tempering some of its gender rules as part of its Vision 2030 program. Its stated goals included increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%, as covered by Globalo.

The country is trying to increase the number of women in work from 22% to its target of 30%, seen as a hopeful sign of thawing conservative attitudes towards women and minorities.

In his speech to officially launch the Qassim Girls Council, Prince Faisal said women make up half of society, a farcical scene developing with no women in the room.

Saudi Arabia’s woeful record of human rights

  • According to Human Rights Watch, large numbers of human rights advocates are currently imprisoned for criticizing the government or calling for political reforms.
  • Saudi Arabia discriminates openly against women and religious minorities. The Gulf State has the dubious honor of being the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive.
  • Homosexuality is a forbidden topic in Saudi Arabian society and punished with imprisonment and capital punishment.
  • Torture of detainees is common. Reportedly, beating, suspension by the limbs and sleep deprivation are some of the most common methods. Victims include protesters and activists  who are held for weeks without charge.
  • In January of 2016 Saudi Arabia executed 47 people for terrorism-related offenses and security concerns, including  4 minors.
  • All women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian.
  • The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 134th out of 145 countries for gender parity.

More of a “Man’s World” than ever before?

Many are drawing links between a male-dominated Girls Council with Donald Trump’s recent anti-abortion executive order, signed in the presence of a exclusive cadre of white men, most over the age of 50.

Many are fearing a new age of male-dominated politics and social initiatives that force women further into the background. While the first steps of the Qassim Girls Council definitely fell flat, we must continue to hope that attempts to redress gender imbalance in Saudi Arabia come to fruition.

Photo credit: Qassim Girls Council