As a Norwegian it pains me, on high-minded historic principle, to give Swedes any credit.
But it seems churlish not to applaud those uppity Swedes when they do get something right. Besides, the whole sorry business forces the rest of us to think about stuff we prefer to ignore.
So: Sweden’s new foreign minister, Social Democrat Margot Wallstrom, was scheduled to speak about democracy and women’s rights recently to the Arab League in Cairo. She apparently intended to prod Arab League nations to treat women as … um … well, you know: grown-ups.
However, our very dear friends the Saudis did not wish to hear about democracy and women’s rights. They prevented Wallstrom from giving her speech.
Leave aside the Saudis’ barbaric punishments of political and religious dissidents. Saudi Arabia is among the most notoriously backward of Muslim nations when it comes to treatment of women. Among other things, it’s illegal for Saudi women to drive a car — one female driver recently was jailed for two months — and they’re not supposed to leave home without male permission and an escort. Why, please, isn’t all this considered false imprisonment? Hello?
It’s apparently because Saudi males who endorse this type of thing are protecting “their” women, as any property owner has a perfect right to do. The logic here leads to the inescapable conclusion that Saudi males are considered incapable of behaving as gentlemen around unescorted females. That’s utterly preposterous.
The Saudis find themselves trapped in this medieval time warp thanks to the House of Saud’s longstanding, misfortunate embrace of a quid-pro-quo governing understanding with Wahhabists, a sect of unforgivingly conservative Sunni Muslim clerics determined to purge Western influence from Saudi life. They use religious police to control citizens in a nation where beheadings, amputations and lashings are legal punishments for crime and disobedience.
Not free to decide
A word of caution. Westerners should not presume that all Saudi women object to what we see as their systemic degradation. Some women — by no means only in Saudi Arabia — may be content to be relieved of making life decisions for themselves, particularly if they believe it’s their religious duty to consider themselves inferior to males. If a woman freely decides to live as a second-class human being, that’s her business.
The important thing, as I see it, is not how empowered Saudi women might decide to live. It’s that they’re free to decide it for themselves that matters.
The truth is that if all women living as infantilized, second-class human beings demanded their inalienable right to live as adults, we would not still be talking at this very late date about legally enshrining fundamental human rights for women. But 32 nations still have no equal rights protections for women in their constitutions.
It’s not just non-Western women who don’t assert their rights. Only 14 percent of women who experienced serious domestic violence in the 28 European Union countries reported it, according to the latest United Nations report on women. Globally, adds the UN, domestic violence against women and children costs $4 trillion annually. Imprudent resource investment strategy, if you ask me.
The UN report’s dolorous conclusion is that violence against women “persists at alarmingly high levels,” citing among examples kidnappings and enslavement of girls by ISIS and the pervasive penchant in India for brutal gang rape. In 2015, female human rights are violated throughout the world because political, cultural, legal and religious denigration of women remains deeply embedded in nearly every culture.
Insist on human rights
Back, then, to Wallstrom. The peace-loving Swedes for the last decade have been arms dealers to the Saudis. They’re Sweden’s third-largest customer, purchasing $39 million worth of weapons last year alone. Shortly after the Saudis aborted Wallstrom’s speech, however, the Swedish government aborted arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite protests from Sweden’s weapons manufacturers.
The miffed Saudis responded by recalling their ambassador to Sweden. (The miffed Israelis also recalled their ambassador when Wallstrom announced that Sweden would recognize Palestine to help “even the playing field” in peace negotiations.)
Saudi Arabia gets away with inhumane treatment of its citizens because nations such as ours have enslaved themselves to oil. Western leaders mumble mild protestations about human rights, hold their noses and buy Saudi oil, then sell them weapons. With many billions of dollars worth of purchases, the Saudis are our biggest weapons customer. So imagine the political blowback from our defense contractors if we too stopped selling armaments to the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia’s special charm is that it’s been a stable, reliable ally in an unstable, politically complex neighborhood where we’ve made many mistakes. Doubtless its stability owes much to the fact that Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship, as Wallstrom indelicately noted.
But if enough western countries “man up” as she and her nation did, perhaps the Saudis can be persuaded to surprise us. Perhaps we underestimate the House of Saud’s talent for statecraft. Perhaps the new King Salman can be made to see the wisdom of more enlightened dictating.
Bottom line? Why not extract human rights reforms by the Saudis as a price of doing business with them? It’s a propitious moment: they’re pumping more oil than the market can absorb.
We’re corrupting ourselves and betraying our nation’s bedrock principles by giving Saudi Arabia a free pass on human rights. Worse yet, it’s all for the sake of a pernicious commodity that’s wrecking the planet.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.