Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Norway has fired off a response to criticism from members of the Norwegian Parliament Wednesday over the status of Saudi women. In a written commentary sent to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), Ambassador Esam A. Abid Althaqafi stated that it was “especially necessary that we correct the misleading description of the situation for Saudi women’s rights from an Arabic and Muslim perspective.”
Althaqafi called the description of his country, which some top Norwegian politicians said was “probably the worst in the world” for women, as “somewhat far from reality.” He was referring to debate in Parliament on Wednesday, when several Members of Parliament from both ends of the political spectrum in Norway were angry that Saudi Arabia was voted in as a member of a UN commission charged with ensuring women’s rights. They were also upset that Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende refused to reveal how Norway voted on the issue in an election that was kept secret.
The Saudi ambassador defended the situation for women in his homeland, claiming that laws restricting women are meant to “create security for women, rather than take away their freedom of movement and independence.” He acknowledged that women are not allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, for example, “but instead they have private chauffers who drive them where they want to go.” He did not address the situation for women from the middle and lower classes in Saudi Arabia who live in households that can’t afford such luxuries.
Simply ‘taking care of women’
He insisted, though, that Saudi laws and regulations are all about “taking care of women in a country characterized by bedouin culture, where those who don’t follow tradition and culture are seen as ‘bad’ people and must be punished by society.” He said that “unfortunately” is the way of thinking, and the laws and regulations contribute towards “creating fewer problems” in society. He said that it takes time, “a long time,” to change that culture.
Althaqafi went on to write that in Saudi Arabia’s bedouin culture, the tradition of women completely covering themselves with black clothing “means respect and dignity. It protects women from evil stares and especially men’s desire and sexual fantasy.” He also stressed that men are expected to “pay for everything.” Men, he said, carry all economic responsibility, even for women who work and “earn as much as he does.” It’s the man, he wrote, who pays “for food, drinks, household expenses, clothing, make-up and everything women need.”
In response to claims from Norwegian politicians that women are oppressed and have few of any rights, the ambassador claimed that was “completely incorrect. In fact it’s the opposite.” He also claimed that steadily more women are now in the workforce (more than 560,000 compared to 46,000 five years ago) and that 30 women have won seats in Saudi Arabia’s parliament. “A large portion of Saudi women are highly educated, and those who work get the same pay as men,” he wrote. He claimed that women can “say ‘no’ to marrying,” that they have a right to leave the country “and live completely alone” without a “male protector” for several months without any consequences.
“Those who criticize the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia view the situation from a western perspective,” Althaqafi wrote. “To a large degree, its the western-oriented young Saudi Arabians with education from abroad who want changes, while the majority of Saudi Arabian women don’t think there’s any need for major changes.”
“It can be hard to understand that the West tries to demand something the majority in Saudi Arabia don’t demand,” continued the Saudi envoy to Norway. “Why should you fight for other’s rights in another country with a different culture and religion? It’s not Norway’s problem that Saudi Arabian women aren’t allowed to drive cars.”
Ambassador criticized Norway in return
He also noted that there are “clear indications” that Norway also has “a long way to go before equal pay between men and women is realized.” He cited figures from state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) showing that men in Norway earn on average NOK 161,400 more than women, UNDP figures showing that women work more hours per week than men but earn much less, and figures from the state tax directorate showing that more than 817 people live at a secret address in Norway out of fear they’ll be “seriously injured or killed by male family members.” There’s not a country in the world, Althaqafi wrote, where women are not subject to discrimination.
“Some Norwegian politicians have a tendency to be so preoccupied by their own freedom of speech that they forget to listen to those they criticize,” the Saudi ambassador concluded, prompting them to set aside “all social decency” when they publish their own or others opinions.
“My advice to Norwegian politicians is that they should visit my country, to see how well we have it,” he wrote. “They should show more respect for those they criticize. Perhaps they should also focus on the challenges in Norway, instead of Saudi Arabia.”
The ambassador’s remarks set of a string of comments from Norwegian readers on NRK, prompting to one to speculate that “this must be sarcasm, or a bad joke,” while another noted that Saudi Arabia ranked among the lowest in the world in terms of equality on a list compiled by the World Economic Forum. “This isn’t about taking care of women,” wrote another, “but controlling women, in a society where the women are worth less than men.”