International Participation in Saudi Segregated Festival Harms Women Rights

February 27, 2008

International governments, non-governmental organizations, intellectuals, media outlets, and the United Nations are supporting the Saudi policy of gender apartheid through their participation in an annual Saudi festival championed by the Saudi King Abdullah.

The annual Janadriya Festival will open on March 5, 2008.  Despite earlier promises of integration between men and women from the government, women will be allowed to attend the festival during the few “women-only” days, thus continuing the policy of complete gender segregation. .  In the twenty four years since the then Crown Prince Abdullah created the Janadriya Festival, it has become a national symbol of unity and cultural pride.

The festival began as an effort to preserve and represent Bedouin culture, enshrining such practices as camel racing, sword dancing, and native crafts. It quickly expanded to include activities and exhibitions from other cultures within the Arab Peninsula, and the Saudi government uses the festival to prove their status as a bastion of Arabic culture.

The festival is structured according to the view of women that defines all aspects of public life in Saudi Arabia. Historically, two to three days have been designated as women-only, barring all men, including husbands and guardians. The remainder of the two week festival is closed to women entirely. These stipulations are handed down by the government, and are enforced by the religious police, which operate under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior.

Numerous international dignitaries, politicians, governmental and non-governmental agencies, some of which are dedicated to human rights, have attended and participated in the festival since its creation, undermining international dedication to human rights and gender equality.

Such participants have included the British, French, Dutch, and Polish Ambassadors, the United Nations officials in Riyadh, the directors of the Arab American Anti- Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute, and western officials such as Prince Charles on England, and John Esposito of Georgetown University.

During the 1980s, the South African government’s practice of radical racial apartheid elicited outrage and rejection from the international community.  All organizations that shared a respect for human rights and social justice boycotted South Africa and demanded immediate reform. This attitude led to the downfall of racial apartheid and similar pressure can do the same for women in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, only two years ago, political pressure and outrage from the international community concerning the use of trafficked children in the camel races at the festival forced the government to impose new regulations on these races, after 22 years of allowing child racers. This shows that pressure can work if the international community is willing to apply it.

A boycott of this year’s festival by international governments and non-governmental organizations, and individuals would increase the pressure on the Saudi government to end its policy of segregation is this and future festivals, and would help improve women’s rights within the Kingdom in general. The current segregation practices are reflections of the view of women as morally inferior and dangerous to men; they are viewed as the source of sin and temptation for men, and thus cannot be allowed to mingle among men. It is also a reflection of the strict gender roles, reinforced by government policies and religious decrees, which impose a rigid characterization of the “nature” of women as suited only for domestic matters, and thus unfit to participate in a cultural event of politically strategic importance to the country. Agencies dedicated to personal liberty and social equality cannot remain complicit as self-determination is continually denied to the millions of women within Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the strong influence religious conservatives hold over the government is enough to outweigh domestic reform efforts. International pressure is necessary to hold the Saudi government accountable to global standards of human rights, within festival regulations as well as within all aspects of Saudi governance. Attendance or participation by international governments, groups, and individuals only legitimate the denial of women’s rights within the Kingdom.

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