Being a woman is not easy in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, whose society is characterized by a strict interpretation of Islam, has strict laws that restrict women’s lives. In 2022, a personal status law was passed there that enshrines the guardianship of men over women – on International Women’s Day of all days. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman praised it as “comprehensive” and “progressive,” human rights organization Human Rights Watch reported.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia will in future chair the UN Commission for the Advancement of Women. The 45 member countries of the “United Nations Commission on the Status of Women” (CSW) appointed the Saudi ambassador Abdulasis Alwasil as chairman of the next session by acclamation in New York on Wednesday. The mandate lasts one year.

At the commission meeting, the current chairman from the Philippines presented the Saudi ambassador as the only candidate. “May I assume that the Commission wishes to elect His Excellency Abdulaziz Alwasil of Saudi Arabia by acclamation as Chairman of the Commission at its 69th session?” he asked the 45 member countries. “I don’t hear any objections. So it’s decided.” The decision was met with brief applause.

There was no objection from the “Western Europe and other countries” group either. The group is currently represented there by Austria, Israel, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey.

The human rights organization Amnesty International was shocked on Thursday. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy in which the royal family rules with an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. It is ranked 132nd out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum Foundation (WEF) 2023 report on gender equality.

“This is a shock for us, although not a surprise,” said Natalie Wenger, who is responsible for Saudi Arabia at Amnesty Switzerland. Saudi Arabia is running an image campaign with a lot of money to present itself as a modern country. “But these are gestures that have no substance.” Women’s rights are constantly violated there. Amnesty has just mentioned in a report the case of a mother of two children who advocated for women’s rights on the platform X (formerly Twitter) during her doctoral thesis and was therefore sentenced to 27 years in prison. Countries that take on such chairs in UN commissions must serve as role models, said Wenger. “That’s why we see this presidency as tragic.”

In addition, travel bans and other restrictions have been imposed on prominent women’s rights activists to limit their right to freedom of expression, according to Amnesty.