A UN expert on women's rights said on Wednesday she had heard accounts of serious discrimination against women and abuses by religious police during a visit to ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
There also appears to be no timeframe for lifting a ban on women's driving, Yakin Erturk, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, told reporters at the end of a 10-day visit to the Muslim kingdom.
Erturk said that while some Saudi women she met during her visit at the government's invitation expressed satisfaction with their lives, "others have raised concerns of serious levels of discriminatory practices against women that compromise their rights and dignity as full human beings."
Others related "the domestic abuse they systematically encounter with little prospect of redress."
Erturk said that progress had been made in women's access to education, but there has been no comparable increase in their participation in the labour force, mainly due to sex segregation in the workplace, and they are "particularly excluded from decision-making positions."
She said many of her interlocutors complained about the behaviour of the religious police, or Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice who are commonly known as Muttawa and enforce a strict Islamic moral code.
"The Muttawa are said to be responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who 'deviate from accepted norms'," the UN official said, citing an incident reported during her visit in which they arrested a businesswoman for sitting in a coffee shop with a male colleague in Riyadh.
Erturk said she had not met any officials from the religious police during her visit, which followed a report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women which stated that women in the kingdom were the victims of systematic and pervasive discrimination across all aspects of social life.
Women in Saudi Arabia, which applies a rigorous doctrine of Islam known as Wahhabism, face a host of constraints, including the driving ban. They are forced to cover from head to toe in public, and cannot mix with men other than relatives or travel without written permission from their male guardian.
Erturk, who met officials and human rights groups, said she had raised the driving ban during her talks but did not feel there was a specific timeframe for solving the issue.
What matters in enabling women to drive is that this would give them freedom to move and work, she said.
Erturk, who will report to the UN Human Rights Council, said recently adopted judicial reforms which foresee the establishment of family courts, together with a draft law on domestic violence, were "promising initiatives," but more needed to be done to combat violence against women.
This includes adoption of a legal framework based on international human rights standards that would cover violence and family matters, establishment of a "national machinery for women" to intervene in cases of violence, and "positive action policies and plans" to empower women. (AFP)
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