Brian Whitaker writes:
Last December, Tunisians rose up against their dictator, triggering a political earthquake that has sent shockwaves through most of the Middle East and north Africa. Now, Tunisia is leading the way once again – this time on the vexed issue of gender equality.
It has become the first country in the region to withdraw all its specific reservations regarding Cedaw – the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
This may sound a rather obscure and technical matter but it’s actually a very important step. It reverses a long-standing abuse of human rights treaties – especially in the Middle East – where repressive regimes sign up to these treaties for purposes of international respectability but then excuse themselves from some or all of their obligations.
Saudi Arabia, for example, operates the world’s most blatant and institutionalised system of discrimination against women – and yet, along with 17 other Arab states, it is also a party to Cedaw. It attempts to reconcile this position through reservations saying it does not consider itself bound by any part of the treaty which conflicts “with the norms of Islamic law”.
In effect, the Saudi government claims the right to ignore any part of Cedaw it doesn’t like. The “norms of Islamic law” is a meaningless phrase because the Sharia has never been formally codified. There are various methods of interpreting it and scholars often disagree in their interpretations. The “norms of Islamic law” thus means whatever the Saudis choose it to mean.