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U.N. watchdog grills Saudi Arabia on women’s rights

Thu Jan 17, 2008 1:32pm EST

(Adds detail in new paragraphs 4, 10 and 14)

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Jan 17 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia, appearing for the first time before a U.N. women’s rights panel on Thursday, faced tough questions over restrictions on “virtually every aspect of a woman’s life” in the kingdom.

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors adherence to a 1979 international bill of rights for women.

The world’s biggest oil exporter ratified that pact in 2000, with the proviso that Islamic Sharia law would prevail if there were any contradiction with its provisions.

The Saudi delegation came under repeated fire during the debate for the system of male guardianship which requires women to seek permission to travel, work, or see a doctor.

“Only when women are free to make their own decisions on all aspects of their life are they full citizens,” committee member Maria Regina Tavares da Silva told the one-day Geneva session.

Heisoo Shin, another of the 23 independent experts on the panel, said that patriarchal rules “governed virtually every aspect of a woman’s life” in Saudi Arabia.

“Without a man’s consent, a woman cannot study or get health service, work, marry, conduct business or even get an ambulance service in an emergency,” she said.

“ISLAM REINFORCES RIGHTS”

Riyadh says there is “no discrimination against women in the laws of the Kingdom.”

And Zeid Bin Abdul Mushin Al Hussein, vice president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, told the experts: “Human rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are based on Sharia law.”

“Islamic principles reinforce human rights,” he said.

But the application of Sharia law in a rape case last month drew international criticism and fanned concerns about the status of women in the conservative Islamic state, where powerful clerics demand the strict seclusion of females.

King Abdullah pardoned a 19-year-old woman sentenced to flogging for being in the company of a man she was not related to. The pair were abducted and gang-raped by seven men who were jailed for up to five years for their crime.

Saudi officials emphasised progress for women in terms of greater employment and education in the country, where women may now study both law and engineering.

But U.N. experts questioned women’s access to the police and judiciary to lodge complaints, and their rights to own land and get bank loans, especially in rural areas. They also raised concerns over the ability to choose or divorce one’s husband, and rules prohibiting women from driving.

The committee is to issue findings on the kingdom and seven other countries at the end of its three-week session on Feb. 1. (Editing by Jon Boyle)

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