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MIDDLE EAST: Iran and Saudi Arabia in controversial bid for seats on United Nations women's board

October 31, 2010 |  3:18 pm

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Is it a scandal, or just business as usual?

Reports surfaced last week that Iran and Saudi Arabia are seeking seats on the board of the United Nations' highly anticipated new agency, U.N. Women, unleashing a flurry of reactions from politicians, pundits and advocacy groups.

On the one hand, Iran and Saudi Arabia have demonstrably worse track records on women's rights than many other countries. On the other, some of the outrage carries the whiff of politics.

For example, U.S. officials appear to be pushing for Iran's removal from the nomination list, but have noticeably abstained from criticism of Saudi Arabia, with which it recently concluded a $60-billion arms deal.

"If [U.N. Women] is similar to previous U.N. initiatives where countries were allowed to add conditions and still be considered as signatories, then it is an empty gesture and even an insult considering in Saudi there is no minimum age for marriage, and gender apartheid is systematically practiced everywhere," prominent Saudi blogger and women's rights activist Eman Al Nafjan wrote in an e-mail to Babylon & Beyond.

"However," she added, "if the U.N. women's rights body's aim is that Saudi and Iran join so that it may gain access to these countries through which it can educate women, raise awareness and document cases, then I'm all for it."

Between now and Nov. 10, the Asia group in the U.N. could theoretically nominate another country in Iran's place, and the U.S. appears to be exerting pressure in that direction.

Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. mission, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Iran's membership "would send the wrong signal" and that "there are many qualified countries that would make positive and constructive contributions as board members."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Image: A screen grab from the U.N. Women website. Credit: U.N. Women

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