Anika Michel | SIPA Class of 2018
With Women’s History Month almost over, it is apparent that even in 2017 there are many countries that still refuse to grant women the same human rights as men. Saudi Arabia is a prime example of women being denied the right to participate in physical exercise and sporting activities. According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report entitled “Steps of the Devil”, girls who attend public schools are not offered physical education classes. And although girls who attend private schools have access to gym classes, the quality of the teaching and the facilities are inadequate.
As Saudi girls become women, the struggle to live a physically active life intensifies. There are no women’s gyms to join because the government will not provide the necessary commercial licenses to open such facilities. Alternatively, if a woman wanted to go for a walk or a run, she would need to have a male guardian with her since women are not allowed to leave their house without one.
So why are the corporations that produce women’s products not objecting to this injustice? Playtex, for example, is a leading brand in feminine care and maternity products, many of which can be bought in Saudi Arabia, yet the company has remained silent on the issue. Ironic for a firm that brands itself a champion for women’s fitness and promoter of women in sports to sit idly while observing such repression.
Playtex, Kotex, and Tampax are major brands that are almost indispensable to women’s health. Since these companies are so financially interested in public health, they should also advocate for women in Saudi Arabia. There are a number of ways in which they can do so.
They could write advocacy letters to their counterparts in other women’s product industries. A senior executive at Tampax, for example, could write an advocacy letter to the head of Women’s Capital Corp., which produces Plan B, the morning-after birth control pill for women. These companies could also start advocacy campaigns using print media and social media.
In addition, they can try to persuade their vendors in Saudi Arabia, such as Walmart, the www.mumzworld.com website, and others to join their campaigns. The objective is to inform everyone with a stake in the women’s health market about the restrictions that Saudi women face in maintaining their own health and well-being. After all, it is not just about making a profit, is it? It is about making sure that women around the world have the ability to remain healthy.
Perhaps the companies that sell women’s products in Saudi Arabia do not see this human rights violation as an issue that requires their advocacy efforts. But surely many of their American consumers would disagree. If American women’s product companies don’t start speaking out about this issue, then consumers in the US should boycott their products. With the current variety of items on the market, it would not be hard to buy a different brand in an effort to help the Saudi women.
Also, the ban on exercise is not only unjust, it is illegal. According to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), state parties must “recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Although Saudi Arabia is not party to the ICESCR, its membership in the United Nations requires it to follow international human rights law.
The kingdom’s ban on exercise has also led to health problems for women. Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar who is the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a think tank and human rights advocacy group in Washington, DC, has written an in-depth analysis of the impact of this Saudi policy. According to his 2014 report, “Killing Them Softly: How Saudi Ban on Women’s Sports is Harming Their Health,” the ban has caused women in Saudi Arabia to have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases than men.
Corporations genuinely concerned about the health of women need to do more than just write checks and donate money to a charity. They need to openly and loudly advocate for the right of Saudi women to exercise.