On Saturday 11 March, Saudi Arabia launched its first ever girls’ council – the first initiative of its kind in the kingdom.
It was supposed to be an encouraging move from a country not known for giving women a platform in public life. However, when official photos from the inaugural council in the al-Qassim province were released, it quickly became apparent that the organisers had forgotten one very important thing.
“Satire? Comedy? No. This is actually happening,” wrote one stunned Twitter user. “The very first meeting of the first ‘Girls Council’ in Saudi Arabia… with zero girls.”
That’s right, there were no women to be seen at the launch whatsoever.
Instead, 13 men took to the stage to discuss the new initiative – while the women were reportedly kept in another room, contributing only by video link.
The controversial image sparked a wave of criticism on social media.
“Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia the Qassim Girls Council meets again to discuss women's issues,” wrote one. “Too important for women to be involved obviously.”
Another added: “Notice anything odd about the 1st meeting of the ‘girls council’ in Qassim province, Saudi Arabia?”
And political adviser Julie Lenarz wrote: “Welcome to first ‘Qassim Girls Council’ in Saudi Arabia with an all-male panel in the kingdom of gender apartheid.”
Despite the backlash, Prince Faisal bin Mishal bin Saud, al-Qassim's governor and the man who spearheaded the launch, said he was proud to be a part of the first initiative of its kind in Saudi Arabia.
“In the Qassim region, we look at women as sisters to men, and we feel a responsibility to open up more and more opportunities that will serve the work of women and girls,” he told the BBC.
The council is supposed to be chaired by Princess Abir bint Salma, the prince’s wife, although she does not feature in any of the photographs.
Saudi Arabia – which employs a state policy of gender segregation between unrelated men and women – regularly scores near the bottom on global gender equality rankings.
The World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap report put it at 141 out of 145 countries – which is due, in part, to the fact that the women of Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive a car, and must have the permission of a male guardian to work, study, travel or marry.
However the country may be moving toward loosening some of its rules as part of its Vision 2030 programme, which aims to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%.
And, earlier this year, the kingdom appointed a woman as the CEO of a major commercial bank for the first time in its history.
However, as the photos of the first Qassim Girls Council have shown, the country still has a long way to go when it comes to empowering women.
And this is not an issue which is unique to the country; in fact, the photos have drawn caparisons to a picture of US President Donald Trump signing an executive order on abortion policy (aka dictating the law on women’s bodies) while surrounded exclusively by white men.
Images: Rex Pictures / Twitter