Like a naturalized woman

In Saudi Arabia, female robot gets rights, real women restricted

‘Sophia’ becomes first android granted citizenship, but critics point out that kingdom is allowing her to do what actual women and non-Muslims cannot

The robot Sophia at a Riyadh conference on October 25, 2017. (screen capture: YouTube/Arab News)
The robot Sophia at a Riyadh conference on October 25, 2017. (screen capture: YouTube/Arab News)

Saudi Arabia became the first country to give a robot citizenship this week, though critics immediately pounced on Riyadh for granting the android Sophia rights while flesh-and-blood women in the kingdom are still highly restricted in what they can do.

Sophia, designed by Hong Kong company Hanson Robotics, was unveiled at Riyadh’s Future Investment Initiative conference on Wednesday, and was told by moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin that she had been granted citizenship, during a presentation meant to show off her ability to mimic human expression.

“I’m very honored and proud for this unique distinction,” Sophia said robotically. “This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship.”

While the audience cheered the announcement, the move was met with derision by activists, who pointed out that Sophia would apparently enjoy freedom that actual women in the kingdom still do not.

Saudi Arabia is ruled under a conservative brand of Islam that until recently forbad women from driving or being in public without a male escort or permission from their husband or father. The country is regularly criticized for human rights abuses.

“Women (in Saudi Arabia) have since committed suicide because they couldn’t leave the house, and Sophia is running around,” Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, told Newsweek, criticizing the move.

“Saudi law doesn’t allow non-Muslims to get citizenship. Did Sophia convert to Islam? What is the religion of this Sophia and why isn’t she wearing a hijab? If she applied for citizenship as a human, she wouldn’t get it,” he added.

On Twitter, users posted pictures of what Sophia might look like if forced to dress as other women in the country, and lamented her greater freedoms.

Saudi Arabia has recently signaled a willingness to reverse some restrictions on women and others, declaring it will allow women to drive and allow non-Muslim tourists to visit.

The country in recent months has organized concerts, a Comic-Con pop culture festival, and a mixed-gender national day celebration that saw people dancing in the streets to thumping electronic music for the first time.

On Tuesday, powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged a “moderate, open” Saudi Arabia at the Riyadh conference, breaking with ultra-conservative clerics in favor of an image catering to foreign investors and Saudi youth.

The Saudi strongman, 32, did not mince words in declaring a new reality for the kingdom, hours after announcing the launch of an independent $500-billion megacity — with “separate regulation” — along the Red Sea coastline.

“We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness,” he told international investors gathered at the Riyadh forum.

AFP contributed to this report.

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