A few weeks ago, news broke that Saudi Arabia was the first country to grant a robot, Sophia, citizenship. The announcement was made at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) summit in Riyadh. As many pointed out, this was first and foremost a PR stunt to attract investors and highlight Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan, which seeks to expand its oil-based economy into one that is more economically diverse and globally integrated.1 In essence, the announcement hoped to attract and welcome tech engineers and startups.
However, when Sophia, was presented on stage without wearing a hijab or without a male guardian, the announcement was no longer just a PR stunt – it was a blatant display that women's rights are not human rights, but rather robot’s rights.

To think that a robot, a non-human, would have more rights than a female citizen in Saudi Arabia is absurd. In Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear an abaya – a long cloak, get male permission to travel or obtain a passport, and are required to limit their time with men they are not related to. More so, the biggest victory for women, was when, at the end of September, it was announced that women in Saudi Arabia would be able to drive.

Sophia, on the other hand, is not bound by such restrictions. She can wear what she wants, and has spent an abundant time in front of male investors and interviewers. Moreover, Sophia was created by Hong Kong’s Hanson Robotics and was still given Saudi Arabia citizenship. Yet, women in Saudi Arabia who are married to foreigners cannot pass on citizenship to their children. So how it is that such a baby, raised in Saudi Arabia, cannot get citizenship, but a newly designed robot from Hong Kong can?  What message does this send to young women in Saudi Arabia, when their own government puts robot’s rights against their own?

Over the last month, Sophia has also traveled around the world and appeared on shows like The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon and Good Morning Britain. She often said, “I am here to help humans live a better life, like design smarter homes, and build better cities of the future. I am here to help humanity create the future.”2 I question what better life Sophia imagines?

Hala Aldosari, a medical scientist, a lecturer, and an administrator in the Saudi Health and Education sector, recently wrote a paper titled, “The Effect of Gender Norms on Women’s Health in Saudi Arabia.” The following points are taken from her paper:3

  • 30% of Saudi men tolerated the use of violence against women.

  • In a survey of 2000 Saudi women, between 39% and 57.7% had experienced domestic violence.

  • 81% of Saudi women in one study had a vitamin D deficiency, due to a previous driving ban and enforced moral dress code. Moreover, Vitamin D deficiency could lead to serious bone abnormalities, especially in older women.

  • 32% of adult Saudi women were found infected with either single or multiple sexually-transmitted infections

  • 43% women who presented with ectopic pregnancy had the highest prevalence of sexually-transmitted infections

The announcement of Sophia’s citizenship is more than just a blatant sign of disrespect to thousands of women who are fighting for more rights in their own kingdom. As Hala Aldosari points out, the lack of rights available to women has direct health consequences. Perhaps, Sophia should be used to advocate for women’s rights. Perhaps, she should be used as an instrument to train health providers in Saudi Arabia in detection, referral, and management of at-risk women. Moreover, perhaps Sophia should be used to educate women about important health warning signs, the need for STI testing, and proper hygiene practices. Then, just maybe, this would lead to the better future that Sophia should imagine.

However, it is important to underscore that Sophia is a robot with ideas and thoughts that were preprogrammed. The real solution is to encourage young women, who understand the urgency of fighting for gender equality, to pursue degrees in public health, engineering and computer programming. Then, perhaps, those young women, too, can program a Sophia 2.0 that will be an advocate for women’s rights, education and health. So, while we wait, we must all be that Sophia 2.0 we imagine.

1. http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1956100103?accountid=12768

2. http://www.scmp.com/news/world/middle-east/article/2117568/saudi-arabia-grants-citizenship-hong-kong-robot-sophia-rights)

3.        http://www.agsiw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Aldosari_Womens-Health_Online-1.pdf

Anna ChesskyComment