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Saudi Arabia Accused of Giving a Female Robot More Rights Than Women

After Saudi Arabia became the first country in the world to grant a robot citizenship this week, critics were quick to point out that Saudi women are still denied basic rights and dignities under the country's notorious guardianship system.
Image courtesy of Saudi CIC

This week, Saudi Arabia became the first country in the world to grant citizenship to a robot. Named Sophia, the robot was announced as a Saudi citizen at the Future Investment Initiative summit on Wednesday in Riyadh by CNBC anchor and panel moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin. "I'd like to thank very much the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Sophia said to the audience from behind a podium. "I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction."


Sophia was created by Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong and first activated in April of 2015. She is a white woman robot whose human-like appearance is almost completely believable when she's wearing a wig. Her "skin" stops just after her forehead and behind her ears, exposing mechanics where we humans have brains. On its webpage dedicated to Sophia, the robotics company offers a meticulous description of her appearance unlike that of her fellow "male" robots: "Designed to look like Audrey Hepburn, Sophia embodies Hepburn's classic beauty: porcelain skin, a slender nose, high cheekbones, an intriguing smile, and deeply expressive eyes that seem to change color with the light." Since her activation, Sophia has become quite the accomplished machine, appearing on the cover of Elle Brazil and on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. She's even had a high-profile feud with billionaire Elon Musk, a staunch critic of artificial intelligence who's warned that the technology could lead to the next world war.

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Inside the King Abdullah International Conference Center where the summit took place, Sophia's citizenship announcement was met with cheers and applause. Once news spread, however, many of Sophia's fellow Saudi citizens were less enthused. Some claimed that the robot was already being granted rights that actual Saudi women do not have. For one, Sophia presented to a large group of men dressed in neither a headscarf nor an abaya, the traditionally black loose-fitting garment worn by Saudi women. In the past, Saudi women have been arrested for so much as posting a picture of themselves without these garments on.


On Twitter, women wondered where Sophia's male guardian was and if she was required to have one as all Saudi women are under the country's guardianship system. Following the announcement on Wednesday, the hashtag #صوفيا_تطالب_باسقاط_الولايه or #sophia_demands_that_guardianship_be_dropped gained traction. "I want to become Sophia one day and get my rights," tweeted one Saudi woman under the hashtag.

Others condemned the country for granting citizenship to a robot when its citizenship laws for humans remain extremely strict and are criticized by human rights organizations globally. Women who are citizens of Saudi Arabia cannot pass on their nationality to their children or their spouses. Further, the KSA has a history of treating its population of over 9 million foreign workers very poorly, refusing them citizenship and the ability to leave the country freely.

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Broadly reached out to the Saudi CIC to ask whether Sophia will be held to the same legal standards that actual Saudi women are. This post will be updated with their response.

Sophia's citizenship comes at a pivotal point in Saudi Arabia's history, as the country is aiming to position itself as a world leader in lifestyle and technological advancement. In the past year, the country has relaxed its guardianship laws and announced that women will be allowed to drive beginning in the summer of 2018. Earlier this week, Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made two huge announcements: First, that he plans to return the KSA to "the moderate Islam that is open to the world," and second, that he plans to build a $500 billion mega-city called NEOM from scratch that will be unlike anything the world has ever seen. Experts have speculated that these two announcements are very much related. According to a press release provided to Broadly by Saudi Arabia's Center for International Communication (CIC), "Robotics will be a big feature of NEOM."