Saudi Arabia amends anti-harassment law

Slow attrition of the male guardianship system but many issues remain

Saudi Arabia has amended its anti-sexual harassment rules to give courts the power to name and shame those found guilty by forcing them to publish the sentences against them in local media at their own expense. The state news agency on Tuesday reported:

The Cabinet approved to add a Paragraph (3) to Article (6) of Anti-harassment Crime Law, issued by Royal Decree No. (M / 96) dated 9/16/1439 AH, as follows: It is permissible to include the sentence issued determining the penalties referred to in this article and to publish its summary at the expense of the convicted person in one or more local newspapers, or in any other appropriate means, according to the gravity of the crime and its impact on society. (Original Arabic text available here)

The amendment is another victory for women’s rights advocates who fought long and hard until the original law was passed in 2018, and they hope it would offer an additional layer of protection as the number of women joining the workforce keeps increasing.

When the idea for an anti-harassment law first gained momentum in the late 2000s, there was a strong push back by clerics and other conservative segments of society. This may sound strange because you would think that protecting women would be at the core of social values that conservatives want to defend, but they argued that such a law would sanction and encourage the mixing of men and women at a time when most aspects of daily life in the country were gender-segregated.

The debate around the issue usually followed a cycle: Young men frustrated by the strict segregation resort to desperate measures to speak with women in the street or the rare spaces and moments they overlap; the incident is caught on video and sparks outrage as well as long discussions in newspapers and internet forums (no social media yet); the discussion fizzles out and attention moves to another issue. Rinse and repeat.

This column by Lubna Hussain published by Arab News in April 2005 is illustrative of that period:

It really is a sad state of affairs that in a country that claims to uphold the highest of moral values, women are subject to this source of harassment and unpleasantness on a daily basis. My daughter upon witnessing such an event declared, “Mum, I am ashamed to be Saudi.” I doubt whether there is a woman alive in this country who has not been subject to this kind of flagrantly demeaning and irresponsible behavior by men here

She continues later in the column:

Once when I had complained about this to a so-called “liberal” friend of mine, she said, “What do you expect if you go around the city with your face uncovered?” I would like to know why it is that an issue like covering your face is always so vehemently enforced in spite of the fact that it is not even mentioned in the Holy Qur’an and is still the topic of much scholarly debate and dissent. However, an important verse where God commands believers to lower their gaze is never alluded to.

Strange indeed that an uncovered face implies soliciting this kind of humiliation. What then of our sisters who are covered from head to toe? Are they spared such lascivious attention? The answer of course is a blanket “no”. If anything, I would venture to profess that they are more frequently victimized than the rest of us as they appear to represent an even greater challenge: The allure of the unknown.

Women were not appointed to the Shura Council until 2013, but some members of the advisory body, which serves as a quasi-parliament, have sought to introduce anti-harassment legislation in 2008 as the late minister Ghazi al-Gosaibi pushed for women to work in the retail sector to tackle growing female unemployment and reduce dependence on foreign labour.

Councilman Mazen Balila was among the driving forces behind that effort. “Opposing viewpoints say the proposal encourages gender mixing and that’s an unrealistic view because the proposal is general and covers men taking advantage of women or women taking advantage of men or the same gender”, he told a local newspaper in February 2010.

Resistance inside and outside the council was strong. Conservative cleric Abdulrahman al-Barrak attacked preachers who called for easing restrictions on women employment and described allowing female cashiers in supermarkets as the latest of the devil’s steps. “Haram on her, her guardian and her employer,” he said. “They are all partners in sin.” 

As a result, the draft law failed to gather enough support, but its backers have remained optimistic as the topic came back up for debate after women joined the council.

“Today, there are two changes. First, it seems that the council in its current cycle wants to live reality and legislate for reality. The council has remarkable nationally recognised figures who can add legislation to reality,” Balila wrote in April 2014. “Second, the new legislation comes after expanding the feminisation policy, opening more job opportunities for Saudi women and girls in malls, and limiting work in women’s clothing and cosmetics stores to Saudi women.”

The decision to rein in the religious police in 2016 as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began pushing a social liberalisation agenda gave women hope that the anti-sexual harassment law might not be far off, with prominent Shura councilwoman Latifah al-Shaalan urging the government to propose a draft for the council’s consideration. “Experience has taught us that any government proposal sent to the Shura Council is promptly studied and voted on within a specific timeframe without delay or procrastination,” she said. “Proposals where council members take the initiative don’t have any time limit and could take years. There are too many examples to count.”

On September 26th, 2017, King Salman issued a landmark decree to lift the ban on women driving, and three days later he ordered the interior minister to draft an anti-harassment law. The fact that the two decisions came within days from each other suggested that authorities wanted to assuage fears by some that men might harass female drivers. The draft called for prison terms of up to five years and/or fines of up to 300,000 riyals for repeat offenders. 84 out of 150 members of the Shura Council voted to pass it in late May 2018 and the cabinet approved it a few days later.

No major incidents were reported when the driving decision came into effect the following month, but the celebrations were marred by the arrests of several women’s rights activists in the preceding weeks. While the anti-harassment law was widely welcomed, it was clear that it will not single-handedly end the problem. As the #MeToo movement gained momentum everywhere, Saudi women also began using social media platforms to speak up and share their experiences with harassment and the male guardianship system.

“Saudi women complained that if they attempt to flee abuse, they can still be arrested and forcibly returned if their male family members bring a legal claim based on uquq (parental disobedience), inqiyad (submission to a guardian’s authority), or leaving the marital or guardian’s home,” Hiba Zayadin of Human Rights Watch wrote last year. “They also spoke of how when they report abuse, they are often referred to closed shelters, which they are typically not allowed to leave unless they reconcile with family members or accept an arranged marriage.”

In recent months, other decrees and court decisions have asserted the rights of women to travel without permission and live independently of their families. It is a process of slow attrition of the male guardianship system, but activists say many challenges remain and waves of crackdowns mean women are now fearful of publicly demanding more. 

Members of the Shura Council have worked to amend the anti-harassment law to name and shame the violators because they believe it would be more effective than fines and imprisonment alone. “Defamation is for the larger good of society”, councilwoman Lina Almaeena told Arab News last October. “It’s a deterrent that many countries have applied and that has proved effective in reducing harassment cases. The anti-sexual harassment law has proved effective in preventing misconduct.”

One of the first tests for the anti-harassment law came in December 2019 when hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in the desert outside Riyadh for MDL Beast, an electronic music festival that featured foreign and local DJs for three consecutive nights. Many women complained about sexual harassment at the event, and police later announced arresting more than 30 people.

Fawziah al-Bakr, one of the women who challenged the ban on driving in 1990 and currently a professor at King Saud University, described the cabinet decision approve the amendment as an “unprecedented advance” that came after a long debate. “What we have to think about is: how can we make it easy for a girl who is harassed to report it without being targeted by society or family’s anger?” she asked.

As Saudi Arabia undergoes this phase of social transformation, questions about how men and women interact and what the government is supposed to do about it, both at the workplace and in public spaces, are likely to be recurring and more pressing. 

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