Less than month before it is scheduled to lift the draconian ban preventing women from driving, the government of Saudi Arabia approved measures to outlaw sexual harassment – a problem that, much like everywhere else, appears prevalent in the world’s most gender-segregated nation.
The Shura Council, which acts as the conservative kingdom’s formal consultative body and advises the cabinet, approved the anti-harassment law drafted by the Interior Ministry on King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s instructions, according to the BBC.
The objectives of the bill, which should have been put forward a good while ago, include “fighting the crime of harassment, preventing it, punishing perpetrators and protecting victims in order to preserve the privacy, dignity and individual freedoms as guaranteed by Islamic jurisprudence and regulations in place.”
According to the newly-approved measures, those who commit the crime of harassment can face up to two years in prison or a fine worth $26,600 or both. If the crime is repeated, the prison sentence can be extended to five years while the fine can be increased to $80,000.
Aiding in harassment and falsely reporting an incident would also be punishable under the new law.
In addition to that, public and private institutions are required to make necessary arrangements to prevent harassment.
“[This bill] is a very important addition to the history of regulations in the kingdom,” Shura Council member Latifa al-Shaalan said in statement by the information ministry. “It fills a large legislative vacuum, and it is a deterrent.”
While the bill purports the identity of the alleged victim will be kept confidential and specifies that harassment complaints cannot be withdrawn – presumably to keep the harassers from pressuring their victims, it also has some vague aspects.
For instance, it criminalizes “incitement to sexual harassment.” The thing is, determining if the victim somehow “provoked” the suspect into harassing them is called victim-blaming. Not too long ago, a controversial Saudi preacher set off a social media firestorm after sharing a thread of tweets that suggested "women instigate men to rape and assault them."
Moreover, what about punishing those who witness harassment but either don’t report or choose to conceal it?
The anti-harassment law comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is facing criticism for detaining women’s rights activists and branding them as traitors simply for their activism.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS) is often credited with bringing about the long-overdue reforms and, to some extent, he is indeed responsible for the progress but calling him a reformer could be a stretch because he is certainly not all those things.
Just recently, under MBS' de-facto leadership, at least 11 human rights activists, most of them women who led the campaign against the driving ban, were arrested. In addition to arresting the activists without providing details of their supposed offenses, Saudi authorities have also denied them access to lawyers.
Thumbnail/Banner Credits: Reuters, Faisal Al Nasser