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Saudi Arabia introduces sexual harassment ban

May 30, 2018

The measure has been passed by the Cabinet and an advisory council, and will become law with a royal decree. The country is making some piecemeal reforms, including ending its notorious ban on women driving.

Saudi-Arabien Verschleierte Frau auf der Straße
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/K. Mohammed

Saudi Arabia passed a draft law Wednesday that criminalizes sexual harassment less than a month before the stridently conservative country is to lift a decades-old ban on women driving.

The measure, which was passed by the Shura Council, carries a maximum 5-year prison term and fine of up to 300,000 riyals ($80,000, or €70,000).

"The law is aimed at combating and preventing the crime of harassment, enforcing penalty on perpetrators, protecting victims and safeguarding the individual's privacy, dignity and freedom ensured by the Islamic sharia law," the council said in a statement.

Sexism: An everyday occurrence at work?

The council is an advisory body to the Cabinet, which already passed the measure. The bill will become law with the formal issuance of a royal decree.

Many Saudi women have expressed concern that they'll become targets for harassment once the new law allowing them to drive takes effect on June 24. The Information Ministry issued a statement quoting Shura Council member Latifa al-Shaalan's support for the law.

It is "a very important addition to the history of regulations in the kingdom," she said. "It fills a large legislative vacuum, and it is a deterrent."

Both the law against sexual harassment and the lifting of the driving ban were the impetus of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Crackdown undercuts reforms

The prince also recently lifted a long-standing ban on movie cinemas, opened the door for mixed-gender concerts and trimmed the powers of the dreaded religious police.

But the reform measures are a small piece of the puzzle in a country where apostasy remains a crime punishable by death and death sentences are typically conducted by beheading with a sword in public. They are also at risk of being eclipsed by the recent arrests of 11 rights activists, many of them identified as veteran campaigners for women's rights to drive.

Officials haven't identified those detained but have accused them of "suspicious contact with foreign parties," giving financial support to "enemies" and attempting to undermine Saudi Arabia's "security and stability."

State-backed media outlets have lashed out at some detainees, branding them traitors and "agents of embassies."

Amnesty International said at least four of the detainees were freed last week, but the rights group said the fate of the others is unclear.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement Tuesday noting the apparent contradiction of arresting advocates for women's rights while simultaneously advancing those rights.

"Given the significant loosening of certain restrictions on women's activities in Saudi Arabia... it is perplexing why both women and men engaged in campaigning for such positive developments are now being targeted by the authorities," the statement said.

It added, "If, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women's issues, they should be released immediately."

bik/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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