The need for anti-sexual harassment laws in Saudi Arabia

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Khaled Al-Qahtani

SEXUAL harassment is a global phenomenon that affects millions of men and women psychologically. Worldwide, one in three women has experienced either physical or sexual violence or both of them, and less than 40 percent of them have reached out for help of any kind. A study on a sample of Saudi women aged between 18 to 48 revealed that 78 percent have been subjected to sexual harassment, ranging from being physically touched to “tarqim”, passing on a phone number. The figure increased by 11.6 percent in 2016 compared to 2014. Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice announced that there were 3,982 reported cases in 2014 – 2015, an average of six cases per day.

Different countries have laws that oppose sexual harassment. However, Saudi Arabia remains one of the few countries in the world without any anti-sexual harassment laws. Harassers, if reported, are punished differently depending on the case, witnesses and the court, without following a general law when assessing the case.

In the past few years, videos of women being harassed have gone viral on social media, making them one of the main factors that have contributed to the demand for anti-sexual harassment laws, as Saudis expressed anger and shock in seeing them. The Shoura Council’s Social Affairs Committee studied a new draft on an anti-harassment law in 2014. The draft considered all types of sexual harassment as crimes that violate the safety of members of society. Harassers would be fined SR500,000 and serve a sentence up to five years. The draft law was seen as a courageous attempt to stop harassment. The discussion of the draft was eventually postponed and it has still not taken place.

However, the opponents of the suggested law thought it would encourage the mixing between men and women, which is an issue facing many of the proposed laws in Saudi Arabia. The opponents apparently do not realize that the workforce in Saudi Arabia has witnessed a 130 percent increase in the number of working Saudi women, and their safety and comfort are not guaranteed since Saudi Arabia occupies third place in sexual harassment in workplaces.

Moreover, we are still unaware of the real number of victims. Many cases go unreported because women fear the consequences they may face, which include them being viewed negatively by family members and by society. This only serves to encourage harassers. In fact, 92 percent of the women polled in a recent study in Saudi Arabia found that sexual harassment is increasing due to the absence of proper punishment.

Regardless of this increase, existence of harassment is persistently denied in our society due to what is termed the “adherence to Islamic values.” Even if it is admitted to exist, it is immediately compared to cases in Western countries, without acknowledging the significant increase of sexual harassment rates and the culture of silencing victims. Therefore, the legislation of anti-harassment laws that defend the rights of victims and provide punishment for harassers is essential.

Khaled Al-Qahtani

The writer is a student at King Abdulaziz Model Schools, Tabuk


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