Sexual harassment surfaces in Saudi Arabia

Courts set to investigate thousands of cases; many more go unreported, as women are often partially blamed.

Iranian women 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Caren Firouz)
Iranian women 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Caren Firouz)
A local Saudi newspaper reported that more than 3,100 cases of sexual harassment were recorded against women in 2012. Saudi nationals were involved in 60 percent of the cases, while foreigners, mostly foreign workers, were responsible for the rest.
Of the foreigners, the largest number of cases was filed against Yemenis. The Saudi capital Riyadh had 700 cases, the largest number of any one city. Most harassment cases occur in shopping malls, one of the few places where women congregate outside their homes.
The report did not give details of what is considered harassment, and whether rape is included in these statistics.
“Most cases involve stalking and blackmail,” Eman al-Nafjan, a female blogger, told The Media Line. “Saudi Arabia is so conservative and if you even have a photo of a woman sitting in a restaurant you can use that to blackmail her for money or even sex.”
Al-Nafjan says that many cases of harassment go unreported, as women are often partially blamed for the incidents. Women are encouraged to stay home as much as possible, partly to avoid these kinds of incidents. Until recently, single men were not allowed to enter shopping malls, although that has recently changed.
“There are places here in Riyadh that I would never walk around because it’s full of men and I know I would get harassed,” Al-Nafjan said. “There are special places with security that women can go if they want to get exercise. But they go there by car, they get out and do their walking and then go home by car.”
Women’s advocates say that 700 cases among a population of five million is in line with statistics in other countries, including Western countries. The Shura Council, which makes laws in Saudi Arabia, has been considering a draft law on sexual harassment, with punishments ranging from flogging to imprisonment.
According to Saudi law, all women, regardless of age, must have a male guardian. Women cannot vote or be elected to senior political positions. King Abdullah has declared that women will be able to vote in the 2015 elections. Only about 21 percent of Saudi women are in the workforce, and only 50 percent of women over age 25 have finished their secondary school education, according to the United Nations’ Human Development Report.
Women’s rights advocates welcome the prosecution of men who sexually harass women, but they worry that religious authorities will use the new report as an excuse.
“These numbers could be used by religious authorities to say that women should not work in certain jobs,” Fawzia Al-Bakr, a sociology professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, told The Media Line. “So we have to be very careful about how this is used.”
Blogger al-Nafjan says the religious authorities have fought against codifying laws that would protect women, fearing that it would lead to inappropriate behavior.
“The ultraconservatives believe that we should not have sexual harassment laws because it will open the door to men and women mingling,” she said. “They say that if women feel safe, they will go out more which is not good.”
In Saudi Arabia, most offices, banks and universities have separate entrances for men and women to minimize mingling. Public transportation, beaches and amusement parks are also segregated. Some homes even have separate entrances for men and women.
But things are changing, even in the conservative kingdom. In 2011 several women posted videos of themselves driving in the city, which is illegal, although it is tolerated in rural areas.
“A lot of these rules are unwritten and they are a mixture of tradition and religion,” Professor Al-Bakr said. “Women have to be careful, but you do see more women walking around commercial areas. But unlike in America, you would never see a girl walking by herself to school. It would just never happen.”
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