By Anahita Hossein-Pour, Staff Writer
The extent of sexual harassment in Saudi Arabia is beginning to be unveiled in an array of online video uploads, drawing attention to the lack of protection and respect Saudi’s women face in their everyday lives.
Last month, a video uploaded on social media demonstrating the sexual harassment of women on the streets of Jeddah sparked domestic outrage and international attention. The video now has over 1.7 million views of the two women encircled by a large group of men, who jeered and blocked the women’s pathway.
In a country where gender equality is not guaranteed by its Basic Law, the video sparked public debate online over the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, some refusing to accept the negative attitudes and treatment women consistently face. In an article written soon after the video upload, Saudi journalist Khaled Almaeena claimed harassment is a ‘social menace.’ He sourced the root of the problem in the ‘cultural barriers that segregate the men from the women within the family…young men in this society are not brought up to respect women in their own homes.’
Whilst many support Almaeena in his calls for better religious education in morality and the need for anti-harassment laws, there is another side to this debate…
More footage later uploaded, showed the two women before the incident, riding a quad bike along the promenade and the past the group of men- one throwing a traditional Saudi Arabian male headpiece over her head (an agal). These acts have turned some attitudes towards blaming the two women for provoking the harassment due to their ‘indecent’ behaviour.
In an ultra-conservative country where unmarried men and women are prohibited from socially mixing, judicial adviser Yehia al-Shahrani referred to the women’s actions as ‘seductive and tempting’ on Sabq- the state’s news website. In these circumstances, al-Shahrani saw it unjust to solely investigate the men ‘without taking the same deserved action against those who seduced and aroused this to happen.’ The judicial advisor also pointed the finger at the women’s parents for allowing their daughters to even be in a public space around young men.
Attitudes such as this only devalues the crime, justifying these men’s actions and furtherly maintains women as Saudi’s second class citizens.
Despite the country’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000, clauses that go against Saudi’s Islamic laws are not upheld. Sexual harassment has no legal definition or specific law to address the problem, arguably consolidating the frequency and acceptance of it in everyday life.
Saudi women’s rights activist Tamador Alyami told the Associated Press (AP), that harassment is ‘expected and accepted. That’s how common it is. It only makes controversy when it’s caught on camera.’ This video certainly did put harassment in a controversial spotlight, resulting in some positive action to be taken- 112 surveillance cameras to be installed in the area the incident occurred.
Other previous incidents of sexual harassment caught on camera have also been dealt with in a variety of ways. Another video uploaded the same month as this Jeddah incident, showed a young woman walking alone in Taif, being followed and groped by two men. AP reported the police arrested the young men following the incident, despite there being no reporting of the incident by the young woman or her family. 2013 also saw the arrests and flogging of young men present in another viral video, harassing a group of young women at a shopping mall.
These gestures do not compensate for the lack of specific legislation to deal with the issue. Potential legal progress took a step back this year when draft legislation for a specific sexual harassment law was dropped. The draft law was likely to carry a fine of at least 20,000 SAR and up to one year imprisonment according to the Ministry of Justice. This included verbal, physical and sexual assault.
Instead of responding the pressure of Saudi’s online community, increasing footage and reports, some members of the Consultative Assembly decided to put the draft aside. They argued the law would encourage more mixing between men and women, and women may start acting more provocatively.
Without sexual harassment laws, prosecution for such acts remains unclear- down to judicial interpretation and application of other Islamic or public disorder codes. For the time being, it seems these viral videos will continue to stir only public discussion rather than action.
Another viral video was uploaded last week of a woman hitting a potential harasser with a broom. This video holds a comical aspect alongside a serious reality, that women are being left to fend for themselves in a society where there is not even law to help them.
It is crucial for international and domestic pressure to continue and for these proposals to come back on the agenda. Saudi Arabia must enforce a law that will erode the social norm of sexual harassment, and prioritise women’s rights.