Saudi law to crack down on rising sexual-harassment rates

Saudi law to crack down on rising sexual-harassment rates
Saudi Arabia's Shura Council will begin debating a new law designed to clamp down on perpetrators of sexual harassment in the kingdom.
3 min read
04 August, 2016
High levels of sexual harassment are prevalent throughout the kingdom [AFP]

A new Saudi law designed to crackdown on sexual harassment is expected to pass in the kingdom, as harrasment incident rates continued to increase.

The legislation is expected to tighten punishment against anyone that utters indecent words of sexual nature, threatening a five year prison sentence and a fine of up to 500,000 Saudi Riyals (approximately $133,000) against offenders.

Those found guilty of harassment will serve no less than six months in jail as well as pay a 50,000 Saudi Riyals fine, the law suggests.

It also covers crimes against children or the disabled that take place in a place of worship, businesses or educational institutions. Sexual crimes committed against those that are asleep or unconscious will also be protected by the new law.

Despite the high level of harassment incidents in the kingdom, debate around the topic has stalled for several years due to stark opposition by religious clerics that follow a strict interpretation of Islam.

The new law aims to protect privacy, personal freedom and human dignity by giving authorities the power to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.

The Saudi Shura Council will seek to identify the meaning of harassment that has been described as “all conduct of a sexual nature from one person to the other, including touching of the body, honour or modesty in any way shape or form”.

Saudi Arabia's new law, which is expected to come into force six months following the council’s approval, requires citizens and community members to report the crime should they be notified of it.

Article IV legislates all those who experienced or are made aware of harassment “must immediately report the crime”, noting “all reports would be recorded anonymously unless otherwise stipulated”.

The proposed law calls for government and non-government agencies to develop measures for the prevention of harassment, extortion and control, and provide a suitable working environment in accordance with the Islamic sharia law adopted by the kingdom.

Harassment within families was reported to be "the most prevalent type of harassment"
- Saudi Human Rights Association

It also determines the procedures for reporting the crime ad complaints while clearly outlining the procedure for investigations.

Those accused of harassment reserve the right to resort to the courts.

International human rights activist and lawyers have made repeated calls to progress laws against sexual harassment in the kingdom, calling for clearer sanctions to put an end to the crime.

In 2008 the Saudi Shura Council began studying the law but later withdrew due to pressure from religious figures that suggested a law on sexual harassment insinuates the approval of free-mixing between genders.

However, countless videos that emerged on social media over the years have forced the debate to be relaunched, with many demanding for protection.

In an annual report published by the Saudi Human Rights Association, harassment within families was reported to be "the most prevalent type of harassment," despite high figures shown in the work place.

Legal Adviser Ahmed Rashid says that cases of harassment in Saudi Arabia would be estimated at more than one million cases a year “should verbal harassment be considered an offense”.

“Even offensive speech could be seen as a harassment offence,” he told The New Arab, referring to laws in the Western world.

"It is rare for a...woman to pass by a group of young men without her being harassed, at least verbally,” Rashid said.

At the moment it is up to the discretion of the judge to decide the punishment for harassment, Rashid maintained, adding "it is essential that there be a clear system to punish the harassers due to the high level of incidents that take place.”

“From here, the enactment of the law is a matter of urgency,” he concluded.