After allowing women to drive Saudi Arabia steers toward anti-harassment laws, fatwa rights

After allowing women to drive Saudi Arabia steers toward anti-harassment laws, fatwa rights
After a royal decree allowing women to drive in the conservative kingdom, Saudi Arabia now steers toward tackling sexual harassment and allowing women to issue fatwas
4 min read
29 September, 2017
Saudi women are nonetheless far from achieving equal rights and freedoms [AFP]
Saudi Arabia is preparing a draft law to combat sexual harassment and help protect women from perpetrators, the latest in a string of recent "progressive" moves in the conservative kingdom this week.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz ordered the move to begin criminalising sexual harassment on Thursday, local reports said, just two days after a royal decree announced a historic and unprecedented law allowing women to drive for the first time in the kingdom's 87 years.

"Considering the dangers sexual harassment poses and its negative impact on the individual, the family and society, along with its contradiction of Islamic principles, our customs and traditions [...], the ministry shall prepare a draft law to tackle sexual harassment," a copy of the royal decree that has been circulating online, said.

The decree goes on to note the "importance of passing a law that criminalises it [sexual harassment] and outlines the necessary penalties that categorically prohibit such acts and deter anyone who feels tempted to commit them."

The king ordered the interior minister to draft a law that criminalises sexual harassment and enforces penalties on perpetrators within the next 60 days.

But the campaign to end sexual harassment in the kingdom began years ago.

A 2014 study by a female Saudi researcher showed 78 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 48 experienced sexual harassment directly. Figures show 27 percent were subjected to verbal harassment, 26 percent faced male attempts to retrieve phone numbers; and 15 percent were physically touched.  

Meanwhile, 92 percent of respondents said they believed the issue, which goes largely unreported despite hundreds of incidents recorded and posted online, was increasing in the kingdom.

One video circulating this week apparently shows a girl being harassed during Saudi Arabia's National Day celebrations on September 23.

The latest move is just one of a number of royal attempts to re-shape Saudi Arabia's social customs and perspectives on women, who are largely restricted due to the kingdoms male guardianship.

On Friday, the strict Shura Council ruled women are now allowed to issue Islamic fatwas for the first time in the country's history, after demands by female members in March.

The move was approved by 107 votes and ends decades of only specialist men being able to issue fatwas in the kingdom, Arab News reported. 

The female muftis are to be chosen by a royal decree.

'Historic day'

It follows a historic announcement on Tuesday which allowed women to drive in the kingdom for the first time, after more than 20 years of campaigning and scrutiny from the international community.

Leading Saudi campaigner, Manal al-Sharif, who steered the Women2Drive movement before being jailed for nine days, hailed the “historic” move and vowed to return to Saudi Arabia to become the first woman to drive on its streets.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times in June, she recounted how she narrowly avoided a public whipping for her driving exploits.

"I was threatened - imams wanted me to be publicly lashed - and monitored and harassed," she wrote. "I was pushed out of my job. After that, I had to move from my home. 

"Without a safe place to work or live, with other Saudis calling for my death, I had no choice but to leave the only country I had ever known.

"I had driven with the hope of freeing women in Saudi society - and by freeing women, I also hoped to free men," she added.

Saudi Arabia, which officially practices an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women.

Under the country's guardianship system, a male family member - normally the father, husband or brother - must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.

The lifting of the ban on women driving joins a long list of previous prohibitions in Saudi Arabia such as women appearing in the media, satellite television and music.    

The support of the powerful clerics, who hold influence in the judiciary and education sectors, throws out years of religious edicts from the country's Islamic thinkers and risks giving the impression the clerics answer blindly to the rulers.