In September 2019, Saudi Arabia began enforcing a public decency law, consisting of 19 violations – actions that the government deemed inappropriate social behavior. The law provides an alternative means to regulate public behavior in the wake of the curtailment of the religious police. But it also represents an attempt to reshape public identity in the absence of that religious authority. Nonetheless, the law continues to generate debate a year after its implementation. The use of the term “public decency” has opened the door for wider public scrutiny – often still on religious terms – on what is considered appropriate behavior. This public policing usually unfolds on social media and is not limited to behavior included in the law itself. In fact, the debate on decency has become an umbrella to critique aspects of social reforms, especially those pertaining to women’s empowerment as well as its impact on identity and cultural norms.
One area where the decency law has come into tension with government policy is the expansion of women in the workforce. The government has been encouraging women to work in domains that were previously reserved for men as a way to address the unemployment crisis, which has been more acute among females. The recent social relaxation has helped increase women’s participation in the workforce, especially in bigger cities that have been the focal points of social and economic transformations. In 2019, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development introduced labor regulation amendments stating that, “it is not allowed to discriminate between workers on the basis of gender, disability, age or any other forms of discrimination whether in work, employment or advertising on the vacancy.” As a result, news stories have celebrated women breaking into traditionally male jobs, with headlines such as the first Saudi women working on car waxing or repairs and the first female cab driver.
These changes, however, haven’t been received with equal enthusiasm across the kingdom. Debates over what is considered appropriate jobs for women have sprung up twice in the past few months in the city of Taif. In July, a photo taken of a woman working as a waitress sparked social media debate, even though women work in restaurants and cafes in other parts of the country. When the story went viral, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development intervened by penalizing the cafe. The widely circulated photo shows the waitress fully covered, so the penalty was not for violating the dress code but for hiring a Saudi woman to wait tables. The move was in conflict with the new gender discrimination rules, demonstrating how public opinion is still able to influence the ministry’s action and hinder its work in expanding women’s employment. In September, a video of a woman working as a barber went viral and provoked mixed reactions between those who considered the job inappropriate and others who supported it. Different regions in the kingdom are on different social trajectories, which might hinder women’s employment in some locations under the pretext of decency but not in others.
These regional variations in social norms have proved even more problematic in the holy cities. In February, a female rapper from Mecca released a video during the height of musical events and concerts across the country. The video, shot in a cafe, is about how the singer is proud of being a woman from Mecca, hence the title “Mecca Girl.” The video was widely circulated on social media and received a number of negative reactions, including charges that it violated public decency. Some Saudis argued that the song was inappropriate and not representative of women from the holy city. Others countered that the decency issue is being used as a guise for deeper racist views due to the rapper’s African origin. In response to the brief detention of the singer, the spokesman of Mecca province said the authorities had the right to intervene to preserve Mecca’s identity. The decency argument has thus become central to the pushback against change affecting social and cultural norms.
There have been other inconsistencies in the enforcement of public decency laws. Visitors to shopping malls and parks are often subject to closer scrutiny, while those frequenting concerts and other tourist attractions are more often exempt from it. This speaks to the challenge of diversifying the economy (which relies on tourism and entertainment) while maintaining more conservative standards in other places.
Early in September, luxury cruises started operating between King Abdullah Economic City in Jeddah and Sindalah Island, off the coast of the Neom project. When reaching Sindalah Island, guests’ phones are placed in special cases so that they cannot take photos. Since the island is a beach destination, banning photos seems to be a way to avoid debate on social media regarding potential violations of the decency law. Similarly, in the 2000s camera phones were banned, albeit unsuccessfully, to prevent people from taking photos of others. While taking photos of others without their consent is a violation of Article 19 of the public decency law, it seems that actively preventing photos from being taken on Sindalah Island is an extra effort to stave off public debate on social media.
The contestation over appropriate attire doesn’t just apply to women. In fact, the most violations recorded since the law’s implementation have been against men for violating Article 9, which forbids wearing indoor sleepwear in public. Article 8 of the law states that wearing “inappropriate clothing in public spaces is a violation determined by place” without providing specific guidance. For locals, this can be very problematic because there are different views of what is appropriate. The Public Decency Association, which was launched in 2015 to provide guidance on decency and public taste but is not authorized to enforce the law, encourages different facilities and public spaces to specify what they consider an appropriate dress code. This would allow various venues to form their own regulations, potentially leading to more inconsistency and social debate.
For foreign visitors, the law does provide a guide for appropriate clothing. Some Saudi women have argued that the guide for foreign visitors should also apply to them, an argument used by a woman who attempted to enter a mall in Riyadh. She showed the guide to the security personnel but was nevertheless refused entry. The episode generated much debate on social media, highlighting tensions regarding the differentiation between Saudis and foreigners. A Saudi lawyer pointed this out as a flaw in the system violating the country’s Basic Law. Moreover, photos of foreigners not abiding by the dress code have also fueled public debate and widened the foreigner versus local divide.
The decency debate coinciding with the push to open up the country has generated mixed expectations of Saudi behavior and identity. For example, the Ministry of Tourism’s annual report states that “the local population’s lack of mixing with other cultures has limited the private sector’s ability to attract tourism.” When a semiofficial Twitter account tweeted this excerpt (later deleted) it was considered critical of Saudi citizens for not being cosmopolitan enough. Some Saudis saw the tweet as an attempt to direct blame away from the ministry’s own failure to attract foreign visitors. Others have argued that preserving local culture and heritage is valuable for potential tourists. While unique cultural and social traditions might attract more tourists, the ministry’s statement seems to suggest that the local population in certain places is responsible for the lack of tourism in the country.
The emphasis on the importance of Arab and Islamic identity is mentioned in Vision 2030 and also in Saudi Arabia’s new textbooks. The spokesman of the Public Decency Association said in response to violations committed during Saudi Arabia’s National Day that “we are a Muslim and a conservative country … and the Saudi identity is derived from religion and should be respected.” The diversification plans seem to rely on profound expectations for social change. However, the vast and variegated nature of Saudi Arabia makes it difficult to create a hybrid identity that is both modern and traditional at the same time. As a result, the social dimension of change will continue to navigate a bumpy road, especially as it generates tensions and debate over the issue of decency.
When religious figures were dominant with regard to sociocultural dynamics, issues concerning decency were usually resolved by these figures as they had authority over the enforcement of social norms. Now, the pyramid is in many ways inverted, and the public is contributing to and shaping the discussion on appropriateness and preserving Islamic identity. It seems that the state is betting that the tensions will be resolved with time. However, the transition might not be smooth as public pushback has already influenced government entities on various issues. As the country is racing to implement its diversification plans, the debate on decency will continue to present an obstacle to change, especially when attempting to balance between the modern image Saudi Arabia wants to promote and the traditional one it wants to preserve.