The answer to this question can, in part, be found in the institutionalized nature of the Islamic Republic as well as the regime’s externalization of the crisis, ruthlessness, and pragmatism.
Before Saudi Arabia began working to open up the country in 2016, social media was consumed by debate over the implications of social relaxation, particularly considering opening cinemas or allowing women to drive. Saudis were divided between those who considered social relaxation harmless and others who argued that it would lead to incidents of sexual harassment. At that time, the religious police monitored public spaces and maintained gender segregation to prevent what they deemed “immoral” acts and behaviors. Additionally, religious scholars were vocal against proposed anti-harassment laws, arguing that they would pave the way for increased gender mixing. Since the launch of Vision 2030, with the increased social opening and curbing of the powers of the religious police, there has been a rise of reports on social media of harassment during events and concerts. To address concerns over harassment, Saudi leaders have issued several laws and regulations to establish expectations for public behavior in order to allow for a broader social opening.
Opposition to Anti-Harassment Laws
Saudi religious scholars and conservatives have long opposed introducing anti-harassment measures. Much of the opposition has centered on the belief that introducing an anti-harassment law would be a “cover to legalize gender mixing” and normalize relationships between sexes outside of marriage. Moreover, religious scholars expressed concerns that introducing such measures would be adhering to Western norms and regulations that they view as abominable regarding the treatment of women. They stressed that maintaining Islamic sharia law would prevent such incidents. Despite the active work of the religious police and the continued enforcement of gender segregation pre-2016, reports of harassment often appeared on social media and in local newspapers. Such coverage would regularly reinvigorate the discussion of the need for an anti-harassment law to deter such acts.
In 2013, Saudi Arabia approved the Protection Against Abuse law aiming to tackle two pressing issues at the same time: domestic abuse and sexual harassment. The law addressed the rising number of domestic abuse cases reported across the kingdom. Moreover, a widely covered campaign launched by the King Khalid Foundation paved the way for the introduction and normalization of measures against domestic violence. At the same time, the Ministry of Labor’s efforts to allow women to work in mixed gender environments, such as shopping malls, led to increased reports of sexual harassment in the workplace. As a result, the new law was a compromise – it did not upset those against implementing a specific anti-harassment law, but it did try to tackle harassment, though under the pretext of treating it as a subset of “abuse.” However, the new law did not deter domestic abuse as the guardianship system was still in effect putting further constraints on reporting abuses, especially in cases when the alleged abuser was the guardian. It was also ineffective at preventing sexual harassment, which led Saudi commentators to argue that a specific anti-harassment law was still necessary to fully combat harassment.
Constraining Public Behavior While Relaxing Social Life
The move to curb the powers of the religious police in April 2016 was a necessary step toward opening up the country and allowing various social and entertainment events to take place without interference. However, as expectations were unclear when concerts were first permitted, authorities and event organizers tried to regulate social behavior to deter public criticism. For example, event organizers asked attendees at the beginning of concerts to refrain from dancing or included such rules on concert tickets. However, videos of Saudi women enjoying the new social openness, even if fully veiled, continued to stir public debate and criticism against social relaxation. The frequency of such incidents pushed the state to attempt to regulate public behavior by announcing the public decency law in 2019. Like other laws before, it does not clearly specify what is considered appropriate behavior but rather stresses the importance of considering the appropriate behavior or dress for a specific place. This has resulted in many inconsistencies as the law can apply to some settings and not others and can be enforced, for example, on citizens but not foreigners. The public decency law was not meant to deter harassment but to regulate social behavior to reflect positively on the state’s image during its transitional phase.
Introducing Anti-Harassment Measures
In May 2018, Saudi Arabia began criminalizing sexual harassment. The measure came less than a month before the lifting of the ban on women driving. While the new anti-harassment law was considered an important achievement, it did not include details on how harassment should be reported. A Shura Council member argued there was a sense of hastiness that led to adopting the new law without incorporating a clear mechanism on how to report abuses. The law was also interestingly subject to considerable debate initially since the first prominent case was against a woman after she hugged a male singer on stage at a concert. This came across as ironic as the vast majority of harassment cases profiled on social media and publicly reported have been perpetrated by men. On the other hand, there were also commentators who deemed the case a “full-fledged sexual harassment incident against a man,” as it was described in one Saudi newspaper.
Harassment-related debates regarding taking tougher measures, such as naming and shaming offenders, have persisted. After the announcement of the anti-harassment law in 2018, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior stated that defamation would not be enforced. Furthermore, the Shura Council refused in early 2020 to include naming and shaming on the list of punishments under the anti-harassment law but agreed to those amendments later that year. In early January 2021, the kingdom announced an amendment to the anti-harassment law that included publishing the name and sentence of offenders convicted of harassment in local newspapers. During the celebration of Saudi Arabia’s national day in September 2021, images and videos of women being harassed spread widely on social media, prompting the Ministry of Interior to tweet a reminder of the anti-harassment law. During the December 2021 MDLBeast music festival there was a spike in reports of harassment, despite the organizer’s attempt to warn against it on their social media accounts. Videos spread on social media showing men repeatedly touching female attendees inappropriately. Such frequent incidents, combined with limited measures to deter harassment, cast a negative light on certain entertainment events. Moreover,videos from these events have driven public debate about the need to take tougher measures against harassment even while acknowledging the benefits of opening up the country. On January 9, local and regional media for the first time published the full name of a Saudi man from Medina charged with sexual harassment by detailing his crime, fine, and prison sentence. Not all offenders will be named, as judges will be left to determine appropriate punishments.
Trial and Error
The ambiguity of recent laws has allowed commentators and lawyers to provide their own interpretations of regulations to the public. Lawyers and commentators have repeatedly debated the appropriate length of shorts for men and others have said that decent attire for women is left for society to determine. Shortly after the release of the name of the Saudi offender, a television show hosted a Saudi lawyer to comment on the incident and further explain the anti-harassment law. The lawyer warned that asking for someone’s social media account can be qualified as a form of harassment. This further fueled criticism and ambiguity regarding the new laws.
These anti-harassment regulations come at a time when Saudi Arabia is working on legal reforms to codify its laws more broadly and create a more appealing environment for foreigners to live in the country. They additionally demonstrate an acknowledgment of the existence of sexual harassment, which some Saudi commentators have previously dismissed. The new regulations on harassment and public decency also show the kingdom’s attempt to fill the vacuum left by the religious police, while also establishing a public understanding of the appropriate behavior expected from Saudi citizens as part of the social opening. While the public decency law has been designed to regulate social behavior in a way that reflects positively on the state’s image, and in theory, perhaps, reduces the prospect of behavior that increases harassing behavior, the anti-harassment law is meant to regulate public behavior among individuals in society and is aimed directly at culprits engaging in such actions. However, the different laws that have been introduced in the past few years show the complexity of striking a balance between opening up the country and curbing harassment.
This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2022, “Expanding Regional Partnerships for Security and Prosperity,” held on November 17, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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