Kholoud Al-Qadi, who has persistently called for protecting Saudi women from sexual harassment, did not expect to be harassed herself one day. She was at a perfume shop located in a renowned market north of Jeddah when the shopkeeper looked at her and did an obscene gesture.
Al-Qadi immediately filed a complaint at the labor office and the police. She has also shared what happened to her on Twitter, where she has some 33,000 followers.
What Al-Qadi was subject to is commonplace in the ultra-conservative Kingdom. In different areas and in the same week, the Riyadh police arrested four people who were accused of child molesting. Another man was arrested in the same city for sexually harassing a maid, having shared a video of the incident on the internet.
Shelved harassment law
For over a decade, Saudi women have complained about sexual harassment and called for a law to criminalize it. Religious officials, however, have prevented such a law from being enacted.
Since 2008, a draft law on sexual harassment has been shelved by the Saudi Shura Council (parliament). The bill was referred to the Islamic and Judicial Affairs Committee after MPs said it contradicted the monarchy's sex-segregation concept. The law has not moved forward ever since.
Legal advisor Ahmed Al-Rashed says critics of the law believe that gender mixing is more dangerous than harassment. "For over ten years there has always been someone who stands against the harassment law," he told Raseef22. "But Saudi Arabia has been changing a lot over the past few months, and this resistance has grown weaker."
Sources from the parliament told Raseef22 that the bill, should it be passed, will make punishable any form of harassment as long as it insults, provokes or patronizes women.
Last September, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree ordering the enactment of a law that effectively deters and defines harassment, though it remains unknown when such legislation will actually be effective.
A Reuters survey of 24 countries indicates that Saudi Arabia had the third highest sexual harassment rate
"I've accepted a lot because I couldn't find a job easily. But when my manager asked me to go to his apartment, that was one step too far."
Rampant sexual harassment
Ten months ago, a group of young men in the city of Khobar, east of the country, were arrested for harassing two girls, before being sentenced to weeks in jail and to lashes at the same place where they molested the girls.
Shortly afterward, more cases of harassment were reported in the small city whose population is below 0.6 million, as well as in Dammam, Riyadh, Taif, and Jeddah, according to the General Authority for Statistics. In fact, Jeddah witnessed one of the most famous cases when over 20 men molested two girls who were strolling along the coastline.
Every time a video of a harassment incident goes viral, it is followed by calls for a law to punish harassers. In some cases, sexual harassers were beaten up by their female victims, though human rights activists are demanding sanctions, not street justice.
Al-Rashed explained that the way harassment cases are perceived in courts varies widely from one judge to another; some would think it is a grave crime while others would blame female victims for being indecent.
The punishment is, therefore, drastically inconsistent. Ten years ago, a couple of teenagers who molested two girls in Riyadh's Al-Nahda Park were sentenced to 12 years in prison each. More recently, the men who harassed the girls on Jeddah's coast received four-month jail terms.
"This is the core of the problem," lawyer Abdullah Al-Rujeb told Raseef22. "We are the only nation that has no law on harassment." Harassment might not even be considered a crime from a legal standpoint, he explained, reiterating that judges rule in such cases on their own accord. "We're waiting for a law to be enacted, and hopefully it will be clear and come with harsh punishments because the situation is unbearable."
Raseef22 has gathered many painful stories of women who were harassed, including that of Nawal A. who used to work for a private company in Dammam, east of Saudi Arabia. Her relationship with her manager seemed normal until she noticed that he was being too nice to her. He would often ask for one-on-one meetings with her in the office, and would still call her a lot beyond working hours.
Nawal was annoyed by his attitude but did not take action. "I've swallowed a lot because I couldn't find a job easily," she said. "But when my manager asked me to go to his apartment, that was beyond logic. I had to do something at this moment, especially that he told me I can either accept his offer or leave."
That was three years ago, yet it still leaves a bitter taste, Nawal said. "When I told my mother about what happened, she blamed me and stressed that I tell no one else so that my sisters wouldn't lose their jobs either," she recalls. "When I went to the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, they asked me to accept his offer so they can arrest him [while the two are in his apartment], or they won't be able to do anything."
Nawal was not as courageous as Kholoud Al-Qadi; she eventually decided to quit her job and just seek to forget the whole situation. Nawal's decision was a typical reaction, according to human rights activist Reem Al-Amoudi. "There is usually fear of how the male relatives would react [to confessions of sexual harassment], which urges women to remain tight-lipped," she told Raseef22.
"In a society that blames harassment on women, a victim cannot file an official complaint because she will further suffer... this has encouraged harassers until harassment has become rampant."
Harassers' sense of entitlement
The majority of harassers do not realize they actually commit a crime by harassing women, according to Mohamed Al-Ateeq, a sociology professor at King Saud University. "The way men are raised and the idea that women are like candies that have to be covered, which religious figures uphold to blame women for any morality deteriorations, caused teenagers to believe they have the right to harass women," he told Raseef22.
Sohila Zein Al-Abydeen, a prominent female member of the governmental National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), said "unfortunately, the society blames women for everything", adding that a law on harassment would not only protect women in public spaces but also in workplaces.
A survey reported by Reuters seven years ago indicated that Saudi Arabia had the third highest sexual harassment rate in workplaces among 24 countries.
According to the survey, in which 12,000 female employees from all 24 states partook, 16 percent of the working women in Saudi Arabia were harassed by their managers. The monarchy's harassment rate was much higher than in the other countries included in the survey, such as the US, France, Sweden, Germany, Italy, the UK, Australia and Spain.
According to a report released by the NSHR in 2016, there were more than 4,000 harassment cases in Saudi Arabia. The Justice Ministry said it looked into 2797 cases in the same year, and 3416 cases in 2015.
"If we add verbal harassment incidents, the harassment cases will exceed a million per year," lawyer Abdullah Al-Ghafis told Raseef22. "Actually in some cases, verbal harassment can be worse than molestation."