Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Saudi Arabia
Journalist and Women’s Rights Activist; Online Editor for Al Arabiya; Saudi Arabia
Even though reliable statistics on levels of sexual harassment and abuse in Saudi Arabia are difﬁcult to ﬁnd, it is clear that they are major problems. Segregation and severe
sexual repression fuel sexual harassment and, the patriarchal nature of society and
lack of political and economic empowerment for women exacerbate the situation. A
troubling dimension of sexual harassment in the Kingdom is widespread sexual abuse
by male relatives. According to Sohila Zain Ulabdin, a member of the National Society
for Human Rights, a Saudi human rights advocacy NGO:
Those harmed by harassment and rape by relatives at different ages are often the minors or young girls of divorced mothers. The problem usually begins with the father
obtaining custody of the girls. The father himself becomes the ﬁrst to abuse them,
followed by brothers, then more distant relatives, and there are even cases of rape
and pregnancy, whereupon the girl may be tried and imprisoned. The abusive male
is rarely punished, unless it happens to be a case drawing attention, whereupon the
criminal is jailed for a short period, then returns to carry out his crimes again.
On the Bright Side of Things
Despite all the aforementioned negative aspects of Saudi women’s experience, there
are several positive developments to note, though they are few and far between. First
is the increasing role of women in civil society, as evidenced by activist efforts to open
pro-women’s rights organizations, the establishment of a mobile center for reporting
sexual harassment, and the launch of a program to confront violence against women
and children. These developments hint at a
substantial shift in the character and agenda
of Saudi civil society. The shift began with the
approval of the creation of the Saudi Journalists’ Syndicate in 2003, followed by a March
9, 2004 royal decree to establish the National
Institution for Human Rights, and continued
with another decree on Sept. 12, 2005 to set
up the Saudi Committee for Human Rights.
However, the size and role of these organizations remain hostage to the problems
within Saudi society. For instance, charities comprise some of the oldest and strongest
organizations in Saudi civil society, and are mostly led by women. Yet these are publicinterest organizations, and while some of them provide services like shelter to victims
of domestic violence, they are still far from ﬁrmly standing up for women’s rights.
Their autonomy is also subject to the passage of legislation.
There are also a number of instances, albeit sporadic, of Saudi women rising to
prominence in various ﬁelds. Dr. Nora al-Nahed, a professor of family and community
medicine, was named the director of the UN Population Fund’s ofﬁce for the Gulf region, headquartered in Oman. In the ﬁnancial sector, Lubna Olayan is the chief executive of Olayan Financing, and is on the board of several other leading companies. Time
magazine listed her as one of the world’s 100 most inﬂuential people in 2005, and the
Arabic-language Forbes magazine ranked her as the most powerful businesswoman in
the Arab world. Olayan is an active participant in the annual World Economic Forum,
co-chairing it in 2005, and is one of the trustees of the Arab Thought Foundation.
Another obstacle facing Saudi women is their virtual banishment from performing in or attending the arts, theater and sports. A Saudi woman performed on stage
for the ﬁrst time in Riyadh in 2005, while Saudi women ﬁrst sat in the audience
during a men’s theatrical performance at an academic institution in 2006. However,
these bursts of activism remain sporadic, and hardly represent the crystallization of a
changed cultural view of the relationship between women and the arts.
Although women in Saudi Arabia are banned from forming sports clubs, this does
not stop them from ﬁnding creative ways to take part in sporting events. For instance,
Saudi women travel to neighboring countries to cheer on the national soccer team, and
locally, female students in Saudi cities can celebrate soccer victories or other events as
long as they still observe the strict dress code, of course. However, these are only faint
glimmers of hope that barely distract from the structural crisis that Saudi women face.
The problems still facing women in Saudi Arabia are overwhelming and multifaceted,rooted in, and perpetuated by tribal, cultural and religious dynamics. A sad irony is
that women outnumber men in Saudi universities, yet are unable to use their talents
for economic empowerment and independence. As more Saudis and foreigners press
for reform, perhaps that faint glimmer of hope will grow into a ray of light for the next
generation of Saudi women