No More Grabbing Them by the Camel Toe, Says Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

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Look from way Down Under
The Only Way is Up, (artistic rendering of View from a Nikab)

RIYADH. Breaking news – Saudi Arabia inched towards the 21st century earlier this week by criminalizing sexual harassment, bringing the highly conservative and oppressive Arab nation just a little closer to its Western counterparts and the rest of the developed world. Finally, many local as well as international human rights activists sighed, when the legislation was passed by the country’s Cabinet.

In trepid anticipation of lifting of the infamously patronizing, decades-long ban on women driving cars without a male chaperone – due to take place later this month – this latest move was indeed welcomed, yet frankly long overdue. In a statement released by the state Information Ministry, Latifa al-Shaalan, a female member of the Shura Council, was quoted saying: “It’s a very important addition to the history of regulations in the kingdom. It fills a large legislative vacuum and it is a deterrent.” The aforementioned Shura Council passed a draft law on Monday, later approved by the Cabinet, which will introduce a prison term of up to five years and a maximum penalty of 300,000 Riyals (USD 80,000).

The move is part of a highly publicized liberalization drive launched by President Trump’s new bestie and Middle East ally Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has clipped the powers of the feared religious police, clamped down on corruption, allowed mixed-gender concerts and ended an antiquated ban on cinemas, although – and there is always a but – this new freedom only concerns modest clean-cut films such as the Spiderman and is only available to a specific well-to-do sector of the public.

Saudi Arabia, Faith for the future
A Truly Righteous Future, (artistic rendering) for Saudi Arabian Women

Still, civil rights advocates can’t afford to heave a sigh of relief yet – these social reforms appear overshadowed by recent arrests of at least 11 activists, mostly identified by human rights groups as veteran women campaigners for the right to drive and to end the conservative country’s male guardianship system. In vague and unspecified accusations they’re said to have had “suspicious contact with foreign parties”, having provided financial support to “enemies” and attempting to undermine the kingdom’s “security and stability”. Unimaginative and damaging labels such as “traitor” and “agent of foreign embassies” have been wildly thrown around by the state media.

“Given the significant loosening of certain restrictions on women’s activities in Saudi Arabia, it is perplexing, why both women and men engaged in campaigning for such positive developments are now being targeted by the authorities,” the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said Tuesday. “If, as it appears, their detention is related solely to their work as human rights defenders and activists on women’s issues, they should be released immediately.” According to Amnesty International, four detained activists were released last week, but the fate of the others remains unclear.

Aside from the four-wheeling feminist activists, last week authorities also arrested Mohammed al-Bajadi, co-founder of the Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), one of the few independent human rights groups in Saudi Arabia, campaigners said. “The Saudi government seems so consumed with silencing dissent that even activists who have gone quiet for fear of retribution are being targeted again,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Unsurprisingly, Saudi officials have remained silent when asked and challenged about the recent crackdown.

Two steps forward, one step back. This seems to be way the Saudis slowly, not surely waltz towards acknowledging and embracing some of the of most basic human rights for its citizens, mainly women, minorities and those considered to be of lower class. Needless to say, there is a long way to go. The direction is, however, mildly promising.

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