Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat – Saudi Arabia is considering legislating laws aimed at tackling sexual harassment particularly in the work place, the punishment for which could be up to three years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 Saudi Riyals [SR].
A specialized subcommittee within the Shura Council is engaged in issuing laws to curtail the phenomena of sexual harassment in the work place in light of draft laws that have already been prepared and are being studied by the Shura Council.
Dr. Talal Bakri, Chairman of the Committee for Social, Family and Youth Affairs within the Shura Council, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he expected the new subcommittee to help speed up legislation and that proper punishments will be decided via the Islamic Affairs subcommittee. The punishment will be equal to the violation and each case of sexual harassment needs to be studied in order to determine a suitable punishment. The Islamic Affairs subcommittee will name the authority that will undertake the implementation of the draft law. He added that new legislations would contribute greatly to curbing the phenomena of sexual harassment.
For his part, Dr. Mazen Abdul Raziq Belila, a member of the Shura Council told Asharq Al-Awsat that he had suggested discussing legislation to combat sexual harassment and this was approved by the concerned subcommittee. He presented the discussion once again to the Minister of Justice who said that his ministry would back the law once endorsed by the Shura Council.
“A draft law has been prepared to combat sexual harassment against women and it has been financed by the private sector, which undertook a scientific and legal study that looked at laws and legislations in Arab, Islamic and western countries concerning sexual harassment in order to come up with mechanisms appropriate for Saudi society that do not contradict Islamic Sharia,” Dr. Belila said.
Dr. Belila added that several topics were discussed during a meeting such as sexual blackmail and how incidents of sexual harassment could be proved.
The draft law proposed that mechanisms to combat sexual harassment must be independent and not part of the labour law, as it is easier to issue a new law rather than amend an existing one. The law emphasized that the stronger the perpetrator is in comparison to the victim, the stronger the punishment will be.
Dr. Belila clarified that Article 1 of the draft law stipulates that any comments, actions or signs that clearly indicate that one party wants to sexually harass another, insulting, provoking, degradation or behaving in an immodest manner would be considered sexual harassment.
The punishment that one could face for committing sexual harassment is a minimum of six months imprisonment and a maximum of one year as well as a fine of between SR 20,000 and SR 50,000, or either imprisonment or a fine. In cases of repeated acts of sexual harassment, the punishment is doubled.
Dr. Belila pointed out that Article 2 of the draft law defines sexual harassment in the workplace as any of the acts described in Article 1 by an employer towards his employee or vice-versa or by an employee towards another employee regardless of the nature of work or the relationship between the two parties and regardless of whether the incident takes place during the work day or inside or outside of the work place as long as the professional relationship is the cause or reason for sexual harassment.
The proposed penalties for sexual harassment at the work place are stronger as the law stipulates that the perpetrator should be sentenced to no less than one year imprisonment and no more than three years and to pay a fine of no less than SR 50,000.
Dr. Belila added that Article 3 stresses that the chairman and directors at government corporations and business owners or their deputies should ensure that the work environment is free of sexual harassment. They should set effective rules and take all the necessary procedures to combat sexual harassment by raising awareness of the danger of sexual harassment with regards to religious and social values, ensuring that the work environment complies with Sharia law.
Dr. Belila stressed that Article 4 states that the chairman, director or the owner of the company is responsible for all cases of sexual harassment that take place in the company unless he is proven to have taken all the necessary precautions against sexual harassment.
Article 5 requests that the victim brings evidence of sexual harassment and states that the defendant has the right to refute the claim of harassment using any evidence. However, proving or refuting the claim will be the responsibility of the investigation authority.
A questionnaire entitled ‘Sexual Harassment and Suffering that Saudi Women Face Working with Men,’ was answered by approximately 1000 Saudi women working in different fields such as medicine, education, banking, media, administration and technology. It revealed that most female employees had no difficulty in convincing their families to let them work. Their personal statuses were as follows: 48 per cent married, 42 per cent single and 10 per cent divorced.
As for their reasons for wanting to work, the majority of women said that they wanted to achieve personal goals whilst others stated that they wanted to earn money or spend their time working. Some said that they consider work a social responsibility for which they would be rewarded as well as a way to gain independence from men. This gives them financial security in case of divorce.
The questionnaire revealed that 21 per cent of female employees had experienced inappropriate behaviour from their employers whereas 35 per cent suffered similar treatment from colleagues who were equal to them or occupied a lower position than them at work.
At least 68 per cent of the women included in the questionnaire worked with men in comparison to 24 percent who worked in separate departments for women. Men would use flattery to sense a woman’s reaction before taking any further action. Nearly 28 per cent revealed that they were asked out on dates after office hours, 24 per cent received late-night phone calls from colleagues whereas 15 per cent admitted that they had been harassed verbally or physically.
Some participants explained that filing a complaint to bosses, supervisors or directors, or even ignoring men who harass women helps to deter colleagues. However, sexual harassment has caused a great deal of suffering to female employees as the questionnaire revealed that 32 per cent of employees have been harassed by employers or colleagues and have suffered negative psychological effects as these women would fear that if they took a stand against harassment they would be scandalized, dismissed from their jobs or denied promotions.
Nearly 22 per cent were subjected to more than just flirting, which is an indicator of lack of religious or moral restraints for some men as well as a lack of etiquette when talking to women.
The reactions to cases of sexual harassment differ: seven per cent of women stressed that they preferred to remain silent about the harassment they suffered out of fear that they would be scandalized, eight per cent also remained silent so that their families would not find out about harassment and force them to quit their jobs, whereas 24 percent filed complaints against the perpetrators. Most women took a firm stand against those who harass them and put a stop to it. However, two per cent said that they humoured the perpetrators out of fear whereas four per cent did so in order not to lose their jobs. Some employees quit their jobs to avoid seeing the perpetrators, according to some participants.
Approximately 83 per cent of the women who took part in the questionnaire called for tough laws including dismissal, imprisonment and fines to be imposed in order to deter sexual harassment whereas others requested that there should only be mixed work environments if absolutely necessary. Surprisingly, only eleven per cent of women stated that the work environment should be segregated.
Some of the women who took part in the questionnaire indicated that women could reduce sexual harassment by behaving respectably and wearing Hijab in the presence of men. They also supported the idea of female employees being made aware of their rights and encouraged to express their feelings, not to remain silent if they have suffered harassment. Some of the participants suggested following the example of Saudi Aramco, which has strict laws regarding sexual harassment.
Some 80 per cent of the female employees who participated in the questionnaire believe that improving social skills would decrease the number of cases of sexual harassment, which would help them excel in their work. Some participants suggested putting up posters in the work place to warn men against the consequences of sexual harassment and for women to be aware of their rights. They added that complete segregation between men and women would have a negative impact. They also called for tough laws to ensure that female employees could work in a harassment-free working environment.