Saudi Arabia is preparing to outlaw sexual harassment while it continues to detain women’s rights activists.
At least seven activists accused by the ultra-conservative kingdom of working for ‘foreign entities’ are believed to still be locked up after the recent arrests of 11 campaigners.
The sexual harassment draft law, passed on Tuesday, comes less than a month before Saudi Arabia lifts its decades-long ban on women driving.
The conservative Islamic kingdom would introduce a prison term of up to five years and a fine of 300,000 riyals (£60,300) under new laws approved by its cabinet.
The measure was drawn up by the Shura Council, which advises cabinet, and now just needs approval from the royal family to become law.
The council said the bill aimed to prevent ‘the crime of harassment’, punish perpetrators, and protect victims.
‘[It aims] to safeguard the individual’s privacy, dignity and personal freedom which are guaranteed by Islamic law and regulations,’ it said.
Council member Latifa al-Shaalan said the law was a very important addition to the history of regulations in the kingdom’ that ‘fills a large legislative vacuum, and it is a deterrent’.
It was the latest in a series of reforms that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initiated in a bid to modernise the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.
Last year’s decision to end the ban on women driving cars, to take effect on June 24, has been hailed as proof of a progressive trend in the kingdom.
The prince was also trying to diversify the Arab world’s largest economy away from oil exports and open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles by easing strict social rules and promoting entertainment.
He also lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, allowed mixed-gender concerts, and clipped the powers of the long-feared religious police.
However, the social reforms were overshadowed by the recent arrests of at least 11 women’s rights activists accused of working for ‘foreign entities’.
Pro-government media outlets splashed their photos online and in newspapers, branding them ‘traitors’ for their supposed crimes.
The activists had persistently called for the right for women to drive, along with lifting guardianship laws that give male relatives final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, obtain a passport, or marry.
They were accused of of ‘suspicious contact with foreign parties’, providing financial support to ‘enemies’ and attempting to undermine ‘security and stability’.
Four of the women, Aisha al-Mana, Hessa al-Sheikh, Walaa al-Shubbar, and Madeha al-Ajroush, were released last week, campaign groups said.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi officials and the terms of their release have not been made public.
The others including Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, and Eman al-Najfan were not released and their fate remained unknown.
Who are the arrested activists?
The activist in her late 20s is among the most outspoken women’s rights activists in the kingdom.
She was detained for more than 70 days after she attempted to livestream herself driving from neighboring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia in 2014.
She was detained by Saudi authorities as she attempted to cross the border and referred to an anti-terrorism court on charges of criticizing the government online.
She was later released without trial. Activists say al-Hathloul was arrested again in June of last year in connection with her advocacy.
Activists say al-Hathloul was then stopped by authorities in Abu Dhabi, where she was residing, and transferred to Saudi Arabia earlier this year where she’s been under a travel ban since March.
Al-Hathloul attended a humanitarian summit in Canada in 2016, where she was photographed in Vanity Fair magazine with former American actress Meghan Markle, who wed Prince Harry over the weekend.
A retired professor at King Saud University, al-Yousef is a mother of five and a grandmother of eight.
Although she hails from a conservative tribe with links to the royal family, she is among the most prominent women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia.
In 2016, she delivered a petition signed by thousands to the royal court calling for an end to guardianship laws that give male relatives final say over a woman’s ability to marry or travel abroad.
Saudi activist and campaigner Aziza al-Yousef is said to be one of the arrested activists
She has worked for years assisting women fleeing abusive marriages and homes. She also defied the kingdom’s ban on women driving on several occasions.
‘This is a good step forward for women’s rights,’ al-Yousef told The Associated Press last year when the kingdom announced that women would be allowed to drive. However, she cautioned it was just ‘the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for.’
An assistant professor of linguistics and a mother of three, including a toddler, al-Nafjan runs one of the first English blogs on Saudi Arabia.
She describes the ‘Saudiwoman’ blog as an effort to counter the many non-Saudis and non-Arabs ‘out there giving ‘expert’ opinions on life and culture’ in the kingdom.
Al-Nafjan has protested the driving ban, including publicly driving in the capital, Riyadh, in 2013 as part of a campaign launched by women’s rights activists.
She has worked closely with al-Yousef and other women’s rights activists to help domestic abuse victims and bring attention to repressive guardianship laws.
In recent years, she has been cautious about voicing her opinion on Twitter out of concern over a growing crackdown on rights advocates.
She was among dozens of women who were warned by the royal court last year to stop speaking with the press or voicing opinions online.
A psychotherapist in her mid-60s, al-Ajroush runs a private therapy practice in the capital, Riyadh, which specializes in gender orientation, according to activists.
She helped initiate a nationwide program in Saudi Arabia to provide support for domestic abuse victims and train police and courts on how to receive and treat such victims.
A longtime advocate of women’s rights, she took part in the kingdom’s first driving protest in 1990 and subsequent campaigns to end the ban on women driving.
She has faced years of harassment by authorities, including house raids, travel bans and being fired from her job.
Last year, al-Ajroush told the AP after women were promised the right to drive: ‘I had no idea it was going to take like 27 years, but anyway, we need to celebrate.’
Like al-Ajroush, the 70-year-old al-Mana took part in the kingdom’s first driving protest in 1990, in which 47 women were arrested.
She also took part in driving protests in 2011 and 2013.
She is director of Al-Mana General Hospitals and the Mohammad Al-Mana College of Health Sciences.
She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the U.S. in sociology. In 1980, she became one of the first Saudi women to obtain a Ph.D., also in the U.S. from the University of Colorado.
In 2016, she established a scholarship program for Saudi women to study global health at her alma mater.
She also established a $2 million endowment to support Saudi and Arab women at the American University of Beirut who are studying advanced degrees in nursing and health sciences.
Activists say she suffered a stroke last year and are concerned for her health while in detention.
Al-Mudaimigh is a lawyer who defended al-Hathloul during her detention in 2015 for attempting to cross the UAE-Saudi border while driving. He has supported human rights defenders in court and offered legal representation to activists in the kingdom.
He’s also represented Waleed Abulkhair, a human rights lawyer now serving a 15-year sentence who’d represented Raif Badawi, a blogger who was publicly flogged in 2015 and is serving 10 years in prison.
Activists say al-Mudaimigh, who ran his own practice, was one of the few lawyers in Saudi Arabia willing to defend human rights activists since others have either fled or been detained.
A longtime women’s rights activist who took part in the kingdom’s first driving protest in 1990, al-Sheikh is a professor at King Saud University and volunteers with Saudi-based charities focusing on women and children.
She hails from the prominent Al Sheikh family who are descendants of Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab.
His ultraconservative teachings of Islam in the 18th century are widely referred to as ‘Wahhabism’ in his name.
She co-authored a 100-page study that was published this year by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership in partnership with Rutgers University, examining Saudi women’s advocacy since 1990.
The study says questions remain over whether new policies will lead to real changes in how women’s lives are governed in Saudi Arabia.
The study notes that international media exposure ‘can be a protective shield against severe punishment for active engagement in women’s causes.’
Activists say al-Shubbar, in her late 20s, works as a nurse in the capital, Riyadh. She has been active in calling for an end to guardianship rules and appeared on Arabic news programs to discuss issues of patriarchy in the kingdom.
In an interview previously aired on France24, al-Shubbar is quoted as saying that in Saudi society ‘men are viewed as superior to women, and men are seen as capable of achieving anything and a woman is not.’
Al-Rabea is a writer and an activist in his 20s who has organized discussion groups about philosophy and social issues. He worked with some of the activists to push for greater women’s rights.
The Gulf Center for Human Rights describes al-Meshaal as a businessman and philanthropist who was listed as a board member in an application by activists to the government to establish a non-governmental organization called ‘Amina’ to protect women survivors of domestic violence.