Saudi Arabia is preparing to outlaw sexual harassment, officials said Tuesday, less than a month before the conservative kingdom lifts its decades-long ban on women driving.
The kingdom’s Shura Council, which advises the cabinet, approved a draft law on Monday which would introduce a prison term of up to five years and a penalty of 300,000 riyals ($80,000).
The draft bill “is a very important addition to the history of regulations in the kingdom”, Shura Council member Latifa al-Shaalan was quoted as saying in an information ministry statement.
“It fills a large legislative vacuum, and it is a deterrent,” she added.
The kingdom’s driving ban on women is slated to end June 24, as part of a highly publicised liberalisation drive launched by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who styles himself as a progressive reformer.
The prince has also lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, allowed mixed-gender concerts and clipped the powers of the long-feared religious police.
But the social reforms appear overshadowed by the recent arrests of at least 11 activists, mostly identified by rights groups as veteran women campaigners for the right to drive and to end the conservative country’s male guardianship system.
Authorities have accused the activists of “suspicious contact with foreign parties”, providing financial support to “enemies” and attempting to undermine the kingdom’s “security and stability”.
Reports in state-backed media branded some of the detainees traitors and “agents of embassies”.
At least four detained activists were released last week, campaigners including Amnesty International said, but the fate of the others remains unclear.
“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 in a statement.
“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.”
Saudi authorities have so far not commented publicly on the detentions.