AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In a minute-long video uploaded to YouTube last month, two young Saudi women walk along the waterfront promenade in the kingdom’s Red Sea city of Jiddah as a group of young men jeer and follow them until the women become visibly agitated.
The video went viral and set off a rare public debate on the rights of women in a country which distinguishes itself as an Islamic state that upholds one of the strictest segregation of the sexes in the world.
Rights activists and commentators lambasted the men in the video for sexually harassing the women, who wore traditional black flowing robes known as abayas, along with face veils. Public outrage, expressed in the media and online, prompted a police investigation, and state-linked media reported that six of the boys involved were detained and questioned.
Then, things took a sharp turn.
Days later, another video emerged, purportedly of the same two young women. It was shared on semi-official news websites and carried on websites of privately-owned channels such as Rotana TV, which suggested it had been recorded just before the women were accosted.
In that video, the women are riding a quad bike on the promenade as the young men watch. One of the women tosses toward the men an “agal,” the black rope worn by Saudi men over their traditional checkered head cloths. The young men break out in laughter and hooting at the gesture.
Suddenly, the women were no longer seen as victims by viewers who accused them of being “indecent,” and provoking the men.
Though men and women in Saudi Arabia work alongside each other in places such as banks and hospitals, unmarried men and women are prohibited from socially mixing — in both public and private — and women adhere to an ultraconservative dress code that often includes the full-face covering.
Saudi women are not allowed to drive cars and riding a quad bike is no less offensive in the more conservative provinces. But in Jiddah, the kingdom’s cosmopolitan hub and seaside gateway for millions of Muslims pilgrims, some women do not cover their hair and the abayas are not always black. There are walkways where men and women, in sporty black robes, can stroll briskly alongside one another — public spaces that do not exist for average Saudi citizens in the capital, Riyadh.
Judicial adviser Yehia al-Shahrani told the state-linked Sabq news website he believes the women acted in a “seductive and tempting” manner. He said it would be unjust to investigate and possibly refer the men to trial “without taking the same deserved action against those who seduced and aroused this to happen, which are the two girls.”
He also blamed the young women’s parents for allowing their daughters to be in a public place around young men.
The debate that emerged from the videos is significant — both for bringing the issue into the spotlight and for exposing struggles Saudi women face in public.
The Justice Ministry says 3,982 cases of sexual harassment were registered over the last two years. However, that figure also includes cases of sexual assault and abuse, since there is no legal definition of what constitutes sexual harassment in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi women’s rights activists and liberal pundits claim sexual harassment is all too common in the kingdom and are calling for a law that would criminalize such behavior. Regardless of whether a Saudi woman even shows her face or not, she is seen as “just a subject to harass,” activist Tamador Alyami told The Associated Press.
“Harassment is something you see on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s expected and accepted. That’s how common it is. It only makes controversy when it’s caught on camera.”
Social media and YouTube have carried videos from across the kingdom that appear to show women being harassed. In one, from the central city of Taif, a young woman is aggressively followed by several young men as she walks near a shopping center.
Police said two men were arrested afterward, though neither the girl nor her family reported the incident.
Though Saudi women were granted the right to run and vote in municipal elections, due later this year, their lives are still dominated by their male relatives. Under “guardianship laws,” women need the permission of male relatives, usually the father or husband, to travel abroad or work, and many private hospitals require such permissions for women to undergo medical procedures.
Many within the powerful clerical establishment argue that male guardianship protects women and say that if women were allowed to drive cars, it would expose them to sexual harassment, among other sins.
Jiddah-based commentator and writer Khaled Almaeena says that these restrictions have ultimately failed to protect women. He says religious education should emphasize basic Islamic fundamentals of right from wrong.
Almaeena is among several public figures who have called on the consultative Shura Council — which last year for the first time had women appointed as members — to recommend an anti-sexual harassment law to the Cabinet and King Salman for approval.
Another backer of the initiative, Shura Council member Thuraya Ebrahim al Arrayed said that in the absence of a law, the definition of what constitutes harassment is broad and penalties for sexual abuse and rape are left to the wide discretion of the judges interpreting Islamic law.
A law would “clarify the details because it would punish any harassment, whether it is sexual assault of minors or adults, including that of children and minors inside and outside their home,” she told the AP.
But discussion within the Shura Council for a bill against all that encompasses “sexual harassment” was shelved last year by members who argued it could encourage women to go out in more provocative attire and mingle with men. The proposed bill remains with the council, pending further action.
In the absence of legislation, it is unclear on what grounds the harassers in the videos from Jiddah and Taif could be prosecuted, though there are broad laws against disturbing public order and violating Islamic codes of conduct that have been used in past cases.
Some argue Saudi Arabia’s morality police, the muttawa — also known as the Commission for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — should enforce segregation of men and women more vigorously, particularly in places like the Jiddah promenade.
Almaeena says norms, such as those requiring women be accompanied by male guardians when they go for a walk or run personal errands, have backfired, fostering negative attitudes toward women among men from an early age.
“It’s a mindset,” he said. “They (men) are not taught to respect women right from the house.”
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