Saudi Arabia: Cabinet Approves Measure Criminalizing Sexual Harassment

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The measure has been passed by the Cabinet and an advisory council, and will become law with a royal decree. Opening up job opportunities to women without university qualifications (very much welcomed by families on lower incomes) and identifying ways to provide good vocational training to the youth of the country (70% plus of the population is under the age of 35) are initiatives to be welcomed, and are created to both bring the kingdom into the 21st century and broaden its very narrow economic base.

"We are extremely anxious about the overall human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, despite the women's driving ban being lifted in less than a month", Kareem Chehayeb, the group's Saudi Arabia researcher, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

The new draft law "aims to combat the crime of harassment, prevent its occurrence, punish the perpetrators and protect the victims, in order to preserve the privacy, dignity and personal freedom of individuals guaranteed by the provisions of Islamic law and regulations".

A new draft legislation outlawing harassment was approved on Monday by the Saudi Shoura Council.

It is "a very important addition to the history of regulations in the kingdom," she said.

"It fills a large legislative vacuum, and it is a deterrent", al-Shaalan reportedly added.

Both the law against sexual harassment and the lifting of the driving ban were the impetus of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

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But the reform measures are a small piece of the puzzle in a country where apostasy remains a crime punishable by death and death sentences are typically conducted by beheading with a sword in public.

The move comes weeks before the kingdom lifts its ban on women drivers.

State-backed media have labeled those held as "agents of embassies", unnerving diplomats in Saudi Arabia, a key USA ally which has appealed to the West for massive investments to help transform its economy away from oil.

Four activists have been released but up to seven others remain in detention.

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.

"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.