x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Gains for women in Saudi must be more than symbolic

Until women in Saudi are not blamed for the mistreatment they endure when they go out in public, the work of female leaders will remain only symbolic.

Two weeks ago, it was illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to ride motorbikes and bicycles. Today, women can do that "only for entertainment", religious police told Al Yawm newspaper.

While this might seem like progress, the news only illustrates how far women's rights still have to go in Saudi. Women can ride bicycles or motorcycles only in designated areas, only if accompanied by a male relative, and only if dressed modestly.

And are being advised not to do it in places crowded with young men. Why? "To avoid harassment."

That last provision was directed at women, who in conservative societies like Saudi are always seen as responsible for the harassment they must endure. But what about the men doing the harassing? They should also be advised to respect women.

As always seems to be the case, rules intended to emancipate women in Saudi Arabia are delivered in a way that blames them for the way men treat them.

The bicycle riding shift reminds me of a continuing conversation in the kingdom: women driving. In recent years, Saudi women have with increasing frequency demanded the right to drive cars. Last month, 3,000 Saudis signed a petition urging the Shura Council to push for lifting the ban on women driving.

But many conservatives members opposed the idea. And many of them justified their opposition by saying that if women drove cars, chances of harassment will increase as women will be driving in streets with men.

I'm surprised that after all these years some conservative Saudis are still misreading the situation. Why don't they shift the focus, from seeing women as the drive behind men's shameless actions to focusing on advising parents to raise their boys to treat women with respect as they grow up to become men?

Despite the segregation of the sexes in most public places in Saudi, sexual harassment is endemic in the kingdom. In 2012, there were more than 3,100 reported cases of sexual harassment in Saudi.

However, the actual number of incidents is probably far higher than that; Saudi rights activists say the vast majority of cases go unreported because women are simply too afraid that they will have to share the blame.

Segregation can make the situation worse, as many men take any opportunity to get closer to women and harass them, like asking for a relationship. Saudi women tell me they are often followed, chased, asked for their phone numbers and sometimes even invited by strangers to join men in their cars. Such overtures can even lead to cases of blackmail, threatening women with public humiliation if they don't concede to demands of sex.

Despite all of these unfair horrors, many men still have the wrong idea that women go out in public only because they want attention. When in public, women are almost always at the mercy of those around them. If women are harassed, many Saudi men choose not to interfere, thinking that these women deserve it because they went out without a mahram, or a male guardian.

So what can be done to change these attitudes?

Tougher sexual harassment laws could be effective in cutting down harassment cases, rather than casting blame on the victim. Saudi officials agree, but a stalled legal process is delaying progress. The Shura Council has debated such changes for years, without much progress.

And yet, the government is moving slowly towards giving women more rights. King Abdullah has said he is committed to improving the situation of women. Last year for example, Saudi women were allowed to participate in the Olympic Games for the first time in the history of the country. Two female athletes travelled to London and represented Saudi Arabia in two different events: judo and 800-metre running.

But these athletes also faced harassment and verbal abuse from different groups of society, including men who sat in front of the TV and watched their performance just for the sake of criticising them. It will take time to change these attitudes.

More significant than the Olympics decision was a move by the king to bestow on women the right to vote and stand in municipal elections starting in 2015, and to take seats in the Shura Council. Last year, he allocated space for 30 women in the 150-member consultative body. But again, despite the official support, these women were subject to criticism by many conservatives who took to the streets and campaigned online opposing the king's decision.

Joining the council is only the beginning of the changes that are coming for women in Saudi. Female Shura Council members now have a huge responsibility to push for equality, starting with a call for stronger anti-harassment laws.

Until women are not blamed for the mistreatment they endure when they go out in public - on bicycles or not - the work of female leaders in Saudi will remain only symbolic.



On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui