by Shannon Johnson (Orlando, Florida)
Saudi Arabia is a country with a reputation for its less-than-progressive attitudes and laws regarding women. Women aren’t allowed to drive. Women are required to have permission from a male guardian to work, travel, study, marry, or even have access to basic health care. And women aren’t allowed to own their own businesses unless there is a male director or chairman. But 2008 was a year in which some progress for professional women was made, first with the appointment of the first female CFO in the country, and then with the draft legislation by the Shoura Council forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace.
Antiquated societal norms have enabled men to view the workplace as just another arena in which they can exercise their “superiority”. The proposed law, aimed at reducing the blatant occurrences of sexual harassment of women at the hands of coworkers and supervisors, is being proposed after various studies delineated the devastating effects this type of behavior has on businesswomen and their work product.
The law seeks to comprehensively cover the unwanted sexual attention women frequently have to deal within Saudi Arabia’s business sector. These behaviors includes verbal sexual harassment in the form of unwanted suggestions, jokes, conversations, or phone calls; physical gestures even if no physical contact occurs, displaying lewd or suggestive pictures in the office; asking female employees to meet outside office hour or offering rides after being declined; and even requiring employees to remain in the workplace after hours for “overtime” where none exists. Under the proposed law, sexual harassers could face fines between SR20, 000-SR 100,000 and prison sentences between one to three years. In addition, mangers and owners of businesses could have to answer for being negligent in the prevention of sexual harassment in his organization.
Critics of the law are concerned that the law in and of itself will not provide sufficient protection because women are reluctant to report harassment for fear of the societal reaction, harm to her business reputation, retaliation, as well as an overall lack of awareness that this conduct is unacceptable.
The law is clearly the first baby step in the right direction. Yet, it is apparent even from statements that the very lawmakers promoting the law – statements urging women to dress moderately to “avoid provoking” the men with whom they work – that there is still much to do before Saudi businesswomen will be comfortable enough to take full advantage of the protection under the law and consistently report sexual harassment.