Abdullah Mohamed al-Dawood, author of several self-help books published in Arabic, took to Twitter recently to call on his followers to harass and molest women who had been hired to serve as cashiers in Saudi grocery stores. Using a hashtag that roughly translates to “harass_female_cashiers,” al-Dawood urged the nearly 100,000 people following his account to take action against new laws against sexual harassment the Kingdom is considering rolling out.
In one tweet, al-Dawood explained that the mixing of genders in combination of new anti-harassment laws was akin to giving up guarding banks while still punishing those who rob from them. In another, as translated by the Financial Times, the author used a story of a man who wished to prevent his wife from going out while he was attending prayers to illustrate his point. In the story, the man molests his wife in the street under the cover of darkness, prompting the wife to never to wish to leave home again.
At least one conservative Saudi cleric, Khalid Ibrahim al-Saqabi, has backed al-Dawood’s thinking, saying that the proposed law against harassment in mixed gender environments was “only meant to encourage consensual debauchery.” The campaign has opened a fierce debate between al-Dawood’s supporters and those who are in favor of the government’s attempts to kickstart the moribund parts of the Saudi economy not based on petroleum exports.
As part of this campaign, itself an effort to drive down unemployment and the amount of money the government spends on its social programs, women are being slowly introduced from their previous segregated working environments into mixed gender ones of the sort al-Dawood is condemning. Women have also been granted some modicum of rights in the recent past, including the newly possessed right to ride a bicycle in public — though only when accompanied by a male relative, completely covered, and not for transportation purposes. This lack of transportation, which exacerbates the ban on women driving, is serving as a hindrance to efforts to integrate women into public working environments.
In all, women’s rights have a long way to go in Saudi Arabia, which according to the World Economic Forum ranked 131 out of 135 countries on issues of gender equality in 2012, until they reach anything resembling parity with their male counterparts. Despite the efforts of al-Dawood and his supporters, however, some strides are being made to bring the country up to par. This year saw the launch of country’s very first campaign against domestic violence, as well as the appointment of women to an official advisory council to the King for the first time in history.