Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense under sharia with a wide range of penalties from flogging to execution. The law does not recognize spousal rape as a crime. The government enforced the law based on its interpretation of sharia, and courts often punished victims as well as perpetrators for illegal “mixing of genders,” even when there was no conviction for rape. Victims also had to prove that the rape was committed, and women’s testimony in court is, in certain cases, worth half the weight of that of a man. Due to these legal and social penalties, authorities brought few cases to trial. The government did not maintain public records on prosecutions, convictions, or punishments.
Statistics on incidents of rape were not available, but press reports and observers indicated rape was a serious problem. Moreover, most rape cases were likely unreported because victims faced societal and familial reprisal, including diminished marriage opportunities, criminal sanction up to imprisonment, or accusations of adultery or sexual relations outside of marriage, which are punishable under sharia.
The 2013 law against domestic violence provides a framework for the government to prevent and protect victims of violence in the home. The law defines domestic abuse broadly and criminalizes domestic abuse with penalties of one month to one year of imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 riyals ($1,330 to $13,300) unless a court provides a harsher sentence.
Researchers stated that domestic violence might be seriously underreported, making it difficult to gauge the magnitude of the problem, which they believed to be widespread. The Ministry of Justice received 1,498 cases of domestic violence over the previous Hijri calendar year, according to media reports. In December 2015 the Ministry of Labor and Social Development handled 8,016 cases of physical and psychological abuse, 57.5 percent of which involved spousal abuse, according to media reports. The NSHR’s 2015 annual report noted that the organization investigated 295 cases of domestic violence and violations of women’s rights. The National Family Safety Program, a private charity organization founded in 2005 to spread awareness and combat domestic violence, including child abuse, continued to report abuse cases.
Officials stated that the government did not clearly define domestic violence and procedures concerning cases, including thresholds for investigation or prosecution, and thus enforcement varied from one government body to another. Some women’s rights advocates were critical of investigations of domestic violence, claiming investigators were hesitant to enter a home without permission from the head of household, who may also be the male perpetrator. Some activists also claimed that authorities often did not investigate or prosecute cases involving domestic violence, instead encouraging victims and perpetrators to reconcile in order to keep families intact regardless of reported abuse. Violence included a broad spectrum of abuse. There were reports of police or judges returning women directly to their abusers, most of whom were the women’s legal guardians.
The government made efforts to combat domestic violence, and during the year the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue held workshops and distributed educational materials on peaceful conflict resolution between spouses and in families. The government supported family-protection shelters. The HRC received complaints of domestic abuse and referred them to other government offices. The HRC advised complainants and offered legal assistance to some female litigants. The organization provided services for children of female complainants and litigants and distributed publications supporting women’s rights in education, health care, development, and the workplace. On March 29, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development announced the launch of a domestic violence call center, noting that the center had received 1,890 calls in its first three days of operations.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was not a common practice in the country, particularly among the Saudi population, as the official government interpretation of sharia prohibits the practice.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: There were no known deaths involving dowry, honor killings, or other harmful practices targeting women during the year.
Sexual Harassment: The extent of sexual harassment was difficult to measure, with little media reporting and no government data. The government’s interpretation of sharia guides courts on cases of sexual harassment. Nonetheless, female workers reported sexual harassment and discrimination. Employers in many sectors maintained separate male and female workspaces where feasible, in accordance with law.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; manage their reproductive health; and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Although no legal barriers prevent access to contraception, constraints on mobility and economic resources as well as social pressure for large families limited many women. According to 2016 estimates by the UN Population Fund, 31 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 used a modern method of contraceptives and 24 percent of women had an unmet need for family planning.
Discrimination: Women continued to face significant discrimination under law and custom, and many remained uninformed about their rights. To increase awareness, on July 4, a female lawyer launched an Arabic mobile phone application, “Know Your Rights.” The application contained resources for legal aid as well as answers to frequently asked questions on issues such as divorce, child custody, guardianship, disability, and domestic violence.
The law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, and since there is no codified personal-status law, judges made decisions regarding family matters based on their interpretations of Islamic law. Although they may legally own property and are entitled to financial support from their guardian, women have fewer political or social rights than men, and society treated them as unequal members in the political and social spheres. The guardianship system requires that every woman have a close male relative as her “guardian” with the legal authority to approve her travel outside of the country. A guardian also has authority to approve some types of business licenses and study at a university or college. Women can make their own determinations concerning hospital care. Women can work without their guardian’s permission, but most employers required women to have such permission. A husband who verbally (rather than through a court process) divorces his wife or refuses to sign final divorce papers continues to be her legal guardian.
The overall percentage of female workforce participation was 21 percent, according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2015. The law does not require equal pay for equal work.
Nationality law discriminates against women, who cannot directly transmit citizenship to their children, particularly if the children’s father is a noncitizen (see section 2.d. and section 6, Children). The country’s interpretation of sharia prohibits women from marrying non-Muslims, but men may marry Christians and Jews. Women require government permission to marry noncitizens; men must be older than 25 to marry a foreigner and must obtain government permission if they intend to marry citizens from countries other than Gulf Cooperation Council member states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). Regulations prohibit men from marrying women from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Chad, and Burma. The government additionally required Saudi men wishing to marry a second wife who is a foreigner to submit documentation attesting to the fact that his first wife is disabled, has a chronic disease, or is sterile.
Widespread societal exclusion enforced by, but not limited to, state institutions restricted women from using many public facilities. The law requires women usually to sit in separate, specially designated family sections. They frequently cannot consume food in restaurants that do not have such sections. Women risk arrest for riding in a private vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee (such as a hired chauffeur or taxi driver) or a close male relative. Cultural norms enforced by state institutions require women to wear an “abaya” (a loose-fitting, full-length black cloak) in public. The CPVPV also generally expected Muslim women to cover their hair and non-Muslim women from Asian and African countries to comply more fully with local customs of dress than non-Muslim Western women.
On December 12, media reported that Malak al-Shehri was detained after posting a photograph of herself on Twitter on November 28, dressed in a jacket (rather an abaya) with her hair uncovered (without a “hijab”) on a busy street in Riyadh. Riyadh police claimed that the CPVPV had reported al-Shehri’s actions to them and that her detention was in line with the duty of the police to monitor against violations of general morals and illegal actions. Al-Shehri was released on December 19.
Women also faced discrimination in courts, where in most cases the testimony of one man equals that of two women. All judges are male, and women faced restrictions on their practice of law. In divorce proceedings, women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men can divorce without giving cause. In doing so, men must pay immediately an amount of money agreed at the time of the marriage that serves as a one-time alimony payment. Men can be forced, however, to make subsequent alimony payments by court order. The government began implementing an identification system based on fingerprints that was designed to provide women more reliable access to courts. The previous system required women to present themselves at court in the presence of a male relative to prove their identity if they declined to unveil their faces.
Women faced discrimination under family law. For example, a woman needs a guardian’s permission to marry or must seek a court order in the case of “adhl” (male guardians refusing to approve the marriage of women under their charge). In such adhl cases, the judge assumes the role of the guardian and can approve the marriage. In February the Ministry of Justice reported that courts received 128 adhl cases during the previous three months.
Courts award custody of children when they attain a specified age (seven years for boys and nine years for girls) to the divorced husband or the deceased husband’s family. In numerous cases former husbands prevented divorced noncitizen women from visiting their children. Inheritance laws also discriminate against women, since daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers.
According to recent surveys, women constituted more than half of university students, although segregated education through university level was the norm. The only exceptions to segregation in higher education were medical schools at the undergraduate level and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate-level research university, where women worked jointly with men, were not required to wear a veil, and drove cars on campus. Other universities, such as al-Faisal University in Riyadh, offered partially segregated classes with students receiving instruction from the same teacher and able to participate together in class discussion, but with the women and men physically separated by dividers.