Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
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 a woman’s testimony in court was not always accepted.
Due to these legal and social obstacles, authorities brought few cases to trial. Statistics on incidents of, and prosecutions, convictions, or punishments for 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 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 it was difficult to gauge the magnitude of the problem, which they believed to be widespread. The National Family Safety Program (NFSP), a quasi-governmental organization under the Ministry of National Guard, was founded in 2005 to spread awareness of and combat domestic violence, including child abuse, and continued to report abuse cases.
Officials stated 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 male head of household, who may also be the perpetrator of violence. 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. There were reports of police or judges returning women directly to their abusers, most of whom were the women’s legal guardians.
On March 8, a woman from Sabya Governorate in the southwestern Jazan Province appeared in a video pleading for help after her older brother and his family allegedly beat her and threw her out of a house she shared with them, along with her ill mother and her two children. She explained that when she went to report the abuse to police, they asked her to bring her male guardian. When the video went viral on social media, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development announced its Social Protection Unit in Jazan intervened and was studying her case. At year’s end there were no known updates to this case.
The government made efforts to combat domestic violence. During the year the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue held workshops and distributed educational materials on peaceful conflict resolution between spouses and within families. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development administered 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.
Saudi women reported that domestic abuse in the form of incest was common but seldom reported to authorities due to fears over societal repercussions, according to local contacts.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was not a common practice in the country, as the official government interpretation of sharia prohibits the practice.
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. On May 29, the Council of Ministers passed the antisexual harassment law, which carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 300,000 riyals ($80,000). No statistics were available on the incidence of sexual harassment due to past reluctance to report violations. On August 8, the public prosecutor stated that the number of reported harassment cases was low and claimed the law was effective in limiting this crime. Employers in many sectors maintained separate male and female workspaces where feasible, in accordance with law.
On July 14, authorities arrested a young woman who jumped on stage to hug a male singer during a concert in the western city of Taif. Prosecutors announced that the woman would face charges pursuant to the antisexual harassment law, under which she could face two years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 riyals ($26,700) if convicted.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Women continued to face significant discrimination under law and custom, and many remained uninformed about their rights.
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 they often are not treated as equal 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. In September a personal status court in Jeddah ordered a father to obtain a passport for his 24-year-old daughter so that she could resume her studies abroad. Women also require a guardian’s permission to exit prisons after completing their terms.
Women, however, can make their own determinations concerning hospital care. Women can work without their guardian’s permission, but some employers required women to have such permission, even though the law prohibits the practice. On February 15, the Ministry of Commerce and Investment announced women no longer need their male guardian’s permission to start a business.
On June 24, the government lifted its ban on women driving. The New York Times reported long delays in placement of female students in driving schools due to a limited number of teaching facilities and female staff for gender-segregated programs, and long delays obtaining driver’s licenses. On July 4, two men were arrested in Mecca for setting fire to a female motorist’s car. The motorist, Salma Al-Sherif, subsequently posted a widely circulated video on social media documenting the incident, claiming that her car was deliberately set alight by men “opposed to women drivers,” and that she had been repeatedly threatened and harassed by young men from her village of Samad in Mecca Province. On October 28, the Mecca Criminal Court acquitted the two defendants for lack of sufficient evidence. Al-Sherif appealed the verdict. On December 17, arsonists reportedly set fire to another car of a Jeddah woman, Nurhan Bassam, who was reportedly burned by arsonists.
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 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 requires Saudi men wishing to marry a second wife who is a foreigner to submit documentation attesting to the fact that his first wife was disabled, had a chronic disease, or was sterile.
Widespread societal exclusion enforced by, but not limited to, state institutions restricted women from using many public facilities. The law requires women to sit generally in separate, specially designated family sections in public places. 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 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.
In June a female television presenter, Shireen al-Rifaie, fled the country after authorities launched an investigation into claims that she wore an outfit deemed “indecent” by the Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media. Al-Rifaie was reporting on the end of the ban on women driving when her white abaya was blown open by the wind, revealing her clothes underneath.
Women also faced discrimination in courts, where in some cases the testimony of one man equals that of two women. All judges are male, and women faced restrictions on their practice of law (see section 3, Participation of Women and Minorities). In divorce proceedings women must demonstrate legally specified grounds for divorce, but men may divorce without giving cause, citing “irreconcilable differences.” 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 may be forced, however, to make subsequent alimony payments by court order. The government began implementing an identification system based on fingerprints designed to provide women, such as those wearing a niqab, more access to courts.
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 may approve the marriage. During the year courts adjudicated as many as 72 adhl cases and executed marriage contracts for women whose male custodians refused to approve their marriage, according to informed judicial sources quoted by local media.
Courts often 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. In March Justice Minister Sheikh Walid Al-Samaani directed all courts to drop the requirement for divorced women to file a lawsuit in order to gain custody of their children. Provided there were no disputes between the parents, mothers may now simply submit a request to the relevant court, without the need for legal action.
Inheritance laws also discriminate against women, since daughters receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers.
According to recent surveys, women constituted 52 percent of public education and higher education students. Segregated education through university level was standard. 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 an abaya, 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.
On March 12, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urged the country to end discriminatory practices against women, including its system of male guardianship, and give women full access to justice.
Birth Registration: Citizenship derives from the father, and only the father may register a birth. There were cases of authorities denying public services to children of citizen parents, including education and health care, because the government failed to register the birth entirely or had not registered it immediately, sometimes because the father failed to report the birth or did not receive authorization to marry a foreigner. Children of women who were married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother (see section 2.d., Stateless Persons).
Child Abuse: Abuse of children occurred. In 2016 the NFSP started a Child Helpline dedicated to assisting children in matters ranging from bullying to abuse. The helpline provided counseling, tracking, and referrals to social services. In January NFSP official Maha al-Muneef reported that the child helpline received 270,000 calls annually, including 2,990 cases of abuse and neglect, 2,589 cases related to family violence, and 1,050 cases of school violence. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development had 17 Social Protection Units across the country providing social protection to children younger than 18 and vulnerable populations suffering domestic violence and abuse.
On July 17, authorities arrested a Saudi-based Yemeni mother who beat and tortured her six-month-old twin girls on camera for money. Video footage of the two babies being slapped and strangled went viral and sparked outrage.
Early and Forced Marriage: The law does not specify a minimum age for marriage, although Ministry of Justice guidelines referred marriage applications to sharia courts to determine the validity of a marriage when the bride was younger than 16. Families sometimes arranged such marriages to settle family debts without the consent of the child. The HRC and NSHR monitored cases of child marriages, which they reported were rare or at least rarely reported, and took steps to prevent consummation of the marriage. Media reports quoted judges as saying the majority of child marriage cases in the country involved Syrian girls, followed by smaller numbers of Egyptians and Yemenis. There were media reports that some men who traveled abroad to find brides sought to marry minors. The application for a marriage license must record the bride’s age, and registration of the marriage is a legal prerequisite for consummation. The government reportedly instructed marriage registrars not to register marriages involving children.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The anti-cybercrimes law stipulates that punishment for such crimes, including the preparation, publication, and promotion of material for pornographic sites, may be no less than two and one-half years’ imprisonment or a fine of 1.5 million riyals ($400,000) if the crime includes the exploitation of minors. The law does not define a minimum age for consensual sex.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
There was no known data on Jewish citizens and no statistics available concerning the religious denominations of foreigners.
Cases of government-employed imams using anti-Jewish language in their sermons were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. The law requires government-employed imams to give all sermons delivered in mosques in the country. They must deliver sermons vetted and cleared by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. During the year the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.
Anti-Semitic material remained in school textbooks and online in private web postings, and some journalists, academics, and clerics made anti-Israel comments that sometimes strayed into anti-Semitism.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, or the provision of other state services or other areas. The law does not require public accessibility to buildings, information, and communications. Newer commercial buildings often included such access, as did some newer government buildings. Children with disabilities could attend government-supported schools.
Persons with disabilities could generally participate in civic affairs, and there were no legal restrictions preventing persons with disabilities from voting in municipal council elections. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development was responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Vocational rehabilitation projects and social care programs increasingly brought persons with disabilities into the mainstream. Persons with disabilities were elected and appointed to municipal councils in 2015, and two individuals with disabilities served on the consultative Shura Council, which was reconstituted in 2016.
On June 12, Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Development Tamadur al-Rammah stated the government was working on a national strategy for persons with disabilities, including 23 initiatives designed to serve them, adding that a special commission was established to oversee the affairs of persons with disabilities.
Although racial discrimination is illegal, societal discrimination against members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities was a problem. There was also discrimination based on tribal or nontribal lineage. Descendants of former slaves in the country, who have African lineage, faced discrimination in both employment and society. There was formal and informal discrimination, especially racial discrimination, against foreign workers from Africa and Asia. On February 5, the NSHR said it had noted several instances of racial discrimination on the basis of nationality at some service facilities where some customers were denied services based on their nationality. A tolerance campaign by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue sought to address some of these problems, and it provided training during the year to combat discrimination against national, racial, or ethnic groups.
The government’s multi-year Tatweer project to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods to promote tolerance and remove content disparaging religions other than Islam began in 2007. In November the Anti-Defamation League issued a report asserting that Saudi textbooks still contained anti-Semitic language.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Under sharia as interpreted in the country, consensual same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death or flogging, depending on the perceived seriousness of the case. It is illegal for men “to behave like women” or to wear women’s clothes, and vice versa. Due to social conventions and potential persecution, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) organizations did not operate openly, nor were there LGBTI rights advocacy events of any kind. There were reports of official and societal discrimination, physical violence, and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, access to education, and health care. Stigma or intimidation acted to limit reports of incidents of abuse.
There were no government efforts to address discrimination. In 2016 newspapers quoted PPO officials as stating the bureau would seek death sentences for anyone using social media to solicit homosexual acts. There were no reports, however, that the PPO sought death sentences in LGBTI cases during the year (see section 1.a.).
On January 8, police reported they arrested and referred to prosecutors several young men who appeared in a video described as a “gay wedding scene.” No updates on the case were publicly available.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. By law the government deported foreign workers who tested positive for HIV/AIDS upon arrival or who tested positive when hospitalized for other reasons. There was no indication that HIV-positive foreigners failed to receive antiretroviral treatment or that authorities isolated them during the year. The Ministry of Health’s HIV/AIDS program worked to fight stigma and discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Social, legal, economic, and political discrimination against the country’s Shia minority continued. HRW claimed that some state clerics and institutions “incited hatred and discrimination against religious minorities, including the country’s Shia Muslim minority.”
To address the problem, the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard included antidiscrimination training in courses run by the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue for police and other law enforcement officers (see section 6, Other Societal Violence and Discrimination).
In August the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of a Saudi man who appeared in a video carrying machine guns and threatening to kill Shia citizens in the southern city of Najran.