Saudi Arabia's public decency law is now in full effect across the kingdom, with action being taken against individuals who stand accused of "transgressing public morals."
Last month, authorities in Riyadh arrested over 200 people for violating these regulations in what was described as the first crackdown on individuals since the easing of social rules in the kingdom. Those arrested were charged with wearing "immodest clothing" and of "harassment" at several festivals recently held in the country, including the electronic music festival MDL Beast.
A number of women were arrested as part of this crackdown, with their violations ranging from dancing to wearing tight-fitting clothes and not wearing abayas in public.
The fact that no further information has been provided on these women's offenses or on the incidents related to their arrests has raised concerns among Saudi women regarding the vagueness of the public decency law and how it affects them.
The law's first article defines public decency as "a set of behaviors and morals that reflect the country's social norms, values and identity."
A few local activists believe the legislation is flawed because it's based on a vague definition of public morals and doesn't provide adequate details on offenses, leaving them open to personal interpretation. Lama, a Saudi women's rights activist, told StepFeed that while the legislation is important when it comes to tackling issues affecting the public sphere, there are worries over it being used to replace now-scrapped rules previously used to control and censor women.
The activist detailed why some of the law's clauses have been deemed as alarming.
"One of the violations listed under the law is 'wearing immodest clothing.' Define immodest? It's subjective unless there are clear cut details on what is meant by it. Let's say a woman is in a place where it's acceptable to have her abaya off. She could be arrested for wearing a sleeveless shirt, a half-sleeved garment or a full-sleeved one because there aren't any guidelines on what immodest clothing means for women. We could be arrested if our abaya is a bit short or if it's too colorful," she said.
"We're worried because we no longer know what's illegal and what's not"
Lama and several other activists are active online and say they've been getting so many questions from concerned women who are worried over the new laws.
"I know I am obliged to wear my abaya in public but does the rule apply to concerts and festivals? No one really knows," Reemas, a Saudi women's rights defender told us.
Reemas says the confusion is mounting because no details are often released about what women are arrested for under the public decency law.
"We're finally in an era where we're feeling a bit freer than before but the recent arrests are bringing out our anxieties. Having women constantly self-censoring their behaviors and actions out of fear of being arrested is another way to control us. We're worried because we no longer know what's illegal and what's not," she added.
The activist highlighted the fact that any detainment, no matter how brief, can have devastating effects on a woman's life in the kingdom. This is because of sexist double standards that render women's reputations as tarnished if they are jailed, regardless of the offense. To Reemas, punishing women under a law that isn't precisely defined with clear articles is an arbitrary action.
What could the solution be?
According to Reemas, the main solution is to immediately set clear guidelines regarding what constitutes a violation of public morals in the kingdom and that's both for men and women. The other would be to make them public.
"Details on charges related to this law might already exist, but if they do then they haven't been made public. How can we expect people to adhere to rules if they don't really understand them or how they're applied?" the activist explained.
Saudi Arabia's public decency law criminalizes any act deemed distasteful to the public, with fines up to 5,000 Saudi riyals ($1,333) for first-time offenders. Under the bill, bullying in all its forms including name-calling and racist language is considered a crime. Playing loud music or spreading disruptive sounds in public is also prohibited. As for outfits, wearing immodest clothing or garments with questionable prints on them is punishable.
For men, wearing shorts or walking in public in white underwear garments is also an offense. In addition to the above, the law criminalizes crossing a queue in a public space, filming people without their consent, unlicensed graffiti art, putting up posters in streets, placing advertising brochures in front of homes or on cars, littering, and going into mosques while wearing dirty clothes.