Making excuses for harassers is not the way to go about combatting sexual harassment but this fact needs reiterating in some Saudi courts.
In a Jeddah courtroom this week, an Arab expat who admitted to harassing his co-worker was given a reduced sentence because he's "religious."
According to Okaz newspaper, the man was only fined 4,000 Saudi riyals ($1,066) in a ruling considered super lenient under the kingdom's anti-harassment law. In their indicting statement, the court said they came to this decision because the man "knows the holy Quran by heart."
"The defendant made a slip of the tongue and handing him a harsher punishment like a jail sentence would've negatively affected him because he'd then mingle with corrupt people and prisoners," the court order read.
The legal authority stressed that the defendant was cleared of "physical harassment" as the prosecutor in the case didn't provide evidence that he had touched the woman who reported him.
The victim filed a case against her harasser, accusing him of constantly trying to assault her at work.
In her report, she said the man repeatedly tried to fondle her, asked for intimate pictures of her, and told her he wanted her to kiss him. Not only that, he also threatened to slash her salary if she rejected him.
The complainant's case made it to court after being referred to the public prosecutor's office. The man was investigated by authorities and let out on bail; he's been banned from traveling outside the kingdom. During interrogation, he admitted to asking his colleague for a kiss but said he was only "joking around." He denied claims that he had fondled her or tried to inappropriately touch her.
In court, the defendant accused his victim of calling him using a nickname and approaching him while at work. Regardless, harassment is not justifiable.
The court's ruling sparked a debate
The court found the man guilty of verbally harassing his colleague but cleared him on charges of physically assaulting her. Several lawyers found the fining sentence "too lenient" and rejected the explanation, deeming it "absurd."
The issue was also debated on live television on Rotana Khalijiya's Ya Hala program. Speaking on the show, Saudi lawyer Rana Al Daknan criticized the ruling, saying:
"If this turns out to be the reason why the court gave this man a lighter sentence, their decision is flawed. You can't link something that has nothing to do with the case with the punishment handed down for it. To say that this man can't be punished because he knows the Quran is just not right," she said.
Al Daknan explained that though the court didn't find the man guilty of touching the victim, he was indicted on other harassment charges that are punishable under the kingdom's laws. Saudi tweeps also weighed in on the sentence with the majority of people vehemently criticizing the ruling and questioning the message it sends to harassers in the kingdom.
Sexual harassment won't end if it's tackled like this
Sexual harassment continues to be a major issue affecting so many women in Saudi Arabia despite the fact that the country passed an anti-sexual harassment law back in 2018.
Activists believe that though authorities act on harassment reports and cases, they only take serious action when footage capturing assault trends online. But even then, when a case makes it to court, there's no guarantee that the punishment will fit the offense.
Combatting harassment anywhere in the world starts with the strict implementation of laws criminalizing it. Therefore, the legal system in the kingdom must do better for the brave women who come forth and report their harassers.