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Pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj, is required for all Muslims at least once in their lifetime if their physical health and financial ability allows it. The carrying out of Hajj includes many sacred rituals such as circling the Mosque seven times. Sexual assault in Mecca is as prevalent as in any other public space in Saudi Arabia. Attacks on women in Mecca, considered to be one of the holiest places in the world, are a result of Saudi Arabia’s failure to protect women from abuse.

A woman recounted her pilgrimage to Mecca where the Kaaba, considered Islam’s most sacred site, is located. She describes the crowd as you approach the Kaaba to touch it: “I was next to the Kaaba and somebody grabbed my bum. I thought it was just the crowd; everyone was pushing. But then, when I moved up, somebody grabbed my boobs. I turned my head and I saw this guy just smirking at me.” An unnamed Saudi official familiar with Hajj affairs said the Kingdom does not tolerate this kind of behavior anywhere, especially at holy sites, and added that allegations made by the women were being taken very seriously by authorities. There will be additional female officers in holy sites to handle these assaults on women.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia enacted legislation which banned domestic violence. The ban, approved by Saudi Arabia’s cabinet, included protection of women against physical and sexual abuse. In 2018, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree ordering the enactment of a law that effectively deters and defines harassment. The bill, drafted by the Interior Ministry under the instruction of King Salman, punishes any form of harassment as long as it “insults, provokes or patronizes women.”  King Salman introduced a system to combat sexual harassment in public and private spaces such as work. The legislation was approved by the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s formal consultative body. The potential penalties for violators are up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to SR100,000 ($26,600). If the crime is repeated, the potential prison sentence increases to five years and the fine to SR300,000 ($80,000). These sentences are still under advisement, and more severe penalties are expected. Saudi Arabia has made important strides when it comes to protection of women; however, the country fails in many respects.

While Saudi Arabia has ratified several human rights conventions, including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), there are many legal restrictions on Saudi women’s rights in the name of Sharia law (a legal system derived from religious precepts of Islam). Because Sharia law, as applied by Saudi courts, is uncodified and because judicial precedent does not bind judges, the scope and content of this law is uncertain.

Saudi Arabia has an obligation under CEDAW to protect and uphold women’s bodily integrity. The Concluding comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women indicated that they are concerned with how Saudi Arabia is upholding principles of equality, making the State in violation of Article 1 of the Convention because this results in direct and indirect discrimination against women. The Committee calls upon Saudi Arabia to take action before their next periodic review. The Committee made the request “to submit the present concluding observations to all relevant ministries, to the Consultative Council (Shura), and to the Judiciary so as to ensure their full implementation.” State responsibility is extended to both public and private actors under Article 2 of the Convention making it possible to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the lack of protection for women in public spaces.

These issues effect women throughout the entire region. Women in the Middle East have challenged modesty laws by claiming that they do not protect women. For instance, many women on Farsi Twitter shared their experience of harassment and also challenged the belief that wearing the hijab keeps women safe from assault and harassment. In Iran, like Saudi Arabia, the hijab is mandatory.

Saudi Arabia has slowly been making strides when it comes to the protection of women’s human rights. As pressure mounts from the international human rights community, Saudi Arabia seems determined to combat sexual harassment. Implementation of changes will create a healthier environment for all individuals on their pilgrimage to Mecca.