By Heba Kanso
BEIRUT, May 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Saudi Arabia is preparing to outlaw sexual harassment, a move campaigners hailed on Tuesday as a "paradigm shift" in the deeply conservative Islamic kingdom, which is set to lift a ban on women driving within weeks.
The Shura Council, an influential advisory body, approved a draft law on Monday that would introduce a sentence of up to five years in prison and a 300,000 SAR ($80,000) fine for harassment, said council member Lina Almaeena.
Almaeena said the approval from the council, which does not have legislative powers but can propose laws to the king and the cabinet, had come "at a very crucial time" as women became more visible on the streets.
"I am so relieved. I know for sure it will have a paradigm shift," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Riyadh.
"The punishment is clear. People won't take it lightly," she said, adding it would cover both verbal and digital harassment.
The decision to lift a decades-old ban on women driving cars was hailed as proof of a new progressive trend in Saudi Arabia.
But rights activists have urged caution following the detention of nearly a dozen activists, most of them women who had campaigned for greater freedoms.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a Middle East expert with the global advocacy group Equality Now, said the draft law was a "welcome step", but expressed concern over the recent crackdown on women's rights campaigners.
"There is a contradiction between the deeds and the words," said Abu-Dayyeh by email.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has courted Western allies to support his reforms.
Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments were discussed during his recent trips to the United States and Europe.
($1 = 3.7503 riyals)
(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Claire Cozens Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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