Saudi Arabian authorities have charged 67 men detained at a party for reportedly wearing women’s clothing.
Most of the men were Filipino and were arrested while standing outside a private party held in a villa near the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on the occasion of Philippine Independence Day.
According to the Saudi daily Al Riyadh, the police questioned the men after spotting “suspicious behavior” and then proceeded to raid the party. More women's clothing, cosmetics, and alcohol were reportedly found in further investigations.
The Philippines' vice consul in Riyadh, Roussell Reyes, confirmed the arrests. “Some of those arrested were reportedly wearing gowns and wigs and drinking liquor. It seems that there was a party,” Reyes reportedly told a radio station.
The Philippine Embassy says that the men were released after their work sponsors posted bail, but that they still face charges, including imitating women and possession of alcohol.
If convicted, the men could face imprisonment and flogging. Human rights groups have condemned the arrests. New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi authorities to drop charges against the men, saying the arrests constitute a violation of freedom of expression and rights to privacy.
"If the police in Saudi Arabia can arrest people simply because they don't like their clothes, no one is safe. Arresting and charging people simply because the police decide that their appearance is unacceptable strikes at the heart of human freedom," said Rasha Moumneh, researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued by the organization
Human Rights Watch says there is no legal clause that criminalizes the wearing of women’s clothing by men in Sharia, or Islamic law, which Saudi Arabia enforces.
Yet men have been sentenced to imprisonment by Saudi legal authorities in the past on accusations they were behaving like women. In March 2005, more than 100 men were detained for imitating women in a police raid at a private party held in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast city of Jidda.
The men were subsequently sentenced to imprisonment and flogging but were pardoned and released in July the same year. Following the June 13 episode this year, Filipino authorities are calling on Filipinos working overseas to respect the culture of the country in which they work and be wary of cultural sensitivities.
"When they enter their host country, they should know the culture of their host country," Silvestre Bello, Cabinet secretary and a top aide to President Gloria Arroyo, told a group of reporters
following the arrests of the 67 men in Riyadh.
He added that some Filipinos, who have grown in a culturally liberal context, “sometimes can't avoid the individual urge or expression of what they feel." Manila is reportedly providing legal assistance to the Filipinos arrested in the June 13 raid. About 1 million Filipinos are currently working in Saudi Arabia.
— Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: In this Feb. 22 picture, a protester carries a banner that reads in Arabic, "My body is not public property" during a sit-in for gays and lesbians in Beirut. Issues of gender and sexuality remain highly sensitive in the Arab world, especially in Saudi Arabia where Filipino men were recently arrested on suspicion of dressing up like women at a party. Credit: Hussein Malla / Associated Press