Saturday, 29 May 2010
Female attacks on religious police show shift in Saudi values
Recent attacks on Saudi Arabia's 'morality police' suggest public support for intrusive religious law enforcement is waning
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 26 May 2010 15.30 BST
Something's afoot in Saudi Arabia. In the past month, there have been two incidents where Saudi women, when questioned or harassed by the notorious "morality police" from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, have lashed out – literally.
In the first incident, according to the Saudi Gazette, a young couple "appeared to be acting in an inappropriate manner" in an amusement park. A commission member who spotted them suspected they were not married or related and were therefore breaking the law. As the commission member approached them, the young man collapsed – presumably out of shock or fright – but the woman showered him with punches. He was taken to a medical centre to be treated for bruises. In the second incident, which the LA Times calls an unprecedented outburst, a woman caught in "illegal seclusion" with a man shot at the religious police when questioned.
The religious police, or mutawwa (loosely translated as "volunteers", as in the past the role was largely an unpaid one performed by over-zealous busybodies) regularly roam public spaces in the kingdom to ensure that women are appropriately covered, that shops are shut at prayer times, and that as few adult males as possible are absent from the mosque when the call to prayer is announced.
In Riyadh, they patrol in four-wheel-drive vehicles with a loudspeaker shouting at errant worshippers or uncovered women. In the 1990s, the mutawwa were ubiquitous, especially in the less modern parts of the big cities. Lately, however, their influence has been curbed. The momentum seems to be coming straight from the top. The king's niece, Princess Basma bint Saud, recently wrote a scathing and poignant critique of the commission, denouncing its actions as having little to do with Islam and everything to do with the sinister intentions of the institution.
On my last visit to Riyadh, I was surprised to see several women in full makeup with their faces uncovered as they shopped in the city's glamorous malls. But there were some instances when the religious police descended. Sometimes they would ambush a mall, cutting through the crowds – their very presence separating men from women and unleashing a Mexican wave of veils being drawn over faces. To hear the loud, pious exclamations of the squad as they entered a restaurant to ensure that unrelated men and women were not mingling was enough to make the food stick in your throat.
While people generally comply, there is a palpable feeling of exasperation and an erosion of respect, aided by a nominally more liberal approach from the political authorities. Late last year, the head of the commision's Mecca division declared that gender segregation was not mandatory, igniting a debate that originated with the opening of the kingdom's first co-educational university (an institution the government is rather proud of, which has become a flashpoint of conflict between the religious and political institutions).
The authorities are mindful that change must happen organically, through religious bodies backed by the government rather than imposed from above by a monarchy which is keen not to alienate powerful hardline elements. To overrule the religious establishment is dangerous because the clergy commands a strong following that underwrites the monarchy's own legitimacy. Hence a delicate balance needs to be struck between conservatives and reformers.
Ultimately, it appears that a watered-down version of Wahhabism is the aim. While people may be fed up with the mutawwa, this by no means suggests that there is an appetite for wholesale reform. Saudis are proud of the fact that the country has managed to maintain its religious integrity compared with what are perceived to be iniquitous neighbours in the Gulf. However, as these latest attacks on the mutawwa suggest, there is a desire for the clergy to step back from intrusive public order law enforcement.