Saudi Arabia's vice squad eases up — but just a little

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 7, 2009 

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Like many fathers with teenage daughters, the time finally came for Abdel Mohsen Gifari to have an awkward talk.

The 44-year-old researcher for Saudi Arabia's feared religious police sat one of his girls down to discuss an uncomfortable topic: She wanted to drive.

In a country where women are barred from getting behind the wheel, his daughter's desire is not only forbidden, it's also a touchy subject for Gifari, who's spent nearly half his life working for the government body charged with enforcing the law.

"I told her that driving is allowed in Islam," Gifari said in a rare interview with a Western reporter. "But it is more of a cultural thing. We already have a lot of problems on the road when it comes to sexual harassment, with guys flirting with girls in the car. If a woman drives, it's only going to bring more problems."

Change is seeping slowly into Saudi Arabia, a Persian Gulf nation of 28 million residents — half of whom are under age 25 — and nowhere is the social friction more apparent than inside the religious police force that imposes the Kingdom's conservative interpretation of Islam.

Faced with increasing resistance to their intrusive policies, Gifari and the religious police are struggling to adapt.

Officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police has hired outside marketing professionals to spruce up its image, publicly apologized for actions (such as detaining a Saudi man spotted kissing his wife in a mall parking lot), and visibly reduced its presence in some parts of the country.

The country's Shura Council, a predominantly male, 150-member advisory group appointed by the king, is even encouraging the religious police — an all-male domain — to hire women.

"If one does not adapt, one becomes extinct," said Gifari, a genial, bearded, bearish conservative who's taken on a newly created role as international spokesman for the commission, better known as al Hey'a ("the Commission" in Arabic) or, more casually, muttaween ("the pious ones" in Arabic).

To survive, however, the religious police will have to do more than integrate women, said Ihsan Ali Bu-Hulaiga, a Saudi economist who just stepped down after 12 years on the Shura Council.

"They need to be more accommodating," Bu-Hulaiga said. "They might think in the religious police that women should cover their face, but it will not render her an infidel if she doesn't."

"In this society you need an adaptive religious police," he added. "The religious police can live with the time, understand the mentality of the people, the styles, the tastes, the choices. The orientation of people does change with time. That's a fact."

The push to transform the religious police is perhaps the most challenging reform effort for King Abdullah, the 85-year-old Saudi leader who faces resistance from influential conservatives within his government and family.

Since taking office in 2005, Abdullah's government has curtailed the ability of the religious police to interrogate suspects and scaled back their presence on the streets of Jiddah, the more laid-back Saudi city on the Red Sea.

The religious police also keep a lower profile in some high-end malls where single women feel relatively free to wear loosely fitting headscarves and shop alongside single men in stores.

"King Abdullah has done a lot and he's putting his reputation, and maybe even his life, on the line, especially with regards to the religious police," said Wajeha Haider, a women's rights activist who publically challenged the government last year by posting a video on YouTube of her driving in Saudi Arabia. "These people are like the Taliban."

Abdullah kicked off his latest reform push in February by ousting the head of the religious police and installing a new, presumably more moderate, leader.

Change will be difficult in the force, however, with 5,000 full-time employees who handle about 20,000 major arrests each year. If moderation is coming, it isn't yet fully evident in the headlines following raids.

Most recently, human rights groups criticized Saudi Arabia's religious police for arresting 67 men caught last month wearing women's clothes or drinking alcohol at a private Philippine Independence Day party.

The men could be jailed or publicly flogged if they're found guilty of "imitating women."

"If the police in Saudi Arabia can arrest people simply because they don't like their clothes, no one is safe," said Human Rights Watch researcher Rasha Moumneh.

Three months ago, the religious police apologized to a man who was accused of immodest behavior after being spotted kissing his wife in their car in a mall parking lot.

"The apology is a triumph for society over an apparatus that sees itself as above the law and above suspicion," Mohammed Al Sulfa, a former member of the Shura Council, told the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper at the time.

Now the religious police are facing new pushback for plans to install video cameras in malls to keep a better eye on people.

"It means less freedom and more meddling and more intervention in personal lives," said Amira Kashgary, a columnist at Saudi Arabia's al Watan newspaper, a leading champion of the country's modernization efforts. "It means more spying on women."

The video camera proposal promoted Saudi political cartoonist al Rabea to lampoon the religious police as overzealous enforcers with spyglasses peering into poetry readings and movies.

Rabea came under fire late last month for a second cartoon, titled "A case of suspicion," that appeared targeted at the religious police.

The cartoon showed two sullen men in conservative Saudi dress with clouds of question marks over their heads, staring suspiciously at a man and veiled woman walking arm-in-arm while shopping.

It touched a nerve.

In response to a flood of critical comments, Rabea's newspaper, al Riyadh, issued a swift apology and said the cartoon wasn't directed at the religious police, but at nameless louts who unjustifiably question others' behavior in Saudi Arabia.

Within the religious police, there is significant disagreement over what that change should look like.

Giving a rare tour of the religious police administrative headquarters in Riyadh, Gifari said there were some fundamental conservative principles of Islam that should never change.

Alcohol and drugs always will be banned, he said. So will prostitution and allowing single women and men to meet openly.

"If we allow mingling of the sexes, it will lead to bigger problems such as prostitution, and these would destroy a society in terms of faith and inner values," Gifari said through a translator. "And that will never change. As much as we are changing as a commission, these things will never change."

Gifari said he doesn't oppose the idea of hiring women — in principle.

In practice, he argued, the tough demands of the job might make hiring women impractical.

"Seeing as the commission deals with some pretty dangerous situations, we're concerned about the safety of women working with the religious police," he said. "Because if it's going to be a burden rather than an asset, we won't hire women."

As for his own daughter's desire to drive a car, Gifari said, after a half-hour chat, she agreed with her dad that the timing wasn't right.

"Maybe in a few years traditions will change," Gifari said. "But right now it's only going to bring problems — and it's not one of the government priorities."

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