Saudi Arabia’s religious police are under attack again over what critics consider heavy-handed enforcement of the country’s gender-segregation policies and other strict social rules.
This time the case involves an American businesswoman who went with a male colleague to a Starbucks in the Saudi capital and ended up in jail for sitting in a coffee shop with a man who is not a close relative.
The brief detention of the woman, identified only as Yara, drew headlines in Saudi media, prompting one writer to call the Feb. 4 arrest “an abduction.” A local rights group called for an explanation from the religious police. A senior U.N. official described it as “harassment.”
Responding to the criticism, the religious police issued a statement published Tuesday by Saudi newspapers that said officers were justified in their actions.
Islamic law does not allow police to ignore the prohibition against a woman “sitting with a man who is not a relative and exchanging words and laughter with him,” said the statement by Abdullah al-Shithri of The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
The commission added that it reserved the right to take legal action against Abdullah al-Alami, a columnist for the newspaper Al-Watan, who accused the religious police of abducting Yara.
Yara’s story, which first appeared in the English-language Arab News, is one of a string of incidents that have provoked a public outcry against the commission.
Last year, members of the religious police were put on trial in two separate cases, each involving the death of a man in custody. Judges dropped charges against them, but the unprecedented trials provoked calls for reforming the religious police. Controversy over the police also flared last year when a woman who had been gang-raped by several men was sentenced to six months in prison and 90 lashes for being in a car with an unrelated man.
The religious police enforce the kingdom’s strict Islamic lifestyle. They patrol public places to ensure that women are covered and not wearing makeup, men and women don’t mingle, shops close five times a day for prayers, and men go to a mosque to worship.
While many Saudis say they support the idea of having the commission, they also say it should be regulated.
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Alexander Neil, after a February 20, 2008 article by Donna Abu-Nasr over The Associated Press