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Saudi Arabia’s 'Religious Police' Reforms

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In the seven years since King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz assumed the throne of Saudi Arabia, the absolute monarch, whose reformist aspirations are widely believed to be sincere, has attempted to curb some of the outrageous human rights violations for which the desert kingdom is known. Many of these have involved the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), the ubiquitous “moral guardians” that patrolled Saudi Arabian public space and occasionally raided private homes. But change has been obstructed by members of the royal family, state officials, and clerics representing the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi sect that is the official Islamic interpretation in the country and dominates it in a marriage-based alliance with the Al-Saud family. 


At the beginning of October, Saudi Arabia announced reforms in the activities of the CPVPV that could mark a turn in the evolution of Saudi Arabia toward normality as a society. 

Westerners call the CPVPV “the religious police,” although they have lacked law-enforcement training or other professional characteristics of public-order bodies. Saudi subjects and foreign Muslims who visit Saudi Arabia refer to them as the “hai’a” (commission), or the “mutawiyin”—the latter meaning “the pious,” “the devotees,” or “the volunteers” but with a strong implication of vigilantism. Dressed in white robes and red-checkered headscarves, they remain feared and hated by the Saudi populace.

In January 2012, King Abdullah appointed Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh as the new head of the mutawiyin, replacing a figure with a reformist reputation, Abdul Aziz Al-Humain. Paradoxically, Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh is a lineal descendant of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi movement. But Al-Sheikh is credited with more advanced attitudes, especially on the status of women. Al-Sheikh has pointed out that Wahhabi-style strict separation of unrelated men and women, and a bar on women working in contact with men, contradict traditional Islamic law. In addition, among his first executive actions was to dismiss volunteers from the mutawiyin. In April 2012, he warned that members of the mutawiyin found to be harassing people would be punished, and castigated CPVPV personnel considered overzealous. 

Then came an incident in May known in Saudi Arabia as the case of “the nail polish woman.” An unknown young female used her celphone camera to film a confrontation with three members of the mutawiyin who tried to get her to leave a shopping mall, reportedly because she was wearing nail polish, lipstick, and a small portion of her hair was visible under her veil (hijab). Her video of the dispute, in which she forced the three mutawiyin to stop bothering her, and regular uniformed police refused to assist the mutawiyin, was posted on YouTube and went viral. In the video, the unidentified woman threatened to report the mutawiyin to Al-Sheikh.

One defiant woman and a YouTube video seem to have encouraged a faster pace in reform of the mutawiyin. When the “nail polish woman” episode occurred, Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh criticized the member of the mutawiyin leading the trio at the mall. In June, the popular blog Saudi Jeans described Al-Sheikh weeping as he told his staff about a meeting with King Abdullah in which the ruler asked him to prevent the mutawiyin from acting violently against Saudi subjects. Al-Sheikh also commented on the altercation involving the “nail polish woman,” “The world is making airplanes and we are telling a woman to leave the mall because she is wearing nail polish.”

At the beginning of October, Al-Sheikh announced that the powers of the mutawiyin would be drastically restricted. They will be barred from making arrests, conducting interrogations, or carrying out searches without a warrant from the local governor. They will no longer stand at the entrances of shopping malls to keep women out who do not adhere to the Wahhabi dress code or who are not accompanied by “approved” men—husbands, siblings, or parents.

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