Saudi Religious Police Continue to Struggle to Define its Role in Society

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is going through another transformation. This time the duties of members of the Hai’a are more defined and detainees and members of the public who have contact with them are to be told whether a commission staffer is acting in his official capacity or exercising personal judgment.

This is a good step forward, but let’s not forget that the commission has been down similar roads before with not much to show for it. Just a few years ago there was an announcement that the Hai’a would take a more measured and gentle tone with the public that emphasized instruction and less on force. The results have been limited.

A more vocal public and perhaps impatience over continuing mistakes have prompted the Shoura Council this week to define the commissions’ duties in a written document. In essence, a Hai’a staff member now has a written job description. People who have contact with a commission member now will have a clearer picture of how and why the staffer is conducting commission business. In the past few years, there have been increasing reports of Hai’a members pursuing their own agenda. Now, that will be a thing of the past.

The Hai’a is needed in Saudi society. As Muslims we should welcome and give our thanks for their aid, sacrifices in performing an unenviable job, and for their instructions in matters of behavior and our religious obligations. To strip the commission of its duties, and render them nothing more than an agency in name only is
counterproductive.

The Hai’a, however, has a serious image problem. Saudis and expatriates loathe having contact with them. Saudi women, in particular, fear them. Somewhere in the past decade or so the commission has lost its way, and few people were willing to help them find the right path until there was a series of deaths that were all
too preventable.

Commission members in my view can be heroic. I recall an acquaintance that was having her hair done at a beauty parlor when she got into a conversation with an employee who asked whether she was married. The woman replied no, and the employee said she knew of a man looking for a wife. The employee asked if she could give the woman’s telephone number to the man. My acquaintance consented. Not much later the man called and they had several enjoyable conversations.

Later, the beauty parlor employee contacted the woman and asked whether the man called her. When woman said yes, the employee identified herself as a marriage broker and demanded a SR 3,000 fee.

My acquaintance refused since the employee never identified herself as a marriage broker. The employee began a campaign of harassment. And to add insult, several men began calling her. These men said the so-called marriage broker gave them her telephone number.

Frightened and feeling cornered by being harassed by the beauty parlor employee and strange men calling at all times during the day and night, my acquaintance had the broker paid off. The harassment, however, continued and finally the woman went to the Hai’a for help.

Within a day the phone calls stopped and the phony marriage broker was never heard from again. Nobody could have resolved this problem better than the Hai’a. As far as I am concerned this is the true role of the commission: to protect young woman from predators.

With modern technology at our disposal, it’s truer than ever before that the Hai’a has a vital role to play in Saudi society. Saudi and expat women are often duped into supplying their photographs to men who appear to be honest but are anything but honorable. These women are often the victims of blackmail. E-mail and Facebook accounts are hacked. Women’s reputations and the reputations of their families are
tarnished. I have heard many stories of the Hai’a stepping in to quickly and quietly solve such problems. These pious men excel in this sort thing.

Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) Chairman Saleh Kamil probably said it best when he complained that too much emphasis is placed on the mingling of men and women, which is not haram. Only a man and woman alone together in a secluded place is haram. Rather, Kamil said that bribery, which is rarely mentioned in Saudi society, is far more harmful mingling. The same goes for protecting women.

A shift in priorities by the Hai’a will reestablish trust and confidence in the agency.

Specific job descriptions for commission members are a good start. The right of a detainee to understand the distinction between a commission member’s official duties and when he is exercising his own personal judgment is a good start. The recent announcement that a human rights unit will be established in the commission is a good start. But these new policies are only as good as the people who enforce them.

Without accountability and the proper checks and balances to ensure consistent enforcement of our religious duties, there is little hope that Saudi and expatriate women will ever feel comfortable going to the Hai’a for help when they need it most. The Hai’a is indeed here to help, but trust must be established first.

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About Sabria Jawhar

Sabria Jawhar is a Saudi columnist and reporter for the Jeddah-based English-language daily newspaper Saudi Gazette. She currently lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom, where she is a PhD student at the University of Newcastle. She is considered one of the leading female journalists in Saudi Arabia, where she covered breaking news events at a time when such news coverage was open only to men. Her news beats included the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior. In the summer of 2005, she earned a Fellowship at the prestigious Korean Press Foundation and Yonsei Communication Research Institute in Seoul, South Korea. In 2007 she was a panelist in the United Nations 15th International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East in Tokyo, Japan. She earned her bachelor’s of arts degree in English language and literature at the King Abdul Aziz University and a master’s degree in applied linguistics at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah. Her column archives can be found at her website http://www.saudiwriter.blogspot.com/

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