Tables Turning On Saudi Arabia's Religious Police

In Saudi Arabia, religious police patrol the streets, looking for what they see as violations of Islamic law — the mingling of unrelated men and women, for example, or shops remaining open during prayer time. Formally known as the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, the religious police once enjoyed wide public support, but now are coming under harsh criticism — from Saudis themselves.

To see what Saudis are saying about the religious police, known around here as the Hey'a, all you have to do is load up a few videos on YouTube. In one video, a Hey'a member harasses a woman in a mall for leaving her face uncovered. The woman fights back.

Another one shows a group of women ululating at the Hey'a — and eventually running them out of a mall.

The videos are often narrated by angry citizens, saying things like "We'll show you by showing the world your bad deeds." The videos are just one part of the public outcry against the Hey'a these days. Newspapers routinely run critical news and opinion pieces. And it seems like every Saudi you talk to has a story.

"I was going out to Starbucks with one of my friends," tells a recent graduate who didn't want to give her name. "He's a doctor. And we were discussing something — it's a campaign that we wanted to do for the university. So it was very official."

Later that day she was confronted by the Hey'a for meeting with a member of the opposite sex.

"And then suddenly this guy — the Hey'a — he came and he knocked near the door," she says. "He said, 'How can you do this, this is not allowed,' and he started shouting." The officer took her to the Hey'a office.

At the office, she was interrogated about her meeting with the doctor and accused of lying.

They told her "He touched your breast. You showed him your body," the graduate says. "We were in public," she protested.

They asked if she was a virgin, then told her they were going to check.

"You know, I felt very humiliated," the student says. "I didn't do anything wrong, and now he's treating me like I'm a whore or something. I really felt very bad."

The woman was detained for several hours then forced to sign a document admitting her guilt. Her friend the doctor spent two days in jail.

A Growing Backlash

The Hey'a was formally established decades ago by the founder of the modern Saudi state, King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, who joined with conservative religious leaders to unite the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Now the government employs thousands of Hey'a members in offices around the country.

In many regions, they're supported by the public. Some Saudi citizens consider it their duty to call the Hey'a to report violations. Saudis first ventured to criticize the Hey'a in 2002, when several members refused to allow girls to leave a burning school because they weren't properly covered. Fourteen girls died. In 2005, Hey'a members beat to death an alleged drug dealer in his home.

Journalist Iman al Qahtani says criticism intensified after the incident. "For the first time in Saudi history, people started to sue al Hey'a in courts."

The problem, Qahtani says, is that the courts — another bastion of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia — were on the side of the Hey'a. "They win all the cases," he says.

That might change. Saudi King Abdullah recently sacked both the head of the Hey'a and the head of the country's powerful judiciary. Analysts say that sends a clear message both institutions need to reform.

New Hey'a chief Abdul Aziz al-Humain recently told Al Arabiya network the new commission will be "close to the heart of every citizen." Still, a change in leadership doesn't necessarily mean a change in mentality. The most recent cases involve confiscating a woman's laptop and not giving it back, and halting the performance of a play because it contained music.

Newspaper editor Jamal Khashoggi says the Hey'a does have a place in Saudi society, but it should be reactive, not proactive.

"If a young boy is harassing a girl in a mall, they should go after him," Khashoggi says. "I don't mind what they do with prostitution rings, to alcohol distributors. Just like with the Moral Majority in America, or independent brigades who are active to clean the streets in New York and Chicago — Guardian Angels, and stuff like that."

Even before the recent firing of the Hey'a chief, the commission was working to improve its image with training sessions and outreach programs. Some Saudis say the recent wave of criticism has put the Hey'a on better behavior. Others say it's made them worse.

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