x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Morality police in Saudi, once again carrying big sticks

After keeping a low profile for several years, the members of the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice are back.

This time of year, couples of all ages enjoy the changing weather in Jeddah by dining at popular "couples cafes" on the Red Sea. On one recent evening, as I sat in Abu Dhabi, one of my friends was firing off frequent BlackBerry updates about her date.

But just as I was getting the full description - complete with details of the "delicious desserts" the next table was ordering - came this hurried message: "Yikes!" she wrote. "Al Mutawa just entered the cafe."

The appearance of "morality police" at a popular sea-side cafe would not be news if not for the fact that these members of the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice had almost disappeared from the public eye over the past few years. Sure, they were still known to show up occasionally at malls and public places, but not as much compared to the previous decades.

Not that they don't have a role. Sometimes when I see certain behaviours and too much skin here at family-filled places, I joke we need to call in the Saudi Mutawa just to make an appearance to jolt people into remembering where they are. Yes you are free to do what you want in the UAE, but there should be limits.

But in Saudi Arabia of late, things seem to be going too far in the other direction. In just one month, I received several messages from friends who spotted morality police wandering about. Besides "advising" people on what to wear and how to behave they were actually asking to see papers.

"Thank God we are married," said the same friend texting me, whose husband was questioned by the Mutawa and asked to show proof of their marriage as they sat at that cafe. He also reminded the husband: "Tell your wife to Taghati" - cover up her hair.

A few tables down an argument broke out between one of the male customers and the religious police.

"They are probably not married and they are out together," my friend wrote. "The couple and the Mutawa are leaving the cafe together."

In recent years religious police had been trying to soften their image, reaching out to the youth with less threatening language and fear tactics of the past. The days when groups of Mutawa would chase down young people - sticks waving and police somewhere by their side - were thought to be gone.

Instead, the Mutawa chose to talk to people instead of talking at them. For instance, I'd seen them in bowling centres and video game arcades, engaging with young men by challenging them to a game or two. The dreaded "behaviour stick", once used to strike fear in the faithful, had vanished. In fact, usually more of a symbolic tool, I only recall two times in my life where I was hit hard by this ominous stick.

Once it was when a group of us girls as teenagers decided to run in the middle of a mall in celebration after finishing our final exams. There were no other big places to run so we just did it in the mall.

I didn't even notice the Mutawa watching us until I felt a whack on my leg, followed by another hit before I got angry and yelled at them. Two of them stood there shouting at us, with whacks here and there on our legs, punishment for our unladylike behaviour and exposing our legs and bodies like that in a crowded place.

The other time was when a friend decided to wear a necklace with a cross and not hide it under the abaya. It didn't take long for us to be approached by a Mutawa in the mall that time.

It started off with him asking her to remove it, and ended up with a yelling session of threats and Quranic citation from both my side and his (I even threw in examples from Prophet Mohammed's life where he tolerated and respected other religions). That is when he hit me hard with the stick on my arm while I was gesturing with my hands for him to calm down and listen.

All this came back to me when my friend messaged me from Jeddah.

"Is the Mutawa carrying a stick?" I wrote in reply?

After a few minutes of silence, she wrote back with one word: "Yes".