x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Saudi social norms see an on-again, off-again evolution

The role of Saudi Arabia's virtue and vice police is a topic of national debate - but change is far from certain.

Come again? You must be kidding. Are you saying the vice police in Saudi Arabia have been barred from badgering people?

Last March, young Saudi men were allowed to enter malls unaccompanied by wives or family. They had long been denied free access to public places in line with the kingdom's gender segregation policy - a policy that has been enforced by security guards but, more notoriously, by the stick-wielding members of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Authority (PV).

Soon after the new measure came into effect, Saudi girls were having some big laughs, telling one another funny stories about how young men, with their newfound freedom, were behaving at the mall: acting goofy, throwing around pick-up lines and generally trying to impress.

Saudi youth can be hilarious. Some of the boys were, in the manner of mimes, acting like they were seeing the inside of a mall for the first time, affectedly faking amazement at everything they saw - the walls, the tile floors and the facades. The more daring ones were not wasting any time; they were looking at the women.

These young men must have been thinking: "Finally, the embargo is lifted. We're no longer a walking nuisance or a felony waiting to happen. Finally, we're going to become normal, like all the other young men around the world. We are no longer haram in family places. We don't have to be married to be accepted."

They were just happy to have the right to be who they are in public.

But not all Saudi youth took it that way. Some youngsters were vindictive. They entered the malls looking for trouble. These guys were planning on harassing young girls, women and shopkeepers, and generally their message was: "All of you who decided to allow gender-mixing, bear the consequences; we'll make you regret it."

This fuelled an already hot debate in Saudi Arabia between those who are for gender-mixing and those against it.

Some took the moral high ground, flexing their oratorical skills and making hyperbolically sinister projections. Others stood up for the idea that social change was coming to the kingdom no matter what, and that it was time the country became like other nations.

For about a year now, the placement of PV officers near all-girls schools, malls and souks has been an on-again, off-again affair. They would be out there doing their jobs as usual and, all of a sudden, new instructions would have them go out of sight.

Private media outlets - managed by editors with links to the centre of power, no less - were quick to pick up on this erratic operation of the PV. They put "the PV question" up for debate, and Facebook and Twitter users did not miss the opportunity to pitch in. The conservatives and the champions of change exchanged passionate arguments about why the PV should or shouldn't withdraw from public life.

Even the official media joined the fray, systematically pointing at the many grave mistakes made by PV officers in the past. These mistakes sometimes verged on crimes when, for instance, car chases led to the death of suspects. On at least three occasions last year, PV officers trying to redress what they believed were moral wrongs made mistakes that cost citizens their lives.

The Saudi people remember dozens of less tragic, but no less deplorable, "mistakes", including the very famous "bunch of mint" incident, when PV men arrested and beat up a woman and her son, mistaking them for lovers. Later, when the blunder was laid bare, the PV deemed it fitting to give the woman 500 Saudi riyals (Dh490)and, it turns out, a bunch of mint as compensation.

Like other aspects of Saudi public life, the status and prerogatives of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Authority have become vague and beg for an explicit legal framework.

And there is something deliberate about that, as if the PV question in the kingdom has become a buffer against which the drive for change and entrenched conservatism can head-butt without inflicting damage.

Saudi officials are endowed with the ability to reconcile the two ends of a paradox. They know how to apply the policy of lengthy silence in order to cool down the hot issues, and they take their time to see which way the balance will tip.

In the meantime, Saudi society still laughs at its own jokes. When the late Syrian romantic poet Nizar Qabbani asked, "Why do we survive on a smuggled, fake love in our city?" the Saudi young man replied: "Haven't you seen the big, black GMCs of the PV come into town?"


Hissa Hilal is a poet based in Riyadh and the author of Enlightenment and Divorce and Annulment: A Study of Women in Tribal Society Through Poetry. This article was translated from Arabic by Achraf El Bahi