Hay'ah toning down shows of power in Saudi Arabia

Daily News Egypt
13 Min Read

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia: Mersal Village on entertainment nights was once a magnet for members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (known locally as Hay’ah or Mutaween), who roamed the parking lot and front gate to remind guests they were being watched. In recent months, they have been virtually invisible.

Dating couples still take precautions by arriving at the park in separate cars, but the days of power displays like the 2004 incident at the Junoon rock concert – when the Hay’ah swept through the audience, upending chairs, tossing sound equipment and chasing teens around the stage ¬– appear to be in the past. At least for now.

Last month, on the same stage a Lebanese pop band serenaded families who dined on an assortment of traditional Saudi dishes. There was no Hay’ah in sight, but waiters quietly moved about asking the occasional young teenager popping up to dance to remain seated. Dancing is fine as long as one’s backside is firmly planted in the chair.

The Hay’ah is experiencing a fundamental change in how it’s viewed by Saudis and expatriates. Saudis more often than not agree there is a need for the Hay’ah. Enforcement of moral laws is mentioned in the Qur’an when the Ummah is praised for working towards the “promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice.

” Although the Quran makes no mention of a government-mandated agency, the Hay’ah is authorized to combat vice, from rooting out bootleg liquor operations to ensuring that all Islamic moral codes are strictly observed.

Dancing and public performances also come under the purview of the Hay’ah.

Once having the last word on how Muslims conduct themselves, the Hay’ah is now seemingly forced to defend every action it takes.

The commission’s top brass has come under withering criticism from the Saudi media for its excessive use of force and its lack of accountability.

The criticism has become so vocal in recent months that an all out war of words has erupted between Saudi journalists and the commission’s leadership.

The Arabic language daily newspaper Okaz has been especially critical of the agency, seemingly taking delight in reporting every alleged transgression.

The most recent incident occurred in Tabuk when a young mother was accused of asking a man at a bus station to drive her to Jeddah.

This would put the woman and the man in a state of khalwa in which they would illegally be alone together in a private place – in this case, the car – and could raise questions about their morality.

The man was not held. The woman was detained and allegedly beaten at the commission’s Tabuk headquarters. People performing Maghreb prayers at a nearby mosque heard the woman’s screams and alerted police who intervened.

Okaz reported the incident in April. A few days later the Hay’ah took out a half-page advertisement in the newspaper to lecture Okaz about journalism ethics and why reporting such incidents should be banned.

The Hay’ah did not specifically address the beating allegations.
Okaz and admonished the Hay’ah for portraying itself as a victim.

“The Hay’ah has to realize that its strategy of always presenting itself as the victim of media conspiracies will not help any more,” wrote Khaled Hama Al-Sulaiman for the Arab News.

“It is true that the Hay’ah has been unfairly criticized on some occasions in the past. On the other hand, it is also true that there are many known instances of errors or excesses that vindicate media criticism against it.”

Eroding support for the Hia’a can be traced to the 2002 girls’ school fire in Makkah in which 14 teenagers died when they attempted to flee the blaze.

The girls were turned back by commission members because they ran from the building without wearing their abaya, the long black cloak required to be worn by all females past puberty.

Although the Saudi government has taken great pains to absolve the Hay’ah from any wrongdoing, the incident was a crushing blow to the commission’s reputation as a necessary and welcomed influence in Saudi society.

Since the school fire, the Hay’ah has carried out a series of high-profile car chases of men and women observed together in the same car.

Many of these chases have ended in fatal crashes. In another incident in Riyadh, a Hay’ah raid of a Saudi bootlegger’s home resulted in the beating death of the suspect.

To rescue the faltering image of the commission, a series of reforms were proposed. In 2005, the Hay’ah announced that it was training its staff to be more helpful and less aggressive with the public. Intimidation tactics would be minimized.

In 2006, the Ministry of Interior issued a decree that banned the Hay’ah from interrogating people detained for un-Islamic behavior. Interrogations were to be performed by the police.

In 2007, a “Department of Rules and Regulations” was formed to ensure commission staff complied with Saudi laws.

In February of this year, Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council accepted a proposal that, in effect, required all commission members to have job descriptions outlining their duties and roles they played to the public.

However, none of these measures had an impact on the conduct of the Hay’ah.

Fatal car crashes and rogue behavior by some commission members continue unabated. Although the decrees have failed to stop alleged abuses, the Saudi media helped fill the void by stepping in to demand accountability.

Since 9/11, press restrictions in Saudi Arabia have loosened. The rule of thumb among Arabic and English language Saudi newspaper editors is that criticism of most Saudi institutions is permitted, but criticism of the Royal family, Islam and the Hay’ah is forbidden.

Indeed, Saudi school curricula and women’s rights among other hot-button issues have been fiercely and openly debated in the past five years with little government intervention.

Press coverage of the 2009 Jedda floods, which left more than 120 people dead, was a milestone in Saudi news reporting and editorial writing.

Newspapers demanded accountability from municipal officials and building contractors for the city’s poor infrastructure that exacerbated the flooding. As a result, several contractors were jailed.

But it’s only been in the past year that it was no longer taboo to criticize the Hay’ah. Saudi journalists are enjoying the liberty of taking the Hay’ah to task for its alleged abuses.

“Of course we criticize the Hay’ah,” said one Saudi journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Their behavior can not be condoned. People are fed up.”

Saudis, however, are demanding accountability, not disbanding the Hay’ah. They continue to view commission members as protectors of their values and morals, although many Saudis say the Hay’ah has lost focus of its true calling.

“If a man and woman got into my taxi and acted suspiciously I am obligated to notify the Mutaween,” said 44-year-old Jeddah taxi driver Iqbal Khan. “The problem with that, is once I call them, I am immediately questioned as if I had done something wrong when I was only doing my duty as a Muslim.”

A Saudi female journalist, who asked not to be identified, sees the commission’s role differently.

“I’m waiting for the day that the Hay’ah protects women from people who want to exploit them, not terrorize them for wearing the hijab too loose or having coffee with a male colleague at Starbucks,” she said.

The journalist pointed to the recent arrest of a Medina man who was accused of blackmailing at least 100 women who answered a magazine advertisement offering jobs for a bogus women’s project.

The women were required to send their photo along with the employment application.

The man then attempted to blackmail the women by demanding sex in exchange for not posting their photos on the Internet, which is considered shameful in Saudi society.

“Here’s a case where the Hay’ah did good and acted in a heroic manner,” the journalist said. “They protected these women from harm. This is their job.”

The onslaught of media coverage may also be responsible for Meccah commission chief Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi’s rethinking of how the Hay’ah enforces the country’s gender segregation laws.

Al-Ghamdi told Okaz in a December 2009 interview that banning gender mixing, or ikhtilat in which groups of men and women work or socialize together, has no basis in Shari’a and should not be enforced by the commission.

“Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah and its societies,” Al-Ghamdi told Okaz. “In many Muslim houses – even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram – you can find female servants working around unrelated males.”

When Al-Ghamdi attempted to raise the issue with the Kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheik, he was rebuked for discussing Islamic issues outside his expertise.

But Al-Ghamdi’s remarks have opened a once closed door on whether gender mixing is rooted in Islam or is a modern concept.

It also points to attempts by the Hay’ah at some regional branches to redefine what role it should play in Saudi society.

Saudis are not likely to embrace gender mixing soon and even regard Al-Ghamdi’s remarks as a distraction to the core issue of commission abuses.

A Saudi businessman observed recently that the Hay’ah exceeding its authority could be minimized if commission members chose to ignore men and women mixing in public places and instead focused on “real” vice issues like prostitution and drug trafficking.

“I’m not particularly fond of having single men sharing the same room with my daughters at a restaurant, but I trust my daughters to do the right thing,” the Saudi said. “We don’t need the Hay’ah for that. But if my daughters were being harassed or blackmailed, then I want them to feel comfortable seeking their [Hay’ah] help. Right now, that’s not the case.”


Share This Article
Leave a comment