As you might have heard, the streets, shopping malls and public areas of Saudi Arabia, especially in conservative Riyadh, are patrolled by the Saudi “religious police”. More commonly they’re known also as the muttawa, matawa, moral police, moral squad, Saudi fashion police, Islamic religious cops etc.
EDIT 2017:The religious police are no longer allowed to make arrests. They must first call the regular police to check the situation who will also be the ones making the decision about arrest, not the muttawa. The number of religious police that can be seen in public has diminished significantly in the recent years and seeing a religious police officer nowadays is actually more of a novelty. The Hai’a are only allowed to “kindly advise” people in public. No chasing, yelling or harassing is allowed. They can gently advise a woman to cover her hair, once. The woman can decide whether or not she would like to follow the advice or not. The Hai’a officers should not follow, raise their voice or repeat the advice over and over again. If they do- you can report the officer. Make sure to ask for their badge.
Officially known as the Hai’a, these men work as field officers under the Committee of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). There are around 3500 religious policemen plus thousands of volunteers also known as ‘freelance muttawa’.
Here is a brief satirical “guide” for newbies in Saudi to understanding more about what religious police are. *Note that this post is sole opinion of the author and not based on official facts. For those interested in up to date facts about the CPVPV, check out this page .
How to spot the religious police on the streets? How are they dressed?
They will be wearing white thobes that do not pass ankle length. The Big Boss might be wearing a golden-brown Harry Potter-style cape on top of the thobe. They will surely have a long beard and a ghutra without the black igal on top. They usually roam in groups of two or even more to gain more intimidation factor. Muttawa usually have a stern, even scary expression on their faces and I have never seen a smile.
How do muttawa get around? Are there any warning signs that they are approaching?
The Hai’a mode of transport are white GMCs with CPVPV logo on the side. The cars have megaphones on the roofs. During prayer times squads will be patrolling the city reminding people to pray with a very loud “haya al salah” heard from the speakers. Another way to know is if you are a western woman and an angry looking man in a thobe is shouting at you in a loud voice to cover your hair. That would be a muttawa. Here are the muttawa headquarters in Riyadh and a very brave woman who is not covering her hair and is exposing her forearm!
What is the job description of a muttawa?
Muttawas don’t actually have an official job description. There has recently been talk in the media about the importance of having one following some very unpleasant and even violent actions taken by religious policemen. On their official website it is stated their duty is to “preserve Muslim society by guidance and good example”. Muttawa seem to improvise as they go, acting as sort of performance artists sometimes. Most common duty of a muttawa is telling (sometimes shouting) women to cover their heads or hair. If the women under scrutiny are Saudi they will be asked to cover their faces or eyes depending on how much the woman is already covered. If a muttawa squad encounters a woman and a man together under suspicious conditions, such as riding in the same car or shopping together, they will request to see a marriage license. If the couple does not have it, they will be taken to the station for questioning and interrogation.
The police must be present in order for the Hai’a to actually arrest anyone. Their duties also include blacking out haram figures from women’s magazines (cleavage, legs, arms)blacking out women from inflatable swimming pool packages and basically wherever they find pictures of uncovered women. Hai’a might raid stores for “haram” goods such as music CDs, stuff that resembles crosses or other religious symbols, Barbies without abayas and forbidden books like Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh which features a piglet! The Horror! The confiscated items are brought on display at the yearly Riyadh International Book Fair.
That is a very good question. There are some members that give the whole Hai’a a very bad reputation by harassing women in particular and going to extremes and resorting to violence. Muttawa are not popular among either locals nor expats coming to Saudi. The picture given of Islam to foreigners is questionable and distorted because Islam teaches “there is no compulsion in religion” and that “to each their own religion and deen”. Forcing people, especially non-Muslims to act and look like Muslims is certainly not what was done during the times of the Prophet Muhammed.
I have to be fair and admit I have met a few very polite, highly educated and well-mannered muttawas. I would even go so far as to saying they were perfectly gentleman-like in their conduct. They presented themselves in such a manner that it left a positive, interesting and good-intending picture of Islam. So I guess we should never judge the book by its covers..Or in this case, the religion by some of its followers!