Meet the Saudi Religious Police

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.

 

Why do muttawa do what they do?

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!

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  • NadiaMay 18, 2010 - 7:28 am

    Salam aleikum,
    it was interesting to read about this topic as before I got to know about it only through some books and newspapers. May Allah save you from not encountering any problems with them, insha Allah.ReplyCancel

  • SoileMay 18, 2010 - 3:18 pm

    Love your blog! Kinda makes me want to go back to Saudi again ;-)ReplyCancel

  • LaylahMay 19, 2010 - 9:47 am

    Thanks Soile :) welcome back!!ReplyCancel

  • Azhar AbdullahMay 22, 2010 - 3:15 pm

    Hi there, stumble upon your blog from other’s…nice blog..

    You reminded me while I was back there in Saudi studying in 1992 – 1996…at that time the was no email nor facebook, so the only way to get myself connected to the world outside was by subscribing to Newsweek…

    and my Newsweek will arrive just like the poor Piglet, tainted on every page and sometimes they even made their job easier by tearing the whole page and left me not understanding an article for the ending was part of the page…haha…

    And nowadays we only go there just for the Haramain…

    Keep up the nice writings…

    Malaysian..ReplyCancel

  • LaylahMay 23, 2010 - 9:14 pm

    Salaam Azhar!

    Thanks and welcome to my blog :)

    yes they still do that sometimes, rip the whole page off which leaves you wondering what the rest of the article was about!ReplyCancel

  • The Pink TarhaMay 26, 2010 - 1:15 pm

    We’re also ladies living and working here in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Like you, we’re not fans of the muttawas. They usually scold us for not wearing our veils and they always look frightening and intimidating. Although, we’ve also met some well-mannered and educated ones.

    Anyway, your blog is very interesting. Love the “Blue Abaya” name of your blog. It’s funny because our blog is titled the “pink tarha,” which means pink veils. We named it in honor of the veils we have to wear here (and the reason why we’re usually scolded by the religious police, hehe!).ReplyCancel

  • Aafke-ArtMarch 2, 2011 - 6:25 pm

    That woman in front of the Muttawa headquarters is just só indecent! look at all that exposed skin! Shocking!

    I know who blacks out haram body parts.
    http://clouddragon.wordpress.com/2008/08/27/the-black-hand/ReplyCancel

  • LaylahMarch 2, 2011 - 7:56 pm

    you’re right, I should have that blacked out immidiately!ReplyCancel

  • AliyahMarch 16, 2012 - 10:00 am

    asalamu aleikum
    very interesting article Laylah. i really cant believe they are that strict people. u cant find such thing not even in the Quran. why some people like to be extremist?? i wish i could have a talk with these kind of people and proove them wrong but i know their brain is so limited that they can never understand a thing unless its their way. i recently read “Girls of Riyadh” and i can see clearly that men over there are allowed to do everything they want, but women…hmm not fair.
    regarding the fact that who ever enters saudi arabia should be covered, i couldnt agree more with this. otherwise saudi arabia would become another dubai which is really disgusting.ReplyCancel

  • Giselle LanternsApril 27, 2012 - 2:22 am

    that makes sense. but of course by preventing women being harassed, NO OFFENSE, really! to other saudi guys out there: Some of them became ignorant about seeing a women’s face like some other filipino women in here, they don’t usually cover their face (due to some common reactions like “it’s hot!”, “it’ll be a result of overacting.”, “blah blah blah” something like that.)
    Still, it’s a good idea, whenever some people are lazy to change, or shy and thinking that their outfit doesn’t suit her/them, or maybe their it is inappropriate, they’ll just cover it with abaya and a messy hair to be covered by tarha! :DReplyCancel

  • 5zanApril 20, 2013 - 7:49 am

    The ending was nice. Not all of them are rude. in fact most of them are polite and well mannered.ReplyCancel

  • Rebecca ByfieldOctober 10, 2013 - 4:20 am

    My first night in Riyadh, my husband took us to the mall for dinner, as he didn’t have any food in the house. Having not had his family with him during his 6 months in Saudi, hubby didn’t know we were supposed to sit in the family section. A few minutes into our meal, I had a Muttawa scream in my face, spittle flying all over me, to cover my head. He then proceeded to yell at my husband for not controlling me! I can honestly say, I went home and cried and thought long and hard about flying straight back out of the country. Of course, I didn’t and over the next 6 years, had quite a few similar incidences where I would be told to cover – even though there is NOTHING in Islam that requires a foreign, non-muslim woman to cover her head! The worst though was when non-Muttawa men would tell me to cover my head. I’d look those men firmly in the eye and tell them NO! Oh, the shock and horror on those poor gentlemen’s faces… I once got a standing ovation in a shoe shop for doing just that.ReplyCancel

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  • Ali Al-TamimiJuly 8, 2014 - 11:53 am

    we respect your opinion, But you should have direct evidence when you till story about such an organisation.ReplyCancel

    • LaylaJuly 10, 2014 - 5:56 pm

      Hi Ali, thank you for your comment. This is an old post which is written tongue in cheek. It has been labelled under the category humor and satire to try and clarify this to readers..If you want to read facts about the CPVPV, I suggest just go to their official website or try and search Wikipedia for articles.
      Hope this helps!ReplyCancel

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  • […] The Saudi religious police, the ‘Hai’a’ patrols the fair, on the look-out for banned books. The Haia officers work under the Commission for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue (CPVPV) and they even have their own stand at the Fair which could be interesting to stop by at. On display, among other things, are items confiscated by the Commission Members. You can find out more about what the Hai’a officers duties are at their stall. You can read more about  here: Meet the Saudi Religious Police […]ReplyCancel

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