I noticed that a follow-up post on one of the readers favorite subjects, the encounters with Saudi religious police, was long overdue. “Muttawa” is actually the third most popular search word that lands people on Blue Abaya, so something about the Saudi religious police force must be very fascinating (or disturbing?) to people and they want to find out more.
Read volume 1 of muttawa encounters here.
For many expats coming to the ‘Magic Kingdom’ the concept of a religious police force is just incomprehensible or downright insane. Why do Saudi people need these ‘morality cops’ to tell them how to behave? Are they really THAT bad in Saudi Arabia? Are Saudis not supposedly the role models of Muslims to the rest of the world? Then why is Saudi Arabia the only country in the world that needs religious police chasing down people on the streets and enforcing moral codes on its citizens? One could say mind-boggling.
I hear stories of muttawa encounters from my friends all the time, and sadly those stories have almost always been negative. That said, there are some smart religious cops out there, I swear! Check this post for one example: Mr. Muttawa Gets It Right.
There are just too many similar stories to mention in one post. Most evolve around women + covering hair, being shouted at and chased by muttawa in malls.
This volume of Muttawa Encounters lists with the top most disturbing or hilarious incidents I heard of. These are all very recent cases from around the capital Riyadh that happened to friends and family during 2011-2012.
My mother visited us for few months here in Saudi and the few times we went to the mall (she hates malls) every single time would a squad of the morality cops chase her. I think we had bad luck but also during that time muttawa were on a roll. This was before the old Hai’a boss was sacked.
Her first encounter happened at Sahara Mall, she was on her own browsing shops while we were with the baby in another shop. Three muttawa came up to her. She said they could not have been much older than her teenage son (19yrs) and there she was, a 60 yr old woman minding her business when suddenly these three men started very aggressively shouting at her.
At first she did not even understand and just got scared and thought she had committed some crime. When they motioned at the scarf she understood and put it on. But that did not satisfy this blood thirsty moral squad. They continued shouting at her and by this time everyone was looking and she was mortified.
Apparently they didn’t like how she had wrapped the scarf on. My mom walked out of the shop and tried to escape because she didn’t understand what was wrong but they followed her like sharks. She had felt frightened and cornered.
Finally she found my husband and he had been very upset at the religious police how they’d been following my mother around. He told them off with strong words and they did eventually leave. After the moral cops had confirmed he was the “guardian” of this red haired woman causing a stir of course. The same squad came three consecutive times to check on her if she still had the scarf on. I was so angry when I heard this that I wanted to go check their ID’s and names and make a complaint but they had already left the mall by that time.
Mom wanted to make a complaint to the human rights commission because she felt her dignity and basic human rights had been violated, which was of course true. I felt so angry and frustrated that this was the experience and image she was getting of Saudi-Arabia. And of course she told everyone about it on her social media, so this is how muttawa vicariously spreads a bad image of muslims/Saudis as aggressive harassers, hostile toward foreigners, women haters and intolerant people.
Another incident this year that happened to two young Finnish women in IKEA. Two Hai’a officers were browsing for Vice which apparently IKEA has plenty to offer. Just look at what they have to deal with:
The horror. An uncovered smiling woman, with a dash of lipstick and some décolletage to go with it!
The muttawa at IKEA had spotted the sinful uncovered westerners and started their customary yelling. These two women have been here for years and become accustomed and immune to the harassment so they continued shopping as if nothing had happened. This angered the bearded bullies and they started following the women repeating the same over and over and now adding they should leave the store. The women ignored and cheerfully talked in Finnish about the furniture, as if there was no disturbance whatsoever. They knew muttawa cannot touch them or make an arrest without policemen present. Pretending muttawa were just a tiny mosquito making some buzz had gotten rid of them every time. The muttawa left but this time only to return with two police officers.
The women did not give up and continued walking around trying to seem calm but at this point they were furious. Now one of the angry beards lost his cool. He grabbed the shopping cart one of the women was pushing and started to drag it in the opposite direction yelling barra (out)! She held on to it with all her might and pulled the cart back yelling no! Perfect example of Finnish SISU in action. This tug of war lasted for a while with onlookers gathering around. It ended in the victory of the woman and the defeated muttawa leaving with his tail beneath his legs.
Another Finnish iron lady and long timer here who also uses the ignoring tactic was shopping by herself in the Riyadh Gallery Mall. While inside a clothing store the muttawa squad entered and asked her to cover. She initially ignored but when it became apparent they would not leave she got frustrated, took a dress from the clothing rack and placed it on her head saying inshallah! She had forgotten her scarf home. Muttawa was satisfied.
Another similar incident at the same mall, a western woman is shopping with a group of friends, muttawa approaches and they all cover expect her, she had forgotten to take a scarf. The muttawa did not leave her alone but started getting aggressive and shouting for her to cover her hair. The resourceful woman took the plastic shopping bad she was carrying and placed it on her head. Muttawa left the scene.
A friend of mine was at a frozen yogurt place and wanted to sit down but saw a sign saying women are not allowed to sit inside. She asked why not and the worker said Hai’a officers won’t allow it. There was no clear indication it was single section, the place was secluded and there was nobody else around, so why not she asked?
Why were women allowed to enter, but not to sit down? The friendly salesperson then told her how one time some Saudi women had been sitting there and muttawa had raided the place to prevent this HUGE vice. The women had left but the poor Filipino worker was accused of not preventing it and his “charge” was allowing women to sit inside. What happened then is quite unbelievable. The Riyadh Vice Cops had actually HAND AND LEG CUFFED the worker, treating him as if he was one of the most dangerous criminals in the world. He spent two nights in jail for this horrid offense of allowing women to sit.. I don’t think they even leg-cuff mafia bosses or serial killers in such a manner!
Once while we were in a women’s clothing store with mom, a muttawa came up to the entrance and started shouting in Arabic. First we thought he was shouting at us but he was targeting one of the male salesclerks. The Turkish clerk looked anxious as the muttawa approached him. The 4 ft tall muttawa continued for a good five minutes of nonstop blabbering and preaching and the clerk was nodding his head, staring at the ground, looking humiliated. By now everyone in the store and the hallway had stopped shopping and were staring at the clerk in a condemning manner as if he had committed a big crime.
When the muttawa finally left we went to talk to the salesclerk because he looked absolutely devastated and about to cry. He told me how this same muttawa comes to his shop almost everyday and always picks on him. I must mention this was a well mannered, friendly young fellow, he was definitely not one of those overly “helpful” and slimy salesmen there are out there. He continued that the muttawa always complained and lectured him on his appearance and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
The first time the muttawa midget came, it was the ear length hair which had been deemed too long. The Hai’a guy made him leave work right there and then to cut the hair short or face jail sentence.
Now the hair was short but he’d put hair gel in it which was what the lecture had been all about this time.
The young man said it felt like being publicly shamed and bullied by this so called religious representative. He told us how he couldn’t wait for his contract to finish to get out of this horrible country! I told him to please ignore what the Hai’a say and that they don’t represent Islam or Saudis. We tried to make him feel better, he had done nothing wrong. We told him we understand how bad that feels and were sorry he was targeted. My mom talked with him too and afterward he seemed more cheerful about it and thanked us for the support.
Last week there was an incident in Riyadh where a Saudi woman got harassed by muttawa because of her nail polish and asked to leave the mall. The video has now gone viral all over the internet.
Thumbs up for this brave lady for standing up for herself against her harassers. Saudi-Arabia needs more women like her!
More on this incident from these two blogs:
Saudi Jeans: http://saudijeans.org/2012/05/25/saudi-jeans-8-nail-polish/
Saudi Woman’s Weblog: http://saudiwoman.me/2012/05/25/the-immodesty-of-nail-polish/
Some more reading about the religious police on Blue Abaya:
Do you have a muttawa story, positive or negative, to share?
P.S Non-Muslim women are not required to wear head scarf or face veil In Saudi-Arabia, only the abaya is compulsory and all women mentioned in this post were wearing abayas.