As I promised on a previous post, I will share some experiences my friends and I have had with the Saudi religious police officers, better known as the muttawa (read more about them here). Officially the name of the organization these religious police officers work at is CPVPV, short for Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
These are all real situations that have occurred during 2008-2010 in Riyadh to friends of mine and some of them I was involved in myself. You can find Muttawa encounters Volume Two here.
My first encounter with the Saudi religious police aka muttawa or Hai’a, was at the Janadriyah heritage festival held once a year on the outskirts of Riyadh. It’s a huge exhibition area that displays saudi culture from all over the country, and this was women’s only day whcih they still had back then. While we were exiting the festival area, there was a muttawa squad at the gate checking that all exiting females had covered their hair. For what reason-I have no clue since only women were around! That day wearing a hat like this which we had just purchased from the festival! (that day was hot and women were selling them in every corner so we got ones too)
So the hair was covered. But the muttawa insisted I take it off and wrap my scarf around my hair. I asked him, so you want me to expose my hair then? He didn’t know what to answer, he just repeated like a robot: you must cover your hair! I still insisted it is covered already. The muttawa did not give up so I removed my hat which caused my hair to fall down, and then I wrapped the scarf around my head. This actually left more hair visible. So what was the point of this again?
In Granada mall, it’s school vacation time 10 am and we are shopping in a group of three girls. There’s a lot of teenaged Saudi boys and girls around. We spot the muttawa, they are in a group of 3 muttawas accompanied by two policemen. That means trouble, it means they can arrest us!
At the time I wasn’t covering my hair and had forgotten to take my “in case of muttawa scarf” with me. So I quickly tried to find a shop to go buy one. Too late, they already had spotted me! They started following me around and into shops (even lingerie shops), shouting cover your hair! I pretended not to hear and kept searching for a scarf to buy. Finally I found one, put it on and they were gone, so I then removed it again. Later we saw four teenage girls running as fast as they could with the same muttawa running and shouting behind them! It was hilarious, the girls hadn’t covered their hair and their abayas were OPEN! Wow how courageous of them. I assume they were about 14 years old. They ran out of the mall into their car and weren’t caught.
In Faisaliyah mall: four western girls are having dinner at the family section of the food court which is surrounded by walls and there are no men nearby. Two muttawas come in, the older one is wearing the black cape making him look more intimidating to the girls. Muttawas immediately head to the girls in the middle of their meal and ask them to cover. They ask why? Answer: Because you are in Saudi-Arabia. The girls feel baffled, why are they being disturbed while eating alone in a quite corner in family section, obviously sitting there for privacy. In their own language they decide to go in the ladies room, not to cover their hair and just wait for them to leave to continue the meal in peace. But muttawa follows them and waits outside the toilet until they come out.
In Panda: a western couple is grocery shopping. Muttawa comes up to the wife and tells her to cover her hair. The husband gets upset and challenges the muttawa, how dare they speak to his wife in that manner?They have no right to address her or to even glance at her. Muttawa leaves her alone.
In Kingdom mall: A western woman who is Muslim but chooses not to cover her hair and her Saudi husband are shopping. Muttawa approaches the woman: cover your hair! Says to husband: pray that Allah will forgive her! Saudi husband replies: No YOU pray that Allah forgives your behaviour and for her want to wear hijab one day, otherwise leave her alone it’s her decision!! Muttawa leaves the scene.
Also in Kingdom mall: western man runs into his female colleague from work outside a shop, they start chatting. Muttawa approaches them, asks them are they married. They ignore him. Muttawa starts beating the man on his legs with his walking stick. Western man looks at muttawa in a bad way and continues talking to colleague. Muttawa whips the western man even harder with his stick. Western man grabs the stick from the muttawa, throws it over the edge down to the first floor and continues conversation. Muttawa leaves the scene to retrieve his stick and does not return.
In Hayat mall: Western man is shopping, it’s prayer time and the shops close. Two muttawas approach him and ask why he is not praying. Man replies because he isn’t Muslim. Muttawas then drag him forcefully into the shopping malls mosque, and make him stand in the back the whole time watching the other men pray.When the prayer is finished they let him go.
A young western woman goes to get take-out food with two male colleagues after work. They drive to the shwarma place and the men go out to get the food. Usually she would wait in the car but this time she decides to step out. Her hair is not covered and she has left her handbag in the car. Muttawa drives by, spots them and starts questioning them, how they know each other and why they are together. She would have been fine if she had only taken the bag with her to show her ID and say she is just walking around. The muttawas don’t speak english and she doesn’t know what’s going on. So they are all shoved in the muttawa GMC and taken to the police station. The woman is interrogated and made to strip to her underwear in front of the female staff who are all laughing at her and demanding she strip naked. Nobody speaks english and she still doesn’t know what is going to happen. She is given clothing to change to, and only then she realizes that they are putting her in jail! So she ends up spending two nights in jail, until her sponsor comes and gets her out. It’s Ramadan so there’s obligatory fasting for everyone. There are many other women in the large prison cell crammed together lying on dirty floors or benches. Some women are crying, some even have small children with them. Read the full story here: Expat’s Tale from a Saudi Jail
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