Ramadan, the busiest season of the year for the members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) aka Saudi religious police force. I like to refer to them more familiarly as the muttawa or Hai’a.
DISCLAIMER: This entire post is written in a sarcastic tone, tongue in cheek. For those readers that suffer from over-sensitivity and lack sense of humour, I recommend you don’t read any further, because you might get offended. EDIT : This post is from 2011, thankfully in 2017 the religious police are no longer present in malls or have any power in Riyadh)
During Ramadan malls all over Riyadh will fill up with Saudis shopping until they drop (which would be around 3 am). What a better opportunity for the moral cops to get some serious moral enforcement done! If you don’t know what Saudi religious police are read more here and find out some of my previous encounters with them here and here.
New toys for the bearded boys
Before the Holy Month the Hai’a have been busy preparing their fleet of white GMC Suburbans in anticipation of making many new arrests. CPVPV recently received some (about 53 million dollars) bribery ahem sorry support money from the royal family and they were able to pimp their 600 rides with hi-tech anti-immorality gadgets. The GMC’s now contain laptops, scanners, fax and copy machines and I bet a coffee machine and a plasma TV too.
Why is Ramadan such a fruitful time for religious police?
Firstly because the pure numbers of immodestly dressed women and men at malls nearly triple compared to normal months. Uncovered faces, male-leggings (meggins), pink shirts on men, shorts, flashy abayas, high heels, t-shirts with the highest button left unbuttoned. You name it- surely the muttawa will find it.
During daytime the religious police will be on the look out to catch foreigners secretly taking a sip of water or chewing gum in public places which is viewed as forbidden during Ramadan daylight hours (but only in Saudi-Arabia!) Ramadan also enables easier entry to malls for single men who are normally unable to enter malls without a female (guardian). They might try to sneak into crowded malls by infiltrating into groups of women as fake brothers.
Special opportunities for finding haram items
Food courts are another place of interest for the religious police since lots of haram mixing happens if the food court counters are not separated by screens. Women tend to remove their veils partially when eating in the closed family sections. This poses great potential for eager officers who’ve specialized in terrorizing dining females. Women’s clothing stores might have hidden dressing rooms in the back and if found, the Hai’a have really hit the jackpot! Another point of interest for muttawa are mirrors. Some shops for women’s clothing hide mirrors behind the racks to trick Hai’a officers.
Religious cops are also keen to check on the abaya shops for anything with too much color or bling-bling on it. In other words, anything other than ALL BLACK is a big no-no. There is no point of going to the abaya shops when the CPVPV members are present at the mall (if looking for anything else than the standard all black version). Abaya salesmen are clever enough though, often fooling the muttawa by hiding the flashy abayas by covering them with the plain ones. Even the abaya custom made catalogs for the embroidery and sequins have magically disappeared.
Hai’a fun field trips
Just the other day the Saudi religious police force were having a blast at one of their favorite hangouts Granada Mall, known to locals as “Ghornaata Moll”. As my husband and I entered, we noted the presence of not one but three CPVPV vehicles parked outside the entrance. I made a remark to my husband about them, betting we will run into the muttawa inside the mall. I counted a staggering seven muttawa apprentices in addition to the Big Boss donning the black cape (bisht), all accompanied by one or two security officers.
They were armed as if going into a war zone.
We actually went to this mall specifically to check out the Saudi Cancer Society Photo Exhibition held there. Funny how they allowed that btw. I took some pictures of the expo and before I could say “maashallah” I spotted the muttawa. The commission members didn’t seem to have any interest in the exhibition itself (although images of living things and art by Saudi women were on display and there was no segregation of sexes) but instead they were going in and out of stores checking for above mentioned forbidden things.
The bearded bullies enter a kids clothing shop
The store we were in was packed with women and children doing last minute Eid gift shopping. The joyous and relaxed mood suddenly changed to silence and wary looks when a religious police officer entered with a mall security guy. The bearded bully naturally did the most important thing first, going around the store telling (yelling at) all women to cover (all had niqab on).
He then picked out one of the salesmen and took him to the back room with the visibly awkward mall security officer. Everyone in the store was tense and quiet. The atmosphere was like being in a horror movie, will he return alive? Finally the door opened and the trio came out with the very pale and shaky looking sales clerk.
The commission officer then directed his attention toward my husband. He started an interrogation; name, family, father, tribe, workplace and so on.
Turned out this fashion police officer had an issue with my husband’s shorts, (which were below the knee length, which normally are OK) but nevertheless were deemed inappropriate. The muttawa told my husband to immediately leave the mall. My husband did not take him seriously and politely promised not to wear them next time. During this grilling session the security guy stood nearby looking extremely squirmy and embarrassed, trying to motion for the commission member to leave to the store.
The Hai’a guy ignored the security officer’s hint and then shifted his focus on me. He asked my husband: “Why doesn’t your wife have a niqab (face veil) on? Her face is exposed!” My husband replied: “What she is wearing is fine. It’s none of your business!” The muttawa insisted that “Saudi men should keep their jewels hidden.”
So what happened to the salesman, why was he singled out? I asked when we went to pay and he told us: The highest button on his T-shirt had been unbuttoned. The Hai’a officer had given him a long lecture in the back room about how it attract women, accusing the sales clerk of leaving it open on purpose for him to flirt with female customers.
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