Friday, October 03, 2008

Saudi Vice, episode 20: Wear any color as long as it is black

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has been under pressure lately. Saudi newspapers have been criticizing it, their members have been associated with murdering and fatal high speed chases, and in general the religious police have felt that their grip on power has been slipping, and with it the morals of the entire great country of Saudi Arabia.

To counteract this, they have been stepping up their activities against the most immoral and depraved of Saudi society - the shopkeepers who sell adorned abayas:
In an attempt to reassert their power, Saudi Arabia’s religious police have ordered shopkeepers in downtown Riyadh to get rid of all adorned abayas, the black robes worn by women in the kingdom, as shopping picks up ahead of the Eid religious holidays next week.

Salesmen in Al-Maagaliah market, just across the block from the headquarters of the religious police, or mutawa’a, this week were turning away frustrated shoppers who wanted abayas with a hint of colour or decoration, telling them that shopowners could face fines or prison.

In recent years, the signature flowing robe that covers Saudi women from head to toe started to show some form with trimmed sleeves, beads or colour, a sign of relaxation of the strict social norms in the conservative kingdom.

Though the changes were subtle, abayas provoked a tug of war between the liberal voices lobbying to give women more choice and conservative religious institutions determined to impose their austere ways through the religious police.

Liberal commentators say the religious police who roam shopping malls and public places are using the crackdown to demonstrate their continued authority after recent moves that have curbed their arbitrary powers.

After allegations of gross violations of human rights led to media uproar, the mutawa’a have been banned from chasing suspects without an escort from the regular police. They have also been forced to carry government-issued identification cards.

Women’s rights activists, however, are concerned that the crackdown on the abaya marks a setback after early symbolic gains achieved since King Abdullah came to power in 2005.

“They [the mutawa’a] want women to be faceless, nameless and shrouded in blackness,’’ said Samar Falan, a women’s rights activist and writer based in the city of Jeddah.

“We kept quiet when we should have confronted the radicals. I believe Muslim women should dress modestly and cover their hair, but they do not have to look gruesome.”

They should focus on fighting vices, not women,’’ says Buthaina Nassr, another activist. “I do not understand why they force us to wear black in such a hot country while men can wear white.”
In other Sharia news, Saudi Arabia announced that terrorism suspects will be tried in Sharia courts.

Which means that if the terrorists memorize enough of the Quran, they should be able to get out of jail earlier.