Sunday, June 28, 2009

Saudi Vice, episode 27: The Big Brother Shopping Mall

Al-Arabiya reports that the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is soon to gain a new weapon in protecting Saudis from the horror of indecent behavior:
Saudi Arabia's religious police caused a stir this week after they told a parliament session they planned to install cameras in shopping malls to monitor and catch people committing what they labeled as "indecent behavior."

But the religious police defended their suggestion, which they said they were asked to do by the mall administrators.

"Firstly the decision is still open for discussion," Abdul-Mohsen al-Qafari, a spokesman for the religious police, said, adding "mall security officers will be in charge of surveillance and only in case violations or suspicious behavior would they contact the committee."

The committee's deputy chief, Ibrahim bin Suleiman al-Howaimel, denied press reports that the Shura Council had rejected the decision and said only some members had reservations.

Howaimel added that so far surveillance cameras have been a success in several malls in the capital of Riyadh and the holy city of Mecca, where cameras were installed two years ago.

"The decision aims at making the committee do its job as it is supposed to be by monitoring people's behavior. This is for the benefit of everyone," he added.

The committee has field officers all over the kingdom and their job is to make sure that unrelated men and women do not mingle and that stores close during prayer times. They also cooperate with the police to combat the use of alcohol and drugs.
Our heroes at the Muttawa have their defenders for this idea as well, as this letter to the Arab News attests:
Some say the commission is trying to strengthen its presence and power in malls by taking away personal freedoms. But are these cameras any different from security cameras aimed at preventing theft? Why do some consider cameras for monitoring sexual harassment a bad idea?

In Islam, protecting a person’s dignity is very important. So which is more important: monitoring against shoplifting or guarding against the theft of a woman’s dignity?

Fairness demands that we look at this issue with logic and reason. I am sure the commission is not going to use these cameras to blackmail shoppers or violate their freedoms. There are many women who in the Arabic press call for installing cameras in streets and shopping places to put an end to sexual harassment.
The letter writer is right - the religious police wouldn't even think of violating people's freedoms.

He leaves one question unanswered, tough: if the reason the Saudis force women to wear burqas and abayas is to make them immune from sexual harassment, why is there still so much sexual harassment that forces the Muttawa to install cameras? Has any study been done that shows a correlation of Muslim women dressing modestly and their safety from harassment? Or, perhaps, a reverse correlation?

UPDATE: The Muttawa now denies any plans to install such cameras. It now is focusing on the next real threat: immoral haircuts and jewelry:
Al-Homayyel said the Hai’a would work with the ministries of Education, Culture and Information, Municipal and Rural Affairs, and the General Presidency of Youth Welfare to fight alien customs such as “strange hairstyles, western clothes and sexual harassment.”

The Strategic Studies Center affiliated to the Hai’a has conducted a series of studies on what it called “alien habits” manifested in haircuts and neck chains worn by some teenagers influenced by Western fashion.