Monday, May 17, 2010

Meet the Saudi Religious Police

As you might have heard, the streets and shopping malls of KSA and especially Riyadh are patrolled by the "religious police" commonly known as muttawa. Their officially called the Hai'a and they work for the Committee of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. There are around 3500 religious policemen plus thousands of volunteers also known as freelance muttawas.
Here is a brief humorous guide for newbies in Saudi to understanding more about what muttawa actually are.

How to spot the religious police on the streets? How are they dressed?
They will be wearing white thobes that do not pass ankle length. The Big Boss might be wearing a golden-brown Harry Potter-style cape on top of the thobe. They will surely have a long beard and a ghutra (the head cover that resembles a table cloth to some) without the black igal on top. They usually roam in groups of two or even more to gain more intimidation factor. Muttawa usually have a stern, even scary expression on their faces and I have never seen a smile. Muttawas might carry a stick to beat a woman's or man's legs if behaving improperly or dressed immodestly.

How do muttawa get around? Are there any warning signs that they are approaching?
The Hai'a mode of transport are white GMCs with CPVPV logo on the side. The cars have megaphones on the roofs. During prayer times squads will be patrolling the city reminding people to pray with a very loud "haya al salah"  heard from the speakers. Another way to know is if you are a western woman and an angry looking man in a thobe is shouting at you in a loud voice to cover your hair. That would be a muttawa.

Here are the muttawa headquarters in Riyadh and a very brave woman who is not covering her hair and is exposing her forearm!

What is the job description of a muttawa?
Muttawas don't actually have an official job description. There has recently been talk in the media about the importance of having one following some very unpleasant and even violent actions taken by religious policemen. On their official website it is stated their duty is to "preserve Muslim society by guidance and good example". Muttawa seem to improvise as they go, acting as sort of  performance artists sometimes.
Most common duty of a muttawa is telling (sometimes shouting) women to cover their heads or hair. If the women under scrutiny are Saudi they will be asked to cover their faces or eyes depending on how much the woman is already covered.
If a muttawa squad encounters a woman and a man together under suspicious conditions, such as riding in the same car or shopping together, they will request to see a marriage license. If the couple does not have it, they will be taken to the station for questioning and interrogation. The police must be present in order for the Hai'a to actually arrest anyone.
Their duties also include blacking out haram figures from womens magazines (cleavage, legs, arms)blacking out women from inflatable swimming pool packages and basically wherever they find pictures of uncovered women. Hai'a might raid stores for haram goods such as music CDs, stuff that resembles crosses or other religious symbols, Barbies without abayas and forbidden books like Harry Potter and the atrocious Winnie the Pooh which features a piglet!The Horror! The confiscated items are brought on display at the yearly Riyadh Bookfair.

Here is an example of how dedicated the muttawa are sometimes:

How can one become a muttawa?
One way to become a member of the Hai'a is to commit a crime and get a jail sentence. While in jail,  it is good to memorize the entire Quran and become known as a "Hafiz". That way the sentence will be shortened, and once the convict is out they might be given a chance to practice the newly learned skills from jail in public by joining the Hai'a.

Here's another work of madness, uups I mean prevention of Vice of course!

Why do muttawa do what they do?
That is a very good question. There are some members that give the whole Hai'a a very bad reputation by harassing women in particular and going to extremes and resorting to violence. Muttawa are not popular among either locals nor expats coming to Saudi.
The picture given of Islam to foreigners is questionable and distorted because Islam teaches "there is no compulsion in religion" and that "to each their own religion and deen". Forcing people, especially non-Muslims to act and look like Muslims is certainly not what was done during the times of the Prophet Muhammed.

I have to be fair and admit I have met a few very polite, highly educated and well-mannered muttawas. I would even go so far as to saying they were perfectly gentleman-like in their conduct. They presented themselves in such a manner that it left a positive, interesting and good-intending picture of Islam.
So I guess we should never judge the book by its covers..Or in this case, the religion by some of its followers!


Vanamo said...

Salam aleikum,
it was interesting to read about this topic as before I got to know about it only through some books and newspapers. May Allah save you from not encountering any problems with them, insha Allah.

Soile said...

Love your blog! Kinda makes me want to go back to Saudi again ;-)

Layla said...

Thanks Soile :) welcome back!!

Unknown said...

Hi there, stumble upon your blog from other's...nice blog..

You reminded me while I was back there in Saudi studying in 1992 - that time the was no email nor facebook, so the only way to get myself connected to the world outside was by subscribing to Newsweek...

and my Newsweek will arrive just like the poor Piglet, tainted on every page and sometimes they even made their job easier by tearing the whole page and left me not understanding an article for the ending was part of the page...haha...

And nowadays we only go there just for the Haramain...

Keep up the nice writings...


Layla said...

Salaam Azhar!

Thanks and welcome to my blog :)

yes they still do that sometimes, rip the whole page off which leaves you wondering what the rest of the article was about!

The Pink Tarha said...

We're also ladies living and working here in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Like you, we're not fans of the muttawas. They usually scold us for not wearing our veils and they always look frightening and intimidating. Although, we've also met some well-mannered and educated ones.

Anyway, your blog is very interesting. Love the "Blue Abaya" name of your blog. It's funny because our blog is titled the "pink tarha," which means pink veils. We named it in honor of the veils we have to wear here (and the reason why we're usually scolded by the religious police, hehe!).

Aafke-Art said...

That woman in front of the Muttawa headquarters is just só indecent! look at all that exposed skin! Shocking!

I know who blacks out haram body parts.

Layla said...

you're right, I should have that blacked out immidiately!

Aliyah said...

asalamu aleikum
very interesting article Laylah. i really cant believe they are that strict people. u cant find such thing not even in the Quran. why some people like to be extremist?? i wish i could have a talk with these kind of people and proove them wrong but i know their brain is so limited that they can never understand a thing unless its their way. i recently read "Girls of Riyadh" and i can see clearly that men over there are allowed to do everything they want, but women...hmm not fair.
regarding the fact that who ever enters saudi arabia should be covered, i couldnt agree more with this. otherwise saudi arabia would become another dubai which is really disgusting.

Giselle Lanterns said...

that makes sense. but of course by preventing women being harassed, NO OFFENSE, really! to other saudi guys out there: Some of them became ignorant about seeing a women's face like some other filipino women in here, they don't usually cover their face (due to some common reactions like "it's hot!", "it'll be a result of overacting.", "blah blah blah" something like that.)
Still, it's a good idea, whenever some people are lazy to change, or shy and thinking that their outfit doesn't suit her/them, or maybe their it is inappropriate, they'll just cover it with abaya and a messy hair to be covered by tarha! :D