(AP) – Saudi Arabia’s religious police are under attack
again over what critics consider heavy-handed enforcement of the country’s
gender segregation policies and other strict social rules.
This time the case involves an American businesswoman who went with a male
colleague to a Starbucks branch in the Saudi capital and ended up in jail
for sitting in a coffee shop with a man who is not a close relative.
The brief detention of the woman, identified only as Yara, drew headlines in
Saudi media, prompting one writer to call the Feb. 4 arrest “an abduction.”
A local rights group called for an explanation from the religious police. A
senior U.N. official described it as “harassment. ”
Responding to the criticism, the religious police issued a statement
published Tuesday by Saudi newspapers that said officers were justified in
Islamic law does not allow police to ignore the prohibition against a woman
“sitting with a man who is not a relative and exchanging words and laughter
with him,” said the statement by Abdullah al-Shithri of the Commission for
the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
The commission added that it reserved the right to take legal action against
Abdullah al-Alami, a columnist for the newspaper Al-Watan who accused the
religious police of abducting Yara.
Yara’s story, which first appeared in the English-language Arab News, is one
of a string of incidents that have provoked a public outcry against the
Last year, members of the religious police were put on trial in two separate
cases, each involving the death of a man in custody. Judges dropped charges
against them, but the unprecedented trials provoked calls for reforming the
Controversy over the police also flared last year when a women who had been
gang-raped by several men was sentenced to six months in prison and 90
lashes for being in a car with an unrelated man.
The religious police enforce the kingdom’s strict Islamic lifestyle. They
patrol public places to ensure women are covered and not wearing makeup, men
and women don’t mingle, shops close five times a day for prayers and men go
to a mosque to worship.
While many Saudis say they support the idea of having the commission because
its mandate is based on several verses in the , they also say it should
be regulated because the free rein it has long enjoyed has led to some of
its members overstepping their duties.
Yakin Erturk, the U.N. special investigator for violence against women who
recently visited the kingdom, was quoted by Arab News as saying Yara’s case
was “a telling example of harassment.”
“She was subjected to humiliating and illegal treatment before she was
released,” Erturk said.
The National Society for Human Rights said it wanted to know why the
commission officer was not escorted by a regular policeman and did not have
an identity badge, according to Arab News.
A close relative of Yara, who is a
with her Saudi husband and three children, said she had on no makeup when
she was detained and was dressed in the black cloak that women are forced to
wear in public in .
The relative, who agreed to discuss the case only if not quoted by name,
said Yara, 37, went to Starbucks just to use its wireless Internet
connection after being told power was out at the office her company is
opening in , the Saudi capital.
A male Syrian colleague joined her in the coffee shop’s crowded family
section, reserved for women and families, the relative said. He said Yara
was quickly taken away by religious police, made to listen to a lecture on
sin and forced to sign papers admitting she had been in illegal seclusion
with a man who is not her husband. She was released 5 1/2 hours after her
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