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Girls & Women

Saudi Arabia’s notorious religious police stripped of authority

Joelle Hatem/ Flickr

In Saudi Arabia, agents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice can no longer chase, harass or arrest civilians.

These agents are known as the Mutawwa, or religious police, and are notorious for lurking in public spaces to monitor the behavior of citizens. The group consists of about 3,500 officers and thousands of volunteers who take it upon themselves to uphold strict Islamic behavioral codes.

If a person is considered to have crossed a cultural norm, then she will likely be confronted by these roving enforcers.

Up until now, these enforcers could be rough, harassing, beating and arresting people, especially women, for doing things such as playing music too loudly, conversing with someone of the opposite sex, not wearing the appropriate clothes, using or consuming un-Islamic products, engaging in anything thought to be un-Islamic, etc.

Perhaps the most egregious case of abuse by the religious police occurred in 2002 in Mecca. A girl’s school caught fire and religious police prevented 15 girls from leaving the building because they didn’t have the correct Islamic dress and weren’t escorted by a male. The girls subsequently died in the fire.

This is an extreme example of abuse, but on a daily basis citizens are subject to overzealous cultural enforcement.

So this decision has the potential to make parts of Saudi civilian life a little less suffocating for people--after all, being surveilled at all times is inherently stifling.

Now the religious police can only report instances of transgression to the actual police. And they’ve been instructed to be more “gentle.”

The law has the potential to improve conditions for women who face steep gender barriers.

In the past few years, there have been signs that the country is starting to grant women more freedom.

For instance, women have greater access to educational and career opportunities than in the past and recently gained the right to vote (although they have to do so with a male escort). 19 women were elected to municipal seats last December.

Women still face countless barriers, but stripping the religious police of much of their authority will help reduce everyday discrimination.

It’s a cause for celebration--even if that celebration is just a sigh of relief.