Complaints Prompt Curbs on Saudi Religious Police

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". The head of Saudi Arabia's religious police has been quoted as saying that he's going to curb the power of the force's officers. This after some Saudi's have complained about abuses. The police in question work for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Their job is to enforce a ban on mingling between the sexes, make sure Saudi women dress modestly, and that men go to mosques for prayers. The BBC's Sebastian Usher is an Arab affairs analyst and he's been following the story. Sebastian, first of all, what do these religious police, the Mutawa, what do they actually do? I mean where do they go to kind of monitor that everybody is doing the right thing?

Sebastian Usher: Well, where you see them mostly is in shopping centers which are the main kind of areas of entertainment in Saudi Arabia. They're there to enforce several things. They're there to make sure that the five prayer times every day are enforced. The means if you're in a shop and the prayer call comes they will make sure that it's closed. So it caused a lot of frustration among Saudis and expatriates, they're about to buy something, they're at the front of a queue, the shop closes, they have to go to the back of the queue, it all has to start again. They also enforce, sometimes in quite a brutal way, the way that people should dress, women particularly, obviously. If they feel that women aren't dressed properly, they will go up to them, they will sometimes use force to tell them either they have to dress more modestly or they have to leave the shopping centers.

Werman: So tell us about this announcement made by the head of the Mutawa. What was the context in which he made it? Was it a press conference or something?

Usher: Well, he spoke to two of the main newspapers in Saudi Arabia. And he's a new man who was appointed earlier this year and he replaced a hardline head of the Mutawa who I think the Saudi authorities felt that he wasn't responding enough to the feeling, the growing public feeling that the Mutawa, the religious police, have overstepped the mark. So he has made quite a few announcements in the last few months to rein-in the religious police. There have been several incidents where the religious police, for example, one was caught on a mobile really quite violently berating a young woman in a shopping mall, telling her to get out because of her nail polish and because her face wasn't properly covered. That went viral, and that kind of thing has caused a lot of pressure within Saudi Arabia, the Saudi population itself, not just among the expatriates. So these interviews that he's given and have just been published, he was actually answering public concerns over that. So that's a new thing too, that an institution like this actually having it's head answer questions. I mean it wasn't answering questions like in a live press conference; this would have been an interview where he would have control over the questions and the answers, but it's still an openness that was once very unusual in Saudi Arabia.

Werman: So what do the rank-and-file members, the beat cops if you will, of the Mutawa, what do they think about this?

Usher: Well, I've spoken to people in Saudi Arabia and talked about the changes that the new head has announced and what they've been saying was quite interesting, is that actually, day to day, they've felt that it's been more oppressive in quite a few places recently and I think that's to do with people within the organization who resent what he's trying to do. A lot of these people who were in the religious police have become real religious zealots. Some of them were in prison and they got out of prison by learning the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and they've found a new identity though this.

Werman: The BBC's Sebastian Usher. Thanks so much.

Usher: Thank you.