A news article published in Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper reported that the police recently arrested young men who helped a girl escape from the Committee of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the country’s religious police. The article was published alongside a photo of a covered girl, wearing an abaya and niqab, running as men pursued her.
The article said that the committee’s men raided a car parked in front of a mall because a girl, whom according to the photo was very-decently dressed, was sitting in the car with a man. Some young men helped the girl escape from the committee’s men, and then escaped themselves.
But the story didn’t end there as the committee’s men resorted to the police for help. The news piece said: “Following a pursuit, the police managed to [arrest] the offenders.”
From an Islamic and moral perspective
The terms used in the piece are appropriate for a news piece on drug dealers and murderers. But the offense here is that a woman and a man sat in a car in front of a mall! I am aware that our conservative society does not approve of the presence of a girl with an unrelated man in a car but I am looking at the issue from its Islamic and moral perspective. I am talking about the approach of violating people’s sanctities and properties under the excuse of reform and fighting vice. What if fighting one vice leads to committing ten vices? What if it leads to persecuting people and causing them harm? In the same edition of the newspaper, there was an article the arrest of a committee employee because he forged arrest warrants and searched houses without a valid warrant. Did this result from the enthusiasm to fight vice? Did this enthusiasm result in committing a vice worse than that being fought?
Some may say that raiding a man’s car because he was dating a girl is an act of reform. But what about the hundreds of other houses and cars which were raided only to find married couples? These married couples were insulted and their sanctities have been violated. A hospital employee told my husband that a committees’ employee stopped him and his pregnant wife while they were in their car and asked him who the woman was. He also told my husband that he forced himself not to fight with them and that he was very angry.
A man who works in an office where women and men mix had a similar incident. On a rainy day, his female colleague’s car broke down so she asked him to drop her home. He said that committee employees approached the car and started banging on it the minute she stepped into his car. He added that they took him and the girl to the committee’s office in an insulting manner and that the girl’s parents, who already know she works with him, were contacted. He also said that their phones were confiscated for two days and that, as a joke, he was asked why he has female followers on Twitter.
Is this virtue? That an official committee pursues people and interferes in their private lives under the excuse of reform? Where is the individual’s responsibility and conscience? What will God hold people accountable for if they cannot be reformed unless there’s someone to reform them despite their will? Is virtue still a virtue if attained by persecution and prohibition? Do we have the right to search people’s vehicles and houses even if we forge search warrants or if we believe the words of those who are tasked with spying on people? What if, in the best case scenario, 20 percent of the resulting reports are true? What about the other 80 percent of false reports? Is it acceptable for any committee that thinks it is protecting morals to impose such a bitter siege upon the public? Those who reject their activity find themselves in a state of rivalry with men who are supposed to guard peace and security.
Some incidents have resulted in tragedies. The last of these tragedies was the killing of two young men a few months ago on national day. There was no girl with them in the car, and the whole incident occurred because the two men were playing the national anthem at a high volume. Before that, a man was killed after his car was pursued because he was playing a religious recording at a high volume. The young men who liberated the girl from the committee’s employees in order to protect her from a scandal, did not liberate a drug dealer. However, they still find themselves in hot water.
We hear that the committee’s slogan is “preventing vice without [committing] vice.” What if you begin by practicing virtue this time?
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 4, 2013.
Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University's Department of Social Studies.
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