Relaymedia

Religious Police Enforce Strict Dress Code

Nov 06, 2002 03:00 AM EST

Saudi Arabia's religious police should show "leniency" and respect the people's privacy and freedoms, the Saudi interior minister said.

Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz gave his unprecedented public rebuke during a visit to the force's headquarters, according to the official news agency SPA.

The religious police, whose official title is the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, comprises more than 3,500 officers plus thousands of volunteers.

They patrol the streets to enforce the country's intensely conservative Islamic codes of dress and morality.

The religious police, also known as mutawa, instruct shops to close during prayer time and keep a lookout for any slips in strict dress codes.

Overzealousness

Often accompanied by a police escort, the mutawa can order the detention and arrest of "violators" or those who refuse to follow instructions.

But many Saudis have also accused them of being overzealous in the pursuit of their duties.

This criticism has been growing since March, when 15 schoolgirls died in a fire at their school in Mecca after the mutawa allegedly prevented male rescuers from entering because the girls were not veiled.

Privacy Invasion

And one Saudi told a correspondent in Riyadh he knew of several cases in which the religious police have broken into homes, on suspicion that alcohol was being consumed or inappropriate contact between the sexes taking place.

Prince Nayef called for a halt to these conducts when he met the force's chairman Ibrahim bin Ghaith, the kingdom's Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz al-Shaikh and senior religious officials on Saturday.

He said such raids must be approved by the provincial governor, spying should stop, and that law-abiding people's privacy should be respected.

However, the prince underlined his continued backing for the mutawa, denying reports that the government was planning on merging it with other security forces.

'Gentler Taliban'

Overall, the past few years have seen the slow erosion of many of the powers of the mutawa - which has been described as a "kinder, gentler Taliban" - along with the gradual liberalization of Saudi culture.

No longer are women beaten with sticks for allowing their faces to show.

However, a correspondent says Saudis are wondering whether another Gulf War could lend the religious police a new lease of life.

By Albert H. Lee