Religious police in Saudi Arabia

Women are excluded from Saudi police plans

Wael Mahdi, Foreign Correspondent

The National, June 29. 2009

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, will remain men-only.

JEDDAH // The Saudi religious police force is embarking on a 20-year strategic plan to restructure and modernise, yet the plan fails to include women in the force, a demand that the Saudi parliament (Shoura Council) has recently pushed for.
The plan, which ensures the continued social role of the vice police in combating moral infringements, has ended a debate in parliament about merging the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as the religious police are officially known, with the ministry of Islamic affairs.
The powerful religious police are not subject to any accountability by the Shoura Council or other government agencies and are part of the interior ministry.
The religious police’s unchecked power, and its harsh tactics with the public, prompted many members of the council to ask for its merger with the ministry of Islamic affairs, over which the council has oversight.
The Saudi government is supporting the long-term strategic plan, called Hisba , which means voluntarily fighting evil, that was launched this month by the deputy premier and minister of interior, Prince Naif.
Omaima al Jalahimah, a former conservative female consultant for the Shoura Council, wrote in her column in the Al Watan daily last week that although she approves of the plan as it is, she looks forward to seeing more women on its staff.
“I really wish to see fully capable female departments at the police supported by female security forces,” she wrote. However, many Saudis are sceptical that introducing women to the force would moderate its strict practices, and others believe that integration is impossible because it contradicts one of the major roles of the police – enforcing the segregation of the sexes.
Talal Bakri, the head of the social affairs and family committee at the Shoura Council, and who opposed the resolution to include women, asked the council members in one of last month’s sessions: “How can we hold the police accountable for the charges of mingling with females if they interact with their male colleagues?”
“Including female staff will add confusion to the organisation of the police and will conflict with its mission to segregate males from females,” said Mohammed al Zulfah, a former Shoura Council member.
Mr al Zulfah said the ministry of Islamic affairs and the religious police are male-dominated bodies similar to any other religious agency in the kingdom and thus cannot allow women to join their staff.

Adhwan al Ahmari, a Saudi reporter who specialises in covering religious police news for Al Watan daily, said even if the police force accepted women, they would be as strict as their male counterparts.
“Nothing will change … The police will recruit female staff with strict religious backgrounds and mainly they will be relatives to the existing members,” Mr al Ahmari said.
Hisba was drafted by the research and strategic planning centre at King Fahd University for Petroleum and Minerals, a public university that works closely with the oil-giant Saudi Aramco. Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Humain, the head of the religious police, said in a statement that the Hisba plan was aimed at improving the police’s work in the field and its organisational structure.
The plan also aims at improving communication and interaction between the religious police with the public.
“We have appointed two spokesmen to provide correct information about our activities,” said Mr al Humain following the signing of the agreement at the university this month.
The university’s strategic studies and planning centre will take one year to prepare the strategy. Once ready, the strategy will include a five-year executive plan in its first stage.
Sheikh Ibrahim al Huwaimel, deputy head of the religious police, said in a statement following the signing of the agreement that the executive plan covers development, training and educational programmes for the staff.
“We’ll also set out certain mechanisms to monitor quality of services and performance of workers. We’ll promote a culture of planning and strategic thinking among our officials and staff,” he said.
In addition to Hisba, the police announced this month that it had plans to reach out to the youth, a segment of society that especially dislikes police interference in daily life but attracts much of their attention.
The religious police announced last week that it will go into partnership with five ministries that handle youth issues – the ministries of education, higher education, culture and information, municipality affairs and youth welfare. The Saudi government is also implementing a wider plan to moderate religious institutions and widen the participation of all Islamic sects in the state building process of the Sunni-dominated kingdom.
As part of the plan, Saudi King Abdullah reshuffled the government in February to introduce moderate figures to the country’s religious institutions. King Abdullah increased the number of Shiite members of the Shoura Council to five from two, and added scholars from the Maliki doctrine to the council of senior scholars, which is dominated by Hanbali scholars.

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