- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia The diners were just getting ready for dessert when a squad of robed, bearded men suddenly bore down on their restaurant table.

They were the muttawa, the religious police who enforce Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic code, and they were sure they had uncovered an offense to God: 10 Arabs and Westerners at the same table, wives seated next to men other than their husbands.

"They wanted to know who the host of the decadent party was," one of the diners, a woman, recalled a few days later, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "One said he would kill his wife if he saw her sitting next to another man."

Finally, they made the men sit on one side of the table and the women on the other, she said.

This was no isolated incident. The religious police are as much a part of life here as the regular police, though much more powerful. What's different is that after years of silently putting up with the muttawa's strictures, some Saudis are beginning to speak out.

The muttawa are the shock troops of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, whose mission includes ensuring that women are covered in black, the sexes do not mix in public, shops close five times a day for prayers, and men go to the mosque and worship.

Saudis do not reject those duties. But many say the muttawa have exploited their broad mandate to interfere in the minutest details of people's lives.

These Saudis wonder, for instance, why a man is penalized for sporting a funky haircut; why women are banned from cassette, CD and video stores; why a female college student carrying an ad for the movie "Titanic" is accused of possessing pornographic material; why a man cannot take his fiancee to a restaurant without risking imprisonment.

"The muttawa speak a hieroglyphic language that we don't understand," Dawood al-Shirian, regional director of the daily Al Hayat newspaper, said in an interview.

The muttawa, whose office is near a U.S.-style strip mall with fast-food outlets, refused an Associated Press request for an interview.

They said, through the Information Ministry, that they don't talk to women, not even on the phone.

Until recently, most criticism of the muttawa was leveled in private.

But the floodgates were opened by eyewitness accounts of the muttawa stopping girls from fleeing a March 11 fire at their school in the holy city of Mecca because they were not covered in their mandatory black cloaks called abayas. Fifteen girls died.

Newspapers, especially the bolder Al Watan daily, published unprecedented attacks on the muttawa. Saudi officials came out in force to defend the police, an investigation cleared them of blame and editors were scolded for crossing the line.

The ruling Al Saud family is clearly in a bind.

With the shock of discovering that a preponderance of Saudis were among the hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks has come growing internal and external pressure, mostly from the United States, to rein in the religious establishment.

But to do so could stir up more fundamentalist fervor.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, and its king is the guardian of the faith's two holiest shrines, so it cannot afford to have its Islamic credentials put into question.

The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice holds the rank of Cabinet minister, and muttawa members are supposed to be graduates in Islamic law.

The muttawa don't wear uniforms or badges but are recognizable by their austere robes and headdress.

They mostly patrol in GMC sport utility vehicles, occasionally unmarked, usually accompanied by a uniformed policeman.

They sometimes are armed with sticks.

According to their guidelines, some of which were published recently in Al Watan, the muttawa cannot search people "unless they have been caught in a major crime."

But many wonder who determines what a "big crime" is, especially when a new tale of muttawa excess makes the rounds such as the woman who was recently caught dining at a restaurant with her fiance and was taken to a detention center and strip-searched.

Only married couples may dine out together.

Then there are rulings that seem arbitrary and illogical, such as that involving the maiden in the Starbucks logo.

When the Seattle-based coffee shop chain opened its first stores in the kingdom in September 2000, it had to delete the woman from the logo and leave only her crown.

The muttawa were vigilant about ensuring she didn't appear on any of Starbucks' products and forced at least one store to change its staff's aprons because the woman was depicted on them.

However, a few weeks ago, the muttawa decided it was all right to have her in the logo, and she is back on display.

At prayer time the muttawa patrol the streets with bullhorns or enter shopping malls and bang on the floor with sticks, to remind men to get to the mosques.

Women aren't obligated to attend prayers, and some restaurants allow female diners to remain at their tables after rolling down the shutters for the 30-minute prayer period. But that can be risky.

A coffee shop manager who failed to shoo out his female customers was jailed for two days, according to his employees.

Another duty that obsesses the muttawa is women's dress. The religious police are the only men in the kingdom permitted to look a woman up and down albeit from a distance and to be present at some women's functions.

The muttawa insist that the abayas be black and that a woman's head be entirely covered.

In an unusual public outburst, a woman named Jawaher Ahmed al-Jaber wrote in a letter published in Al Watan that there was nothing in Islamic law to support the rules on abayas.

"Why all this oppression, injustice and tyranny?" Miss al-Jaber wrote.

"They attack women with harsh words, like, 'You sinner, don't you fear punishment in the hereafter? Cover your head properly or we'll take you in the GMC,'" she said.

The results of muttawa rules jar with the modern shopping centers, fancy cars and technological gadgetry that are everywhere in the kingdom.

For instance, the new Kingdom Mall in Riyadh has a women-only floor, with no-entry signs showing a man's head with a red slash through it.

When it's prayer time, storekeepers have to lock their doors, and some hand over the key to a male colleague, sometimes trapping saleswomen and shoppers inside.

One evening, inside the Saks Fifth Avenue store on that floor, two Saudi women shoppers shook the shutters, pleading to be let out. But the female saleswoman didn't have the key.

For Saudis not yet bold enough to write protests to the newspapers, there are more subtle ways of showing defiance.

More and more women are wearing abayas with glittering red, blue or silver sequins on the cuffs or a denim pocket sewn on the back.

Youths choose Arabic love songs as ringing tones on their cell phones, defying a muttawa ban on music in public.

And young men and women circumvent the muttawa ban on mixing by spending hours talking on the phone or chatting on the Internet.

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