Growing Pains of Reform in Saudi Arabia

Reform is a slow process that takes years and sometimes generations. The ongoing tussle between the public and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Hayya) is one of the expected growing pains of reform in Saudi Arabia. A recent example was the Riyadh Book Fair, held during the past two weeks.

The event has received much publicity, both local and international. Other than the usual censorship issues, a lot of the attention has been criticism, aimed at an incident where two male authors were harassed by the Hayya for wanting to get the signature of a female author.

As in previous years the Hayya were out in full force and, ignoring their PR booth, were asserting their role as guardians of public morality. What is interesting to note is that the Hayya appear to have become more relaxed over time. This year saw most hours dedicated to family entrance and very little for gender segregated ones. Additionally it was the first time that women were allowed to work at the fair.

Below are excerpts from news reports about Hayya action in previous years and also links to other bloggers who wrote about the 2009 Riyadh Book Fair.

2006 Arab News: Lessons of Riyadh Book Fair

According to press reports, members and volunteers of the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue were in force everywhere. In the family days, where single men are not allowed, they were the exception. Carrying sticks and wielding religious authority, they went around telling women to cover their faces, wear “abayas” (black cloak) over their heads in one piece, rather than two — head scarf and body cover. In some instances, they told salesmen in bookstands not to smile or joke when talking to women. A man holding the hand of his half-blind wife was told not to show affection in public.

2009 Arab News: Frustrating Experience

The book fair, which ends on Friday, has been marked with controversy once again — with liberal and literary minded people complaining of harassment by the commission. For their part, religious authorities have complained, not just about the mingling of men and women at the fair or how women are dressed, but also about how they claim their voices are being quelled by the visitors.

In one of the more highly publicized incidents at the fair, Saudi writer Halemah Mozaffar was verbally accosted by men who identified themselves as commission members and accused her of immorality for not having her face covered and for signing books given to her by men — she had signed the books as the men had asked her to do so out of admiration for her work.

What is essential for reform is the continuation of raised voices about these controversial topics, with support and encouragement from the media. With Commission members no longer carrying sticks and two piece abayas being quite common, it should be interesting to see what happens at the 2009 Janadriyah festival which is allowing family days for the first time.

Writings by other bloggers on the Riyadh Book Fair 2009:

Images of Riyadh: MAJOR Dust Storm

This dust storm came super fast. The sky turned dark and yellow within a matter of minutes. Here is the view of Faisaliyah Tower:

P3100002

The last dust storm:

P2110002

The normal view:

 faisaliyah

Here is a view of Olaya Street:

sandstorm

2009 Doom & Gloom Update: Protests in Singapore

Singapore is famous for its efficiency (thus the nickname Singapore, Inc) and infamous for its harsh penal codes for seemingly minor infractions like littering and spitting. Like any other country it has been shaped by the circumstances under which it was created, and the environment in which it has survived since then.

This “red dot in a sea of green” faced race riots in the 1960s that left several people dead. Neighbors turned on neighbors and most Singaporeans in their late 40s and older remember the time vividly. In the words of many, they would rather live in a controlled but safe country than have more freedom but face uncertainty. This mind-set drives the laws of the country where people are not allowed to congregate in groups larger than 3-4 people without explicit permission. Peaceful protestors like the Fallun Gong have been known to be arrested or removed.

With this backdrop it is shocking to hear that there were protests in Singapore by around 100 unemployed Bangladeshi migrant workers in front of the Ministry of Labor. An indication of the desperation of the workers in the recession plagued economy, Singapore is gearing up for an increase in what it calls “recession crimes“. Several other ASEAN countries like Thailand and Indonesia are also expecting an increase in violence as a result of economic malaise.

PR by Saudi Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice

Saudi Arabia is infamous for it’s “religious police” who are actually not police but civil servants entrusted with policing society for moral wrongs. Affectionately called Hayya, infamously called Mutawwas, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice tends to have a love-hate relationship with the population.

The recent change of the Commission leadership by King Abdullah was noted by many. The new head has since then made several statements about the new role of the commission, and the need to tone down the tension.

A noteworthy attempt is the Commission PR booth at the Riyadh Book Fair (March 3-13, 2009 at the new Riyadh Exhibition Center). Amidst the religious books by Saudi publishers, the varied books by Lebanese and Egyptian publishers and the kids books by Syrian publishers is the Commission booth. Not to be confused with the Commission resting/tea area by the info counter, it features examples of items that they have confiscated, photos of items found in raids and also the reasons WHY they are banned. There were also several Commission members explaining things at this fairly popular booth!

If one did not know better, just by the items on display you would assume that they are the Saudi Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) equivalent with a special twist of having an Improper Use of Magic Office a la Harry Potter.

Judging by the number of people that thronged the booth, it was clearly a hit! Perhaps the Hayya need to further reach out through such toned down and educational means. It would certainly give them an opportunity to develop a friendlier relationship with the population.

Insulting Royalty- Saudi Arabia and Beyond

Many countries with royal families tend to be extremely protective about defending their honor. Thailand was recently in the news because of the jailing of an Australian writer for insulting the monarchy and his subsequent pardon. A few weeks later a British professor ran from Thailand with similar charges against him. Several years ago Spanish magazines were pulled off the shelves for depicting insulting images of the royalty.

Saudi Arabia is similar to many of these countries regarding the high regard for the royal family, with an additional aspect- the Saudi monarchy are the ACTUAL rulers of the country, not just figureheads! This seems to elevate them to an even higher standard where criticism is not allowed at all and makes people very sensitive about the topic. Blogs that criticize the Saudi royals are blocked in the country as are several human rights web-sites.  Defacing the currency is a big no-no as it has images of the royalty on it. People discuss issues like corruption off the record in “safe” settings with trusted friends only. 

These cultural sensitivities were highlighted last week when the coach of the Al-Hilal football (soccer) team was fired and told to leave the country because he threw down his shirt that had the picture of Crown Prince Sultan on it. This happened right after his team won at the Crown Prince Cup. The organizers of the match did not allow the whole team to come to the podium; in anger the coach did not go to the podium and threw his shirt. The next day he was fired. His apology was not accepted.