In what could be a rare case in Saudi Arabia, two members of the country’s much-feared “moral” police were arrested after footage showing them shoving a crying woman on the ground emerged online.
Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also known as Haia, is the Gulf kingdom’s police force tasked with enforcing Sharia (Islamic law) in the society and is responsible for ensuring women and men are segregated in public and they do not do anything too "Western." Haia can arrest people for even the smallest actions, like giving hugs to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Since these religious cops posses quite a lot of power, they often misuse their authority and harass people — especially women — for no reason whatsoever.
That’s exactly what happened around two weeks ago when the Haia stopped a woman and her friend outside a mall in the capital city of Riyadh for reportedly not covering their faces properly.
However, the big difference this time around was that the Haia members involved in the incident were arrested, thanks to video streaming and social media sharing.
After the two women covered their faces, the officers allegedly tried to pull them into a vehicle. When they resisted, the cops chased them and roughly handled one of them, whose black robe (abaya) opened to reveal her leg. Only after a security guard intervened, the woman was saved.
The entire incident was caught on camera. The video made its way to the Internet and sparked a huge debate online.
Some defended the Haia for performing their job — according to them the cops were “protecting” the women from men outside the mall who were trying to flirt with them. But many others believe the police abused its authority, as always.
After nearly two weeks of online furor, the Saudi interior ministry took action, according to the Asharq al-Awsat and Okaz daily newspapers, saying “the individuals implicated in this assault were arrested for interrogation.” Names and other specifics of the arrested cops have not been revealed.
It’s not as if the Haia are never arrested for committing offenses. But it so happens that they are rarely found guilty.
For instance, in 2002, some members of the religious police allegedly hampered efforts to rescue 15 girls who died in a fire at a school in Mecca. According to several accounts of the tragic incident, the Haia stopped schoolgirls leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing headscarves. However, the officers involved were pardoned after an inquiry.
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Although, it’s not yet clear if the Haia policemen who shoved the woman will be prosecuted, the fact that they have been arrested is a big deal.