Saudi Arabia: Should a woman cover her face?

Arab News
Raid Qusti comments, "As human beings, we should be free to practice our own faith and live our own lives, as long as doing so does not harm anybody and does not break the law."
Which makes me raise the question: Is there a written law in Saudi Arabia or in Saudi Basic Law that says a Saudi woman must cover her face in public? I do not know if such a law exists. When I asked several Saudi lawyers, the answer was “No.”
Every society in the world has laws as part of its structure. These laws are written and codified so that anyone who wants can look them up in public libraries. Every citizen in those countries knows the law; if they don’t, they can easily find out. Unfortunately, there is much vagueness about Saudi law, especially when it comes to social conduct.

Worse still, there is a government body known as “The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” It is known generally as the mutawaa, or religious police, and they operate all over the Kingdom without laws or written guidelines.

Their mission is to stop corruption in society — which honestly they have been doing very well. They shut down brothels, crack down on drug traffickers, and detain people who do forbidden things in our cities and towns. For that we give them credit. At the same time, complaints from the public against the narrow-mindedness of some of the organization’s members are on the increase. Instead of being something to be proud of, most members of the public fear the organization as if everyone in it were phantoms or bogeymen.

People hired to do these jobs should be of the highest quality and possess considerable religious knowledge. That is not, unfortunately, what we see in reality. The reality is people in our streets and malls who are obsessed with women who do not cover their faces in public and who are implementing their own version of the law according to their own personal beliefs.

“Cover your face woman,” “Fear God,” “The abaya is supposed to be worn over the head and not on the shoulders.”

I personally have had my own experiences with them. The last was a few months ago when one of them approached me and my family in the mall. The shock was not that I found two bearded young men in a public mall, yelling at women who were violating what they believe is a dress code but that the two young men were not members of the commission. “Excuse me, are you from the commission?” I asked one of them after he gave a lecture which in sum was that a woman must cover her face in public as a sign of purity.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked. And I answered, “I am from the media. And my understanding is that every commission member must wear a name tag, according to what the head, Ibrahim Al-Ghaith, said in an interview with Okaz.”

After some hesitation, he said, “No. I am not from the commission. What difference does that make? As a Muslim, you should be happy when a brother Muslim gives you advice and even if I were from the commission, what would you do?” he challenged.

For some reason, I did not want to engage in further discussion with him so I said, “Thank you for your advice” and my family and I walked away. We could still hear him yelling, “The abaya is not on the shoulders!” “Cover your face, woman”!

When I asked the head of mall security why he allowed someone to come in and begin yelling at women, I had a further shock. “Why are you so concerned? Is it because he is telling women to cover their faces?” I answered as best as I could. “No. It’s because if every person takes the law into his own hands, society will soon be in chaos. There is a specific government body allocated to oversee social conduct. If I saw a traffic jam in the street, would it be appropriate for me to get out of my car and organize the flow of traffic, even if I had the best of intentions?” His response will surprise nobody — “I am sorry, but we do not have authorization from the authorities to stop these people. There is nothing I can do.”

I then picked up the phone and called an official at the Ministry of the Interior. But he informed me that malls were the responsibility of the governorate. In other words, I would have to direct the matter to the governor of Riyadh that I confess I have not done.

If it is not enough for us to have to deal with the narrow- mindedness of many members of the commission, we also have to deal with “good intention propagators” who are given a free hand to preach whatever they like in our malls without anyone stopping them. Most of us would be happy to read a written law or guideline printed in the local media explaining what these people consider “corrupt.” I wish I could tell these people that one of the observations made by the second National Forum for Dialogue is that the people of Saudi Arabia come from different backgrounds and ideologies and that there are those who follow all four schools of Islamic thought and that all should be respected. However, I doubt they would do much beyond mocking me and the forum’s recommendations. And no doubt they would believe that such forums have no right to decide anything anyway.

Yesterday, a local newspaper reported that a member of the commission was sentenced to lashes and imprisonment because he had defamed a woman in public because she did not cover her face. The male member of the family refused to forgive him and brought two witnesses to court who testified that they heard the man use unprintable words to the woman. I personally have spoken to people whose family members have experienced the same treatment from members of this commission. Is this what things have come to in Saudi Arabia?