Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Virtue Commission under the spotlight

Sabria S. Jawhar

THERE has been an extraordinary amount of coverage of the doings of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Most of it hasn’t been very positive.
There have been fatal car chases, couples taken out of coffee shops and raids ending in death. The media glare has put the Commission under a spotlight. And naturally, the Western media loves to report this stuff.
The latest incident that was reported by the media involved a Filipina nurse who was arrested with her Western male friend in a Riyadh restaurant for being in a state of “khulwa.”The man was hauled off and shackled while the woman was jailed and not a word from her has been heard since. Even the Philippines Embassy has no access to her.
Many men I know believe there is a need for the Commission in the Saudi society. There is a need to ensure that our morality is protected and it does our society good to have noble men remind us of our duties.
Women, on the other hand, have mixed feelings about the Commission.The Western man dining with his Filipina companion was humiliated by being picked up by his belt and thrust into a Commission vehicle while diners tried to look the other way. But at the end he was released and his female companion remains in custody.
We also saw a similar incident with a businesswoman arrested in Starbucks.But the problem is not just unequal justice for men and women, it’s the inconsistency in which the laws are applied and the procedure in which these laws are enforced.
Let’s consider the case of the Filipina nurse and her companion for a moment. I don’t know whether they are Muslims, but even if they are they come from a part of the world in which two unrelated people having dinner together is a normal thing. We often tell foreigners that they must respect the customs and religion of their host country, but by the same token we did not respect their sensibilities. We should ask ourselves even whether a state of “khulwa” applies to non-Muslims. And if it does, should it be applied throughout Saudi Arabia and not just parts of it.
I’m sorry to have to inform the Commission that in Jeddah many unrelated couples go out for dinner or a cup of coffee together. If being in a state of “khulwa” is an offense that requires arrest, is it serious enough to shackle the offenders? Is it serious enough to deny a foreigner access to his or her embassy? And if it is indeed a serious offense, does that justify making a very public arrest and humiliating the offenders in front of others?
We were promised not long ago that the Commission would implement a program to educate its members on how to deal with foreigners, how to make arrests and how to counsel those who need reminding of their pious duties. It appears that little has been accomplished.Commission members have complained recently about the bad publicity they have been getting and that their noble deeds go unrecognized.It seems to me that it cuts both ways. Recognition for good deeds usually follows the good deed.
I’m not sure carrying a man by his belt and then clamping leg irons on his ankles is necessarily a sensitive or noble thing to do.If the Commission hopes to minimize the negative publicity it has received in the past years or so, then perhaps its policies and procedures, especially when dealing with non-Muslims, should be clearly defined.The Commission announced recently that it has set up a media and public relations department to counter negative publicity. Instead of countering bad press, though, I hope the new department will allow the Commission to be more transparent and helpful to the media and to the public in general.

1 comment:

rasheed said...

a good and thaughtfull article.well done.keep it up