In February I wrote about the “heroic” role the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice can play in Saudi society, noting that the commission can earn the confidence of the people it serves by protecting women from predators. When some Hai’a members become the predator, however, then they betray all Saudis.
Recently a girl, who was reported to be a runaway, was arrested in Tabuk after she asked a man for a ride to the bus station so she could return to her family in Jeddah. The Hai’a says the girl asked the man to smuggle her to Jeddah in his car.
Recently it’s been reported that the young woman is not a runaway but a divorced mother who was visiting her child in Tabuk and was returning to Jeddah.
The young woman was detained and taken to the commission’s Tabuk headquarters. During Maghreb, several people at a nearby mosque reportedly heard a woman’s screams from the headquarters and called police. The girl allegedly had been severely beaten and taken to the hospital for treatment. Bruises were said to have been found on her body. It was also alleged that she had been choked.
The Hai’a members denied they beat the girl and imply the injuries were self-inflicted. The Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution is investigating.
The Hai’a’s version of events doesn’t ring true. They should leave the stories of prisoners abusing themselves to the experts, like the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudis are not so gullible.
If indeed those members beat this young woman, then it’s a betrayal of Saudi society in the worst sense. It’s further evidence that Hai’a’s rogue members are accountable to no authority and they wage terror in the name of instilling virtue. These Hai’a members, if the investigation reveals wrongdoing, used their mandate to prevent vice and promote virtue as a shield to inflict pain with impunity on the people they were supposed to protect.
There have been many attempts to rein in commission members. There was the laughable campaign five years ago to develop a “kinder and gentler” commission. There was this year’s effort to spell out in writing the duties of commission members, much like a job description. But as I mentioned in February, these measures mean nothing without enforcement to govern behavior and accountability for those who abuse their authority.
The incident in Tabuk so thoroughly damages the Hai’a’s credibility that no woman may feel confident to seek sanctuary at their headquarters or flag down a commission member on the street if she is harassed.
The rule of thumb in Saudi Arabia is that change comes when Saudi society permits it. That’s how we skirt around the issues of women driving, child marriages and allowing women equal access to jobs and to the judicial system. If no one asserts their daughter or wife’s right to drive a car or to practice criminal law in a courtroom, then the status quo remains and our society becomes stagnant.
The problem with the Hai’a is more immediate and more critical. It involves the safety of women who, according to the commission itself, need protection. Yet some members of the Hai’a repeatedly demonstrate that women apparently need protection from them. From the ugly 2002 Makkah fire tragedy to car chases that leave people dead in the streets, the commission appears to operate without fear of annoying law enforcement intervention.
Let’s assume for a moment that commission members did not beat the girl and all those people who heard the screams were mistaken or misinterpreted the cries for that of a budding Saudi actress. The Hai’a, according to reports, did not allow the girl medical attention until police intervened and they did not take the man who purportedly gave the girl a ride into custody or question him. Commission members’ reported behavior before police intervention is suspect even without the allegations of abuse.
If Saudis are comfortable with such conduct and prefer to wait for the next big fire or to expose their daughter or wife to the abuse of strangers, then so be it. But as for me, I see no reason to subject myself to questioning by a commission member or agree to visit their offices. I want to believe in their goals, but I don’t have the confidence that my safety is their concern. In the meantime I will wait for the government to impose codified checks and balances to govern the Hai’a.
I believe the Hai’a can be heroic, but that time has yet to come.