An incident recently at a Riyadh mall and posted on YouTube revealed a startling altercation between a young Saudi woman and the Haia over an all too common theme in our country: Men telling women what is and isn't appropriate to wear.
In this case, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) attempted to eject a young Saudi woman from the mall because they deemed her nail polish — and as the confrontation continued, her lipstick — inappropriate and provocative. As soon as commission members approached the woman, she began recording the incident on her telephone and she challenged the men to explain their reasoning for throwing her out of the mall.
YouTube is full of interesting and entertaining confrontations between members of the public and the Haia, especially when women are involved. What makes this incident different is the young woman's knowledge of her rights and what the Haia is permitted to do and what not to do.
She knew, for example, of the new edict that prohibits commission members from chasing and harassing people going about their business.
She also was aware that the appropriateness of her nail polish was in the eye of the beholder. A minor infraction over the color of one's nail polish hardly requires being thrown out of a public mall.
Judging from the video, the Haia was clearly flummoxed over the aggressive response from the woman. At one point when a commission member pointed out that the woman's lipstick was also inappropriate, the woman replied, "Why are you looking at my mouth?"
I won't judge the Haia's intentions. And it's not for me to say whether the woman's nail polish or her behavior deserved special attention.
The larger picture is this young lady knew her rights and exercised them to her advantage. She summoned the police to complain she was harassed and chased for what she says was no reason and she documented the exchange. She also reminded commission members that actions were contrary to pronouncements of their ultimate boss Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Asheikh. It is a rare thing in Saudi Arabia when individuals have a clear understanding of what rights they possess and how to protect themselves.
Saudi women are at an extreme disadvantage. There are no women's advocacy groups or even social clubs. There are no institutions at the ministry or municipal level that provide resources for women to understand their rights. We are not provided adequate information on our rights in domestic courts pertaining to divorce and child custody, nor do most women have a full understanding of their rights to inheritance.
Without this knowledge we are at the mercy of individuals who interpret laws as they see fit.
Did the young woman break a law? It seems no. Did she violate the Saudi norms of modesty?
Who is to say? The lines of modesty move from day to day and from region to region. What is considered inappropriate dress in Riyadh is perfectly acceptable in Jeddah. So how a woman from Jeddah is to behave when she visits a mall in Riyadh?
Consistent application of the law — indeed, if there is one to govern how women should dress — is the foundation of a civilized society. And knowledge of those laws by both the Saudi population and legal authorities allow us to function in society without upsetting the customs and traditions of our country. In the case of the woman in the mall, I venture that based on the video she had a better understanding of her rights than the Haia.
I am not suggesting that every woman harangue the Haia over the slightest confrontation, but as a form of self-protection women should be aware of their rights and state those rights to legal authorities while insisting a response.
This can only be accomplished through a government-sponsored awareness program. We have similar breast cancer and obesity awareness programs.
A similar effort to publicize women's rights that target women and training programs for legal authorities will go a long way toward minimizing regretful confrontations such as the one in Riyadh.
Following the mall incident, an online Saudi news organization reported the Haia had indicated that it might prosecute the young woman for recording and disseminating the video of the commission members performing its duties, although there are dozens of YouTube videos of the Haia doing its job without resulting in the arrest of the videographers. The Haia also identified the woman through her mobile phone number when she called the police.
It is disturbing the woman may have won a Pyrrhic victory: Successfully arguing the Haia violated her rights, but facing jail time for documenting that victory.
Sabria S. Jawhar is an assistant professor at King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences. She can be reached at : [email protected] Her blog: http://www.saudiwriter.blogspot.com/