Irreligious Police

By Truszkowska, Natalia | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Irreligious Police


Truszkowska, Natalia, Harvard International Review


Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's system of criminal justice has had a history of arbitrary neglect and violation of women's human rights that goes far beyond simple discrimination.

Despite the government's notorious resistance to change, there is no reason for it to remain that way. Besides contradicting the Saudi government's position on human rights, the abuses conflict with the Islamic law that forms the basis of Saudi justice.

A typical example is that of Nieves, a Filipina married mother of two children who worked in Riyadh. On November 9, 1992, she and a female friend joined a mixed group of men and women for a birthday dinner. In the middle of their meal, a squad of religious police arrested them all, and forced Nieves to sign a confession in Arabic, a language she could not read, stating that Nieves was prostituting herself to one of the men. In court Nieves denied the charge, but on the basis of her signed confession she was convicted of prostitution and sentenced to 25 days in jail and 60 lashes, with no opportunity for appeal. Since the men could not be accused of prostitution, they remained unpunished. While the trial and punishment certainly have a basis in Saudi law (and, by proxy, Islamic law), a forced confession was blatantly illegal.

Abuse of women's human rights is mostly unofficial. The key offenders are the religious police forces, which form a coalition known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). Unlike the public-security police, the CPVPV is not accountable to the Minister of the Interior. However, it works closely with the state's legal institutions and hands over all its suspects to public-security police after initial questioning. The close ties between the state and the CPVPV lead some to conflate the CPVPV and the Islamic law that is at the root of Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system. On the contrary, the CPVPV is an entity unto itself, with its own specious procedures. For example, the CPVPV offers incentives for arresting wrongdoers. Members of the religious police get the equivalent of US$300 for every Saudi they arrest, and US$150 for every foreigner.

The existence of recognized institutions with such power makes it possible for women to be mistreated under the pretense of enforcing the law. However, these human-rights abuses should be distinguished from the mostly unquestioned discrimination established in law. Lawful discrimination, symbolized by women's full-body cloaks and restrictions on their movement and occupation, is a well-established facet of Islamic law as applied in Saudi Arabia. The rationale is that under Islam, all parts of the female body are sexual. …

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