BEIRUT, Lebanon – Saudi Arabia’s religious police are under attack again over what critics consider heavy-handed enforcement of the country’s gender segregation policies and other strict social rules.
This time the case involves an American businesswoman who went with a male colleague to a Starbucks branch in the Saudi capital and ended up in jail for sitting in a coffee shop with a man who is not a close relative.
The brief detention of the woman, identified only as Yara, drew headlines in Saudi media, prompting one writer to call the Feb. 4 arrest “an abduction.” A local rights group called for an explanation from the religious police. A senior U.N. official described it as “harassment.”
Responding to the criticism, the religious police issued a statement published Tuesday by Saudi newspapers that said officers were justified in their actions.
Islamic law does not allow police to ignore the prohibition against a woman “sitting with a man who is not a relative and exchanging words and laughter with him,” said the statement by Abdullah al-Shithri of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Yara’s story, which first appeared in the English-language Arab News, is one of a string of incidents that have provoked a public outcry against the commission.
While many Saudis say they support the idea of having the commission because its mandate is based on several verses in the Quran, they also say it should be regulated because the free rein it has long enjoyed has led to some of its members overstepping their duties.
Yakin Erturk, the U.N. special investigator for violence against women who recently visited the kingdom, was quoted by Arab News as saying Yara’s case was “a telling example of harassment.”
“She was subjected to humiliating and illegal treatment before she was released,” Erturk said.
A close relative of Yara, who is a Salt Lake City native living in Jiddah with her Saudi husband and three children, said she had on no makeup when she was detained and was dressed in the black cloak that women are forced to wear in public in Saudi Arabia.
The relative, who agreed to discuss the case only if not quoted by name, said Yara, 37, went to Starbucks just to use its wireless Internet connection after being told power was out at the office her company is opening in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
A male Syrian colleague joined her in the coffee shop’s crowded family section, reserved for women and families, the relative said. He said Yara was quickly taken away by religious police, made to listen to a lecture on sin and forced to sign papers admitting she had been in illegal seclusion with a man who is not her husband. She was released 5 1/2 hours after her detention.