Muttawas - The Real Moral Police

November 11, 2006

For those of us who live in democratic countries, we tend to take a lot of things for granted. We raise a lot of hue and cry over moralistic issues and argue vehemently about the state's right to impose a moral standard on the populace. Be that as it may, it is a whole new experience to spend time in a country where a moral police does actually exist.

Saudi Arabia for instance, has the Muttawas - a much-feared and equally despised moral police. Officially called the Department for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, their objective is to ensure that the Islamic moral code is strictly followed in the country. Their jurisdiction applies not only to the public behavior of the country's residents but also in their private lives. Almost every week there is the case where the moral police or the courts forcibly divorce couples who may have gotten married against the rules of Islam. This happens quite often when the brothers or the father of the bride object to the wedding, but the couple goes ahead and gets married in any case. Islam requires the father to grant approval for the wedding. Failing this, if a case gets lodged in the courts, the judge might simply go ahead and order a divorce. This is even more terrible when the couple have kids.

The rich and the mighty of course lead a whole different life, but the overbearing presence of the moral police has an effect on every little aspect of the common person's life in this country.

Right from the fact that a woman must not be seen immorally dressed in public (which often means being completely covered) to the requirement that every Muslim be at prayer during the prayer time. The law requires that if a Muslim is indeed seen in public during this time, he will be taken to a mosque to be taught why he should be praying. The transgression is noted on their passport or residence permit, and three transgressions result in immediate deportation.

I was once accompanying a friend on his grocery shopping. As boring as it was, I picked three ripe tomatoes to juggle with. When a local comes up to me and with mock seriousness says, "If a Muttawa saw you doing that, it is quite likely you will get in trouble". I put down the tomatoes, and said, yes you're probably right. He then went on to joke, "It is quite likely that they will immediately also issue a fatwa against juggling foodstuff. You'd be lucky if they don't actually declare a jihad for doing that!" He was of course joking, but the point is that the restrictions can get pretty pervasive.

Again, the levels of enforcement differ from one place to another. Riyadh is probably the most restrictive, whereas places like Jeddah are more open. And probably the smaller towns are even more open, at least in terms of the moral policing. The overarching feeling of living under such circumstances is that life is actually passing you by. Especially given that the majority of this country's population is below 30, I guess one begins to feel one is stuck in a time warp.

Intrepid is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur and runs an information security consulting firm. He blogs about entrepreneurship, venture capital, marketing ideas, taxation and legal issues at http://everydayentrepreneurs.blogspot.com
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November 11, 2006
03:46 PM

We are very much familiar with pseudo-liberal Muttawa in India, who feel they only have the right to define free speech and new set of morals.

Any Tom, Dick, Harry can join this Indian Version of Muttawa and claim the right to "Knowledge, Truth and REALITY".

November 11, 2006
04:52 PM


each of this so called muslim country abuses islam to perpetuate themselves in power - saudi america and afghanistan are perhaps one extreme and dubai the other

also, at times the worst mistake we make is to sub religion for culture

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