One of the things that I have had a very difficult time with since moving to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been the extreme gender segregation that Saudis live by. Things like men and women working together or simply socializing at public functions - that are considered ordinary behavior in the West - have been forbidden because of the hard-hitting enforcement of this issue applied by KSA's religious police force. The ever-present religious police, which have the long official name of "The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" (CPVPV), is also known as Haia. What I have personally seen and experienced of the gender segregation here has been so exaggerated, unnatural, and unnecessary - and I can only shake my head in disbelief.
In Islam, a man and a woman who are not married/blood-related to each other are not supposed to be “secluded” together - but in Saudi Arabia, this religious law has for years been taken a step further to include pretty much all normal open social contact between men and women, even in the most public of places and circumstances.
That's why I'm feeling encouraged by a recent action taken by The King of Saudi Arabia as he recently replaced the head of the religious police with a more moderate choice. Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Asheikh, who holds a degree in Islamic Studies, is the new minister of the Haia. He replaces Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Humayen, whose reign since his appointment in 2009 as the morality police chief, has been much criticized and plagued with controversy.
But not only has KSA’s beloved King appointed this fresh face to clean up the tarnished image of the CPVPV, he has also given the new appointee implicit instructions as to his expectations and desires, paving the way for what should be a kinder, gentler Saudi Arabia. Told to show leniency and respect to both Saudi citizens and foreigners, Sheikh Al-Sheikh said “King Abdullah stressed the tolerant and moderate nature of Islam” and asked him “to spread the correct understanding of Islam among people.”
In one of his first official acts as the new Minister of the CPVPV, Al-Sheikh dismissed the volunteer members of the Haia, who at times have garnered undesirable attention for their aggressiveness, misbehavior, and improper abuses of authority.
According to Arab News, “The sheikh is of the view that hardline approach in the issue of ikhtilat (mixing in public places or in the presence of others in a dignified manner) is unjustified.” The forward thinker is also against marriages of underage little girls and agrees that female salesclerks should be manning women’s lingerie shops, not men – issues that have caused controversy and have cropped up in the news for many years.
The implications of this new appointment appear to be ushering in a new dawn for the Saudi Arabian people. To some, it may not seem very significant, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a major development and a very welcome and much-needed step in Saudi Arabia’s evolution toward social modernization in the 21st century.
For more information about this topic:
Arab News article “Abdullatif Al-Asheikh is new Haia chief”
Arab News article “King tells new Haia chief to be lenient with people”
Digital Journal article “Saudi King replaces head of morality police with moderate”
Al-Arab Online article "Sheikh Abdullatif seeks to reduce violations of Saudi religious police"
Saudi Gazette article “Hai’a no longer needs volunteers: Al-Sheikh”
Wikipedia article on KSA’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Saudi Arabia)