It turns out the story about allowing Saudi women to drive bikes is not a story after all. The daily al-Hayat today quotes the religious police chief as saying since driving bikes is not a common thing to do in Saudi Arabia, the matter was never actually under consideration to be banned or allowed. Abdul-Latif Al Alsheikh, head of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), told the newspaper that it is not their job to search or follow women who drive bikes when they go to the desert with their families.
The government decision to segregate women and men employees at retail outlets is drawing mixed reaction, Arab News reported.
“It is a totally bad idea to have a wall built to separate both sexes in shops,” Dalal A. Kaaki, director of women business center at the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the newspaper. “The harassment can happen anyway when a man comes to a saleswoman with his family.” But Aisha Natto, member of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, defended the decision to erect a partition between men and women. “It is not a wall,” she said. “It is up to the ceiling. So for those who understood it as a wall, it’s clearly not a wall but just a partition.”
Is a 160-cm high partition a wall or not? It seems we can’t even agree what is a wall anymore. Like Hamoud Abu Talib, I really would like to know how did the government reach the 160cm number. Did they conduct a study to measure the average hight of Saudi citizens and concluded that this is what is needed to separate men from women? Abu Talib writes:
On one hand, I am happy that the Hai’a and the ministry have agreed that women can work even if it means they have to be surrounded by these 160-cm separation walls. On the other hand, however, I cannot help but express astonishment at the agreement for which there is no justification whatsoever.
Women’s employment is a decision that the Council of Ministers approved and it must be implemented. This means that no further agreements or approvals are needed. It is true that we have finally allowed our women to work. It is equally true that our consent has been wrapped in several impossible conditions that have nothing to do with women in the workplace.
What if a female employee is taller than the wall? Do we bring in specialist doctors to shorten her? I really want to know: Why 160 cm?
Retail stores that employ women must install a partition to separate them from their male colleagues according to a new memorandum of understanding signed by the Ministry of Labor and the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the official Saudi Press Agency reported Sunday. The partition should be at least 160cm high and stores have only 30 days to comply with the new regulations or risk punishment, SPA said.
The Saudi Ministry of Labor has pushed in recent years to encourage more women to join the workforce by forcing retail stores to employ female salespeople for certain items like lingerie and cosmetics. This decision has faced strong resistance from religious conservatives who warn that the mixing of genders at the workplace would lead to the Westernization of society. After a group of clerics visited MOL last December to protest the employment of women, CPVPV chief Abdul-Latif Al Alsheikh criticized the Ministry for failing to maintain a “good clean environment” for women working at retail stores.
This public criticism by the CPVPV chief has probably prompted MOL to seek a compromise in order to continue implementing their policy that aims to employ more women, especially with the unemployment rate among Saudi women reaching 36 percent according to the latest number released by the Central Department of Statistics and Information.
But gender segregation remains a contentious issue in the conservative kingdom which practices a strict interpretation of Islam. Minister of Labor Adel Fakeih admitted last year that resistance by religious conservatives is making it difficult for his ministry to implement its women employment policy, but he denied allegations of Westernizing society. “We want to open a whole new world for women, and at the same time will be in tune with our culture with how we’d like our families to continue to be,” he told the Washington Post last November. “We don’t want necessarily to copy a Western lifestyle.”
I was leaving a restaurant with friends in Jeddah last October when a member from the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stopped me. He gave me a warning about the T-shirt I was wearing, then he let me go. My T-shirt had the face of Gandhi with a line of text underneath that said: “Give peace a chance.” Clothes with images on them, especially of humans or animals, are apparently a serious offense in the eyes of the morality police.
The Research and Studies Center affiliated with the Commission has recently published a study which concluded that at least 59 percent of Saudi youth engage in “undesirable and forbidden behaviors,” the Saudi edition of al-Hayat reported today. The newspaper continues to explain that wearing cloths with images on them tops the list of such behaviors, followed by wearing necklaces and bracelets. The afro hairdo came a close third.
The study recommended that the government should adopt an official concept of what they described as “foreign behaviors.” Because once such concept is officially adopted, it would be easier for the Commission to crack down on these behaviors. The study, however, did not offer any answers regarding if such obsession with social control would push our country over the cliff of sanity.
UPDATE: The Commission have denied that they have commissioned the study reported by al-Hayat. A spokesman for the Commission told Sabq that they have rejected this study that was conducted by a research center at King Saud University due to scientific errors. “Those who misled public opinion by promoting these numbers and publicizing these inaccurate studies must be held accountable,” he said. He added that the Commission would seek legal against those who published such information and attributed them to the Commission.
UPDATE II: Al-Hayat responds by publishing two photos. The first shows the cover of the study which clearly bears the name of the Research and Studies Center at the Commission. The other photo is a copy of a letter from the Commission’s vice president to academics asking them to review the study.
The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has cancelled an event organized by Saudi Aramco to thank volunteers Friday night in the eastern region of Ahsa, local media reported today. The Commission objected to the mixing of men and women at the event.
Aramco, which has hosted a month-long cultural festival at King Abdullah Environmental Park in Ahsa, has planned to host a dinner party to thank more than 1,000 male and female volunteers who worked at the festival. But their plans have come to a halt when the Commission intervened to stop the event because they said the venue is not big enough to separate men from women, al-Yaum daily reported. Aramco officials said the venue was adequate.
The Commission reportedly only allowed the female volunteers to enter, while male volunteers were kept outside on the grass waiting for more than 90 minutes. Later, they escorted the female volunteers out and allowed the male volunteers to enter. The rest of the scheduled program was cancelled, including an acappella performance and presenting awards to volunteers.
A local news site published an apologetic text message it said Aramco has sent to the volunteers Friday night. “We apologize for what happened today and was beyond our control,” the message read. “We will be in touch soon.” Al-Yaum said the Commission could not be reached for comment.
Saudi authorities in the Eastern Province are ready to stop any New Year’s Eve parties, the daily al-Yaum reported Monday. Eastern Province Police, in collaboration with the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vince (CPVPV), are secretly watching locations that could host such parties, the newspaper said.
“Closed and secluded areas for women at restaurants and coffee shops have contributed to the increase of such parties that can be difficult to monitor,” EP Police spokesman told the paper, adding that most partygoers are foreign men and women. The spokesman helpfully explained that such parties are categorized as “crimes of mixed parties or committing a sin publicly.”
Only the National Day and the two Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, are allowed to be celebrated publicly in Saudi Arabia.
The spokesman “hinted” to the supporting role of the CPVPV in keeping a watchful eye on such activities by deploying their patrols at malls, seafronts, beaches and restaurants, according to the paper. CPVPV cannot watch private parties held by expat families at homes, said a source at the Commission, but they hope that mosque imams would warn agains the danger of such parties on the Muslim society.
Neither the spokesman nor the CPVPV source revealed if they have any secret plans to stop people from crossing the King Fahad Causeway to Bahrain or traveling to Dubai to celebrate New Year’s Eve.