Rumblings of Women's Rights Movement in Saudi Arabia

Sometimes great social upheavals begin with just one action. It was a scene Saudi women’s rights activists have dreamt of for years.

When a Saudi religious policeman sauntered about an amusement park in the eastern Saudi Arabian city of Al-Mubarraz looking for unmarried couples illegally socializing, he probably wasn’t expecting much opposition.

But when he approached a young, 20-something couple meandering through the park together, he received an unprecedented whooping.

A member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Saudi religious police known locally as the Hai’a, asked the couple to confirm their identities and relationship to one another, as it is a crime in Saudi Arabia for unmarried men and women to mix.

For unknown reasons, the young man collapsed upon being questioned by the cop.

According to the Saudi daily Okaz, the woman then allegedly laid into the religious policeman, punching him repeatedly, and leaving him to be taken to the hospital with bruises across his body and face.

“To see resistance from a woman means a lot,” Wajiha Al-Huwaidar, a Saudi women’s rights activist, told The Media Line news agency. “People are fed up with these religious police, and now they have to pay the price for the humiliation they put people through for years and years. This is just the beginning and there will be more resistance.”

“The media and the Internet have given people a lot of power and the freedom to express their anger,” she said. “The Hai’a are like a militia, but now whenever they do something it’s all over the Internet. This gives them a horrible reputation and gives people power to react.”

Neither the religious police nor the Eastern Province police has made a statement on the incident, and both the names of the couple and the date of the incident have not been made public, but on Monday the incident was all over the Saudi media.

Should the woman be charged, she could face a lengthy prison term and lashings for assaulting a representative of a government institution.

Saudi law does not permit women to be in public spaces without a male guardian. Women are not allowed to drive, inherit, divorce or gain custody of children, and cannot socialize with unrelated men.

Officers of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice are tasked with enforcing such laws, but it hasn’t been an easy year for Saudi Arabia’s religious police.

The decision last year by Saudi King Abdullah to open the kingdom’s first co-educational institution, with no religious police on campus, led to a national crises for Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious authorities, with the new university becoming a cultural proxy war for whether or not women and men should be allowed to mix publicly.

A senior Saudi cleric publicly criticized the gender mixing at the university and was summarily fired by the king.

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With political activists as parents, Stephanie learned gender politics at an early age and embraced stiletto feminism in high school. As a marketing professional, she’s written for a variety of publications. She founded to be a voice for the sex-positive alpha female.