“You’re not the boss of me. You can’t forbid me from wearing nail polish.” This was a young woman’s cry of anger in a shopping mall in Riyad, the capital of Saudi Arabia, last week. She yelled at members of the religious vice squad who had ordered her to leave because she was sporting a manicure. The young woman filmed the scene on her mobile phone.
When the camera starts recording, she is already in the midst of a heated discussion with officers from the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), also known as the “muttawa.” They had ask her to leave because she is wearing nail polish, but also, as we learn later in the video, because she let several strands of her hair peek out from under her veil and because she is wearing lipstick. She tells them: “The government said there would no longer be any persecution [of women]. Your job is to give advice to people, then leave them be.” As she’s filming them, she warns the men that the video “will go up on Twitter and Facebook.”
A few moments later, she calls the police. She tells the police that she is being “harassed” by muttawas, and that she refuses to leave the mall because she’s afraid that they might follow her and run her over with their car. The police then try to calm everyone down.
The CPVPV later stated that they had filed a former complaint against the woman; according to the CPVPV, the woman broke the law by posting the video on the Internet.
An Internet user, who claims to have witnessed the incident, wrote on Twitter that the young woman was only wearing a transparent veil which meant her mouth was visible, and that she was wearing a lot of makeup and a tight-fitting dress. She added that the CPVPV officers had acted in a decent and courteous manner.
The CPVPV is composed of 3,500 ‘muttawas’ who work in collaboration with the state police. One of their tasks is to enforce the Islamic dress code. According to Sharia law, all women must wear veils and loose-fitting clothing that covers their arms and legs. Some Muslims also count nail polish among “ornaments that a woman is not allowing to show, except to her husband or one of her ‘mahârim’ [a person that a woman cannot have sexual relations with, such as, for example, her brother or step-father, and who generally serve as the woman’s legal tutor].

"From the very beginning, the man disrespectfully shouts at her"

Eman al-Nafjan is an English professor living in Riyad. Her reflections, below, first appeared on her blog Saudiwoman.
On Twitter, many insist that it was not her nail polish that upset the CPVPV and that she was behaving immodestly and dressed suspiciously. However, if we look at the video, at the beginning she asks the CPVPV sheikh, “Is it because of the nail polish?” and he doesn’t deny it. Then later, when the police arrive, the sheikh claims that she wiped the nail polish off. She raises her hand and says “No,” that she didn’t. […]
Another issue that many harp on is that she shouldn’t have taped and disseminated a video of government employees doing their job. This is such a double-standard – it never came up when people filmed the minister of agriculture talking dismissively to a citizen […] or the Saudi ambassador to Egypt speaking disrespectfully to a woman. In these cases, the people taking the videos were hailed as a hero. And the whole thing about the sheikh being lenient and polite is shown on the video to be untrue. From the very beginning, he disrespectfully shouts at her […].
The CPVPV are portrayed as sacred and the embodiment of how Islam was at the time of the Prophet. However, everything I’ve ever read shows otherwise. The way a CPVPV sheikh struts around malls with a fancy cloak on his shoulders and two subordinates flanking him, enjoying the atmosphere of fear their entrance causes and sometimes going as far as terrorizing people, is not the way I’ve read that the Prophet behaved.
"Many women at the time of the Prophet were empowered and did not cover their faces"
For example, just a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to leave a restaurant during prayer time. I simply needed to exit the restaurant but the management refused, out of fear of the CPVPV. The manager, who was obviously traumatized, started shouting that he would be called an animal and spend another night in jail for opening the door to just let me out during prayer time.
[…] There’s a hadith [a saying in the Koran] which says that one day, toward the end of the Prophet’s life, he was with another man when a beautiful woman came towards them to ask the Prophet a question. The Prophet’s companion obviously liked the way the woman looked because he was staring at her. The Prophet did not harass the woman or demand that she cover her face or leave the premises, as the CPVPV did last Tuesday [at the mall]. He simply turned his companion’s face away. […] Unfortunately, Saudis are rarely exposed to hadiths that prove that many women at the time of the Prophet were empowered and did not cover their faces.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.