Saudi Arabia's notorious religious police are used to getting their way in shopping centres, never hesitating to sharply rebuke women who they believe aren't dressed "appropriately". But last Monday, agents found themselves face to face with a woman who made sure she had the last word.
The incident took place in Riyadh's Nakheel Mall shopping centre. A woman was shopping with her husband when she was stopped by "muttawa" agents – a term used to designate the religious police. The officers then asked her to leave because her outfit was too "provocative".
But instead of letting herself get pushed around, she pulled her mobile phone from her pocket and began filming the agents.
The young woman doesn't appear on any of the videos that she uploaded, but in Saudi Arabia, women don't have the right to leave their homes without wearing full-body niqabs that only leave slits for the eyes. They also have to wear gloves.
For the next few hours, the woman films her bizarre pursuit by agents through aisles in the shopping centre. She has given an account of her ordeal by posting a series of short video clips to Twitter.
"Why are you letting her film?"
In this first video, a group of six agents head down an aisle towards the young woman. In the video’s description, she explains: "As you can see, they don't want to leave me and my husband alone.”
The second clip is filmed in a jewellery store. An agent takes a vendor to one side and asks him not to serve the woman. Then another officer bursts into the shop and takes his turn at quizzing the vendor: "Why are you letting her film?" The young woman replies: "What does that have to do with you? He's just a vendor!" She explains in a tweet that a nearby police patrol refused to step in even after she had asked for their help.
But the woman refuses to give in. In this next video, she approaches both the vendor and two agents from the muttawa. Addressing the vendor, she asks: "Could you at least show me this product?" Visibly uncomfortable, he replies: "I'd really like to, but they [the muttawa] won't let me."
But she doesn’t give up. She turns to an agent carrying a walkie-talkie and demands an explanation, leading to a heated row between the two.
- Agent: "You're wearing make-up... [Editor's note: He's referring to her mascara, visible through a slit in the niqab around the eyes that allow women to see]."
- Woman: "So what! What does that have to do with you? There's no law banning that."
- Agent: "Yes, religious law."
Both agents keep up the chase by following the woman into a clothes store. But the dispute resumes with even greater intensity.
"Tell me what your name is if you're a real man!"
She demands that they both give her their names. But they refuse. In a comment posted alongside the video, she adds: "On top of that, they're wearing their badges back-to-front [to hide their names]. A real pair of cowards!"
Photo of the religious police agent wearing his badge backwards.
In this clip, she defies one of the agents one last time: "My name is Fatma Ibrahim Hussein. Tell me what your name is if you're a real man!" The officer, however, doesn't flinch.
On Twitter, she says that she won't let the matter rest and even plans to lodge a complaint to the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice [Editor's note: The official name for the religious police]. She also claims to have sent a letter of protest to the Minister for Trade, given that in Saudi Arabia it is an offence to refuse to sell goods to customers.
But this kind of overzealous enforcement of "religious" customs by religious police is nothing new in Saudi Arabia. Last May, a muttawa agent hounded a woman in a shopping centre in Haïl, on the grounds that she wasn't wearing gloves.
Despite the many inequalities that Saudi women face, they recently made a small step forward. The government has just announced that women will be able to vote and stand as candidates for the first time in the kingdom's history in the country’s next municipal elections, set for December 12, 2015.