Photo by: Ruth Eglash
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.
That was followed in December by a surprise announcement from Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, head of the Saudi religious police commission in Mecca, who published an article against gender segregation, leading to threats on his life and rumors that he had been or would be fired.
Meanwhile, the Saudi government has gone to great efforts recently to improve the image of the religious police, most notably by firing the national director of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice earlier this year. The new director Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Humain then announced a series of training programs and a special unit to handle complaints against the religious police.
Last month, however, members of the religious police in the northern province of Tabuk were charged with assaulting a young woman as she attempted to visit her son, in a move that marked an unprecedented challenge to the religious police's authority.
"There is some sort of change taking place," Nadya Khalife, the Middle East women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. "There is clearly a shifting mentality regarding to the male guardianship law and similar issues. More women are speaking out, there are changes within the government, there is a mixed university, the king was photographed with women, they want to allow women to work in the courts and there are changes within the justice ministry. So you can witness some kind of change unfolding but it's not quite clear what's happening and it's not something that's going to happen overnight."