A Muttawa Story

3772183960.jpg  Sometimes the most repressive of circumstances call for the most creative ways of thinking. As an American woman, who had never heard of religious police, much less ever met one,  I hoped I’d never have the opportunity to tell the kind of story I’d been hearing from some of my Western compatriots in the Kingdom.

One of my acquaintances ended up in jail for twenty-four hours, having been caught at a party where men and women were mixing and drinking.  After she was rescued by the American Embassy, she told us the repulsive details. I won’t bother recountng a second-hand story, especially when I’ve got a good one of my own.

A  muttawa confrontation is an expatriot rite of passage, though not a very pleasant one. No one seeks such an experience, but after it’s over, the story makes for a wonderful narrative in years to come. My own episodes occurred nearly twenty years ago, but judging from recent news from the Kingdom, they might still be appreciated.

I was engaged to an Egyptian man during the summer of 1991. One day, while he was at work, I spent the afternoon in his apartment on Khazan Street, getting to know his nine year and twelve year old daughters. After Asr prayer, we decided to walk down the block to the grocery store. No sooner had we left the building than we became aware of three muttaween– without a policeman– following us. We ducked into the store and examined items on the shelves. They came into the store and said something to me in Arabic. I did not understand, but I decided not to respond at all. Someone had told me not to talk to them.

The girls and I were covered, but the older girl’s abaya fell open to reveal her short skirt underneath. That was bad. The muttaween repeated whatever it was they said. I was afraid to speak English to the girls, and I couldn’t speak much Arabic at that time, so I went about my business in the store, but the muttaween wouldn’t leave. The girls whispered, “Talk to them,” and I whispered, “No.” There I was, with a young girl who allowed her abaya to fall open in front of muttaween, and I was not yet married to their father.

We left the store, and they left, too, following us. Then we noticed their car, driven by yet another one of them. It held up traffic, crawling along, following us as we walked down the busy street. I whispered to the girls to jump into the closest taxi, and we did. The muttawa car speeded up and blocked the path of the taxi, and the taxi driver shouted, “Out! Out! I no want trouble!”

We got out from the other side of the taxi and ran across the street, thinking that the muttawa car would not be able to turn around and follow us. It did. That girl’s headscarf then started to slip, and we had to stop so she could fix it. They stopped too, and started yelling in Arabic over their loudspeaker. I continued to ignore them. As long as we remained on the sidewalk, in public, we’d be safe, I reasoned, but I did notice that the muttawa car was more like an SUV, with plenty of room for prisoners.

We walked and walked, and became exhausted in the heat, but I was afraid to go back into a store. I didn’t know what to do. The muttawa car was undoubtedly air conditioned, and we had been walking for half an hour. The younger girl started to cry. The older girl said, “My friend lives in the next block, in the white building.”

“Is she home now?” I asked. “What’s her apartment number?”

Yes, she’d be home, and she lived on the third floor.

 “OK,” I said, “Walk normally until we get to the entrance. Then run as fast as you can up the stairs to her apartment. Whoever gets there first, pound on the door.”

We ran as fast as we could up three flights of stairs, with three muttaween on our heels. We pounded on the door. As it opened, I pushed it wide, and the three of us tumbled in. I slammed the door shut behind us and leaned on it, not an instant too soon. The muttaween, too, pounded on the door, yelled, pushed and rattled the handle, while I fumbled to engage the lock and lean on the door with all my strength.

Eventually they gave up, but we were trapped. Now I had five kids and no adult in the house; the mother had gone shopping. The phone rang. I told the kids, “Don’t answer it.” They said, “OK,” and went into a bedroom to answer it. The muttaween were calling from the office of the “bawaab”– the doorman–on the first floor. I repeated, “Don’t talk to them!”

By the time Maghreb prayer fell due,  the phone calls had stopped, and the mother returned from shopping. The kids all talked at once, telling the story. I phoned the girls’ father, told him the story, and he agreed to come and get us after Isha prayer. 

Later that night, we learned that the muttaween had trashed the office of the bawaab, tearing down posters he’d hung on the wall, and overturning drawers. They left, but kept phoning the apartment until the mother talked to them, and told them that I was an American Muslim convert who didn’t know Arabic, and that they should be happy for my conversion, and leave me alone.

Several years later, I realized that the muttaween had probably been watching the building in which my future husband lived. They knew that young Arab girls lived in those apartments. They did not harrass us again, probably because I never went out alone with the girls after that incident.  I also realized that the older girl was a bit of a flirt. This was not the first time she drew unwanted attention, but I’ll save that story for another post.

About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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21 Responses to A Muttawa Story

  1. Aafke says:

    Amazing idea, to have a whole body of men whose only job it is to bother and harrass others. If they weren’t illiterate morons to start with (which according to some saudi-bloggers they are) Such a job would turn 80% of humanity into a pathetic bully.

    Scary story Marahm, at least it had a good ending. You did manage to stay out of their clutches.
    Did they stop calling the friends’ mother after she explained?

  2. marahm says:

    Yes, they did stop calling after the friends’ mother talked to them. I did manage to stay out of their clutches, by the grace of Allah. I don’t know what would have happened had we not passed that apartment.

    A friend of mine, a Saudi psychiatrist, told me that most of those muttawween have personality disorders.

  3. Aafke says:

    All people who had personal contact with the commission for the promotion of vice and the prevention of virtue have come to the same conclusion.
    You should post a link to this post on the post of AB, so the people who are interested in the subject will visit here too.

  4. delhi4cats says:

    Incredible….and yet not surprising giving the skewered state of mind of these individuals. What is it going to take to get the message across that these guys are not performing a viable role? Isn’t part of Islam the protection and not terrorizing women?!

    American Bedu

  5. marahm says:

    Nothing will convince these men– the ones who have major personality disorders– that they are not protecting women from women’s own perverted selves. The damage had been done either by genetics or lack of nurturing. The only real antidote to any kind of oppressive behavior is prevention, I think, and prevention starts in the home.

    Of course, a cultural, economic and political overlay affects all children as they grow, and herein lies the root of ordinary maladjustment– IMHO, that is.

    Islam is in dire need of sensible, mature defenders who know how to function in both East and West. I won’t go so far as to say that the religion needs an overhaul, but I do believe that every place and time in history is responsible for finding ways in which religion can enhance quality of life rather than usurp it, and that goes for all religions, not just Islam.

  6. Aafke says:

    Yeah, let’s Cull the muttawa!

    They’re not in any way behaving as proper muslims, at least not following the example the prophet(pbuh) set.
    KSA is hardly following Islamic standarts, in my opinion, and certainly not following the fundamentals of Islam at the moment. Nobody would be treated like this in the days of the prophet (pbuh).
    The key-words were: politeness, and softspoken friendly remonstances.
    That doesn’t entail sticks to hit womens’ ankles. Or stripsearching them. Not even forcing them to cover their hair!


  7. What a harrowing experience! But really, all you did was go to the store with two young girls. Why on earth should that be a crime? These bullies need to let people be. Thank goodness they finally gave up and you were spared. I have always wondered – who is policing them? They don’t have to answer to anybody so they are always stretching the limits of how they can interfere with other people’s lives, exercise their authority and throw their weight around.

  8. marahm says:

    Good question, who is policing them? I guess they remain powereful because of political relationships about which the average resident is unaware and/or unable to influence.

  9. Aafke says:

    They are not at all policed, that’s why they are so obnoxious: Absolute power corrupts!

  10. jahandost says:

    The dilemma here is, who polices the policemen.

    Yes it is indeed incredible that there is a whole group of people whose only job is to find faults other people. If they don’t have twisted minds when they start working then they will develop a twisted form of thinking in a few months after starting work!

  11. Marahm says:

    Are muttaween actually employed as such? Paid? I don’t know. I thought they performed their services out of passion, but I never knew people of that inclination, so I never learned much about them.

    Isn’t there a hadith which states that when you spend forty days with a group of people, you become part of them?

  12. ok good it let me post for once….

    WOW GREAT YOU OUT RAN THEM!!! that was so brave and wonderful you found safety. Sticking it to them in a way they coudn’t touch you. I really though that it would be wonderful to live in the land of the Kabba but after all these tales I’ll stick to the other Arab countries. I’m so weird who knows what would happen to me and these Muttawa. I’d prolly be strip searched and I’d be spitting on them and such and who knows what would happen from there so it’s best I only go to Saudi for Hajj or Umrah (insha’Allah). You all are brave to deal with them! May Allah protect you from their corruptions.

  13. Umm Ibrahim says:

    Assalaamu alaikum,
    Another interesting Mutawwa post. 🙂
    LOL AmericanMuslimaWriter… in Makka and Madina there are the [b]female[/b] mutaween at the gates of the haramain and inside… they can be pretty feisty too and try insisting that you cover your face, gbet out of the central area at prayer time etc etc. 😕

  14. Marahm says:

    Yes, I’d forgotten about the female muttaween of the haramain! I never had a problem with them, so their memory does not intrude upon my beautiful memories of praying in those holy places.

  15. Marahm says:

    Yes, I’d forgotten about the female muttaween of the haramain! I never had a problem with them, so their memory does not intrude upon my beautiful memories of praying in those holy places.

  16. Marahm says:

    Thank you, American Muslimah Writer. Though I never lived in the other Arab countries I visited, I was curious (and still am) about ex-pat life in any one of them. Even though we are muslimaat, and therefore more easily assimilated into Arab culture, we are still Westerners, and have certain needs. I always imagined that life in other Arab countries would combine the best of both worlds– the Islamic and the secular.

  17. OOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo female muttawa? never heard of them so they must be less harsh……… i’m very interested in that if someone will blog it!!!!!!!! I wonder how many “cat fights” they get into or are they more peaceful? I’m awaiting someones blog on the subject!!!

  18. Umm Ibrahim says:

    Well the female mutawween just operate inside the Ka’aba and at the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. Generally they are there to obstruct you from taking your camera phone inside the Prophet’s mosque and to try to herd you away from the central (Tawaf) area of the Ka’aba at prayer time.

    There was a funny incident that happened a couple of years ago… I was lingering in the central area after the adhan as I wanted to be able to pray fardh prayer with the Ka’aba right before my eyes but a female mutawwa kept insisting that I get out of that area. I had my niqab flipped back and my face showing so their logic is that it’s terrible that the prayer is televised and your face might be seen on tv!

    After that I sat on the steps at the edge of the central area next to a couple of other ladies. A male mutawwa came over and apparently told me in Arabic, “You’re beautiful so cover your face.” One of the other ladies had her face uncovered too but he didn’t say anything to her so the Saudi lady sitting next to me confronted him and said, “What about this lady then? You don’t think she’s beautiful too? Just this one?!” 😆

  19. Marahm says:

    That is a funny story, UmmIbrahim! Thanks for sharing it.

    I do remember the female muttawa shooing me away from the Kaaba area just before prayer. I was with my husband, and he asked her to let me stay with him, just this once, but she insisted I could not, so I went back to the ladies area.

    I didn’t mind. The Grand Mosque is so beautiful from any position within it. I always felt at home there, peacefully at home.

  20. peacefulmuslimah says:

    I find this completely disgusting and bordering on terrorism.
    I thank Almighty Allah that I do not live in Saudi, Afghanistan or Iran.

    Salaam Alaikum,

  21. Marahm says:

    Wa Aleykum Assalaam, PM,
    Yes, “terrorism” is a good word for it. Thank you!

    While the “religious police” can cause problems, even when you’re not looking for problems, I am quick to say that living in Saudi Arabia is certainly worth that risk.

    Being able to go to Mecca for Hajj, Ramadan, and numerous Umra visits, hearing the azan (from multiple mosques) five times a day, studying Arabic and Tajweed, and being able to stay home with my family and not worry about earning money made all the difficulites worthwhile.

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