Government advice to anyone visiting Saudi Arabia includes the following:
‘Saudi Arabia is an exclusively Islamic (Muslim) kingdom and Islam governs nearly every aspect of life. The public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Severe punishment including imprisonment and deportation can result should such activities come to the attention of the authorities.’ ‘… certain sexual behaviour like adultery or homosexual acts carry the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. So does apostasy (renunciation of the Muslim faith). The death penalty is carried out in public, usually by beheading’ (www.gov.uk/living-in-saudi-arabia).
Yes, in Saudi Arabia Allah doesn’t mess about when making sure his laws are observed. And to keep an eye on what’s going on, according to the Koran, (Surah 82) we each have two angels watching over our shoulders recording everything we do (and yes, some people do take this nonsense seriously).
And, as if that were not enough, in Saudi Arabia Allah also has his own religious police force, the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’ to keep an eye on things and enforce Sharia law.
During the recent National Day celebrations for example, when nationwide festivities were planned, they announced a ban on singing and dancing in public and warned that violators would be punished.
In another incident in March 2002, in order to preserve moral values, they prevented schoolgirls from escaping a burning school because the girls were not wearing headscarves, and were not accompanied by a male guardian. Fifteen girls died, and many more were injured as a result.
Exactly what qualities are required for the job is not clear, but claims have been made that they are staffed by ex-convicts whose only qualification is that they memorised the Koran in prison in order to reduce their sentence.
Another of their duties is to enforce the ban on women drivers – only men are allowed to hold driving licences in Saudi Arabia. Although the ban is informal (there is no section on driving violations in the Koran) it is strictly enforced. There is, however, a growing campaign to overturn the ban and activists are calling for women to take to the roads in protest.
This, of course, is seen as a threat to public morality by the devout, not to mention being a danger to the women themselves. One cleric, Sheik Saleh al-Lohaidan issued the following warning:
‘If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological medical impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards. That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees’.
Could this ridiculous situation get any more absurd? Well, yes, it could. Back in 2010, in a completely unrelated controversy, another nutty cleric, Sheik Abdel Mohsen Obeikan announced that to overcome problems caused by the illicit mixing between sexes, women could be alone with, or appear without a veil in front of an unrelated male if he drank her breast milk. This, the good cleric explained, would establish a mother-son bond in Islamic tradition.
A group of women protesters, who until now have had to rely on male drivers in order to get about, are now threatening (if that is the right word?) to breastfeed their drivers if they are not allowed to drive themselves.
And no, this is not a sketch from an old Monty Python show.