Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Morality Police in Yemen

'The Egyptian crooner Ehab Tawfiq has bedroom eyes, smouldering good looks and a voice that enchants Arab audiences. Sadly he won't be perfoming any time soon in Yemen, where he has been blocked by a controversial new Saudi-style "religious police" charged with enforcing austere standards of public morality. Tawfiq sings catchily about love and relationships. But a concert he was due to give in Sana'a was postponed and then cancelled last month after a campaign by the country's newly-formed "virtue committee", which distributed posters and leaflets — and, say some, encouraged death threats and intimidation — condemning the handsome Egyptian for promoting "sedition, immorality and nudity".

For many Yemenis, and for women in particular, this was another alarming sign of the growth of Salafi extremism — an unwelcome import from neighbouring Saudi Arabia where the "mutaween" religious police are part of the scenery. "These people scare the hell out of me," complained Nadia al-Sakkaf, the editor of the Yemen Times. "Yemeni youth are frustrated and depressed. There's nothing for them to do. And since when did we need to act against pop singers?"

The first signs appeared a few months ago in the Red Sea port of Hodeida, where young men and women began to be accosted by bearded vigilantes demanding proof that couples were related. A hotel disco and bar were closed down and several Arab women dancers deported. Daoud al-Jeni, a self-styled "virtue activist', described his mission as being to curb "obscenity and prostitution". Anti-vice teams, some armed with sticks, have also been operating in Aden, the former British colony in the south.

In mid-July the Authority for Promoting Virtue and Combating Vice — exactly the same name as used in Saudi Arabia for 80 years — was launched in Sana'a and quickly moved to pressure the authorities to raid and close down two Chinese restaurants that were allegedly being used for "immoral" purposes, including selling alcohol....

Ironically, the virtue committee idea appears to be taking off in Yemen just as the Saudis, angered by some high-profile excesses, try to loosen the stranglehold of their own mutaween, who police the ban on women drivers, on women travelling without a chaperone and whose latest activity is to enforce a prohibition on selling dogs and cats for domestic pets.
Yemen is a highly traditional Muslim country where most men wear tribal robes and carry curved jambiya daggers in their belts. But it has never been comfortable with the brand of dour Salafi/Wahabi fundamentalism promoted by the Saudi religious establishment. "If these vigilantes start approaching couples and asking them for their marriage certificates in Sana'a you will soon see jambiyas flying," warned a middle-class resident of the capital.

Arwa Othman, an author and folklorist who is defiantly bareheaded in a land where most women wear the hijab, is horrified by the virtue campaign and the zealots behind it. "This idea will kill this country," she says. "They've been talking about it for a long time in schools and mosques and in the army. Now they're in alliance with the government. These people appear when there is poverty and hunger and dictatorship. These are the right circumstances for extremists."

From article by Ian Black in The Guardian, 3 September 2008. Read full article here.

Here's a bit of what they object to - Ehab Tawfik's song Allah Allaik Ya Seedi:

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