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Saudis Arrest Woman in Skirt Video -- WSJ

19 Jul 2017 6:33 am
By Margherita Stancati 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (July 19, 2017).

Saudi Arabia's police detained a woman for appearing in public wearing a short skirt and a cropped top, a violation of the country's strict dress code, state media said on Tuesday.

A video of the woman walking around the historic town of Ushayqir, which first surfaced on Snapchat, went viral on Saudi social media over the weekend, sparking a fierce debate in the kingdom, with some speaking out in her defense and others calling for her swift punishment.

The woman, who hasn't been officially named, was detained by police in Riyadh for wearing "immodest clothing" and the case was referred to the public prosecutor, state television said.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and a key U.S. ally in the battle against religious extremism, enforces one of the world's strictest interpretations of the religion, largely the product of the ruling monarchy's longstanding alliance with the powerful Sunni Muslim clerical establishment.

Women must wear loose, head-to-toe gowns known as abayas in public, though exceptions are made for foreign officials and their spouses. Most women wear all-black abayas and choose to wear face-covering veils known as niqabs.

"The law must apply to her," said a tweet from the account of Aisha Al Otaibi, ahead of the woman's detention. "Europe forces women to remove their veils. In our country law is based on Islamic Shariah, and it must be respected. She insulted it and must be punished to teach a lesson." The Twitter user's profile said she is based in Jeddah.

There is no written penal code in Saudi Arabia, where judges issue verdicts based on interpretations of Islamic law, or Shariah.

The reaction to the video reflects internal tensions over the future of the kingdom, with those who are pushing for change pitted against those resisting it.

"A woman wanders in the heritage town of Ushayqir. The world has not come to an end -- it's a pleasant sight. There is no insult in it. She's a human, she is a person," said a tweet from the account of Waleed Al Nasser.

The ruling monarchy, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sought to somewhat relax Saudi Arabia's strict rules in a bid to attract potential foreign investors and appeal to its own, predominantly young population.

Last week, the ministry of education announced it would introduce physical education in public girls' schools in the upcoming academic year, something conservatives have long opposed. Music concerts, which for decades were virtually banned, are slowly coming back.

Saudi Arabia's religious police, tasked with enforcing the country's strict social codes, last year was stripped of its power to make arrests and instructed by the government to behave kindly.

But efforts to bring social change to a country that remains deeply conservative have also faced significant pushback. In response to the skirt video, some Saudis urged the government to restore the powers of the religious police.

The force, formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, in a statement on Monday said it had seen the video of the woman in an "illegal outfit" and referred the case to authorities.

Influential members of the religious establishment have spoken out against concerts as corrupting, and warned against removing strictures that still apply to women, such as a ban on women driving and a requirement that they obtain permission of their male guardians to travel abroad or marry.

Earlier this month, prominent Saudi cleric Mohamed Al Arefe asked women to not buy embellished abayas, as opposed to the more austere all-black version of the gown.

"O' daughter, do not purchase an abaya with any decorations, or embroidery, or beads, or slits. Please, my daughter, do not show off any ornament," he said on Twitter. The message was retweeted over 36,000 times.

--Dahlia Kholaif contributed to this article.

Write to Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 19, 2017 02:33 ET (06:33 GMT)

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