Red roses banned in Saudi but reform is on the cards

 

Religious police outlaw Valentine’s Day but the king has raised hopes of reform, writes MARY FITZGERALDin Riyadh

THE OFFICIAL letter arrived well in advance of St Valentine’s Day, warning of the consequences of selling anything red or decorated with cupids or hearts.

“It’s the same every year,” sighed the 30-something Saudi florist who knows only too well what will happen if the ban on Valentine’s Day is flouted.

A fellow employee was taken to prison by the muttawa, as Saudi Arabia’s religious police are known, for selling red flowers the day before what is increasingly referred to in other parts of the Arab world as eid al-hob, Arabic for the feast of love.

Last year, some overzealous muttawa asked the florist to remove a red leather chair from his premises. “Can you believe that?” he said, rolling his eyes.

“This year they have visited us three or four times to make sure we are selling nothing related to Valentine’s Day.”

In another gift shop, Abdulkhadr from Eritrea displayed his wares. “We have white roses, yellow roses, blue roses . . . you can have any colour as long as it is not red,” he said. “The muttawa warned us we were not to use even red ribbon or wrapping paper. We took everything to the storeroom but we will put it all back on the shelves three days from now.”

In the corner some large heart-shaped boxes of chocolates labelled “Coup d’Amour” and “Mon Amour” had escaped the muttawa’s notice.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, as the religious police are formally known, patrol the streets of Riyadh and other Saudi cities to ensure women are veiled and men go to the mosque at prayer time, among other duties.

They are particularly active during February as they try to prevent Saudis from celebrating Valentine’s Day, which many here consider a foreign, un-Islamic occasion. “It’s sad that a pagan festival that promotes immorality is being observed by Muslims undermining their faith and Islamic values,” wrote one columnist in the Saudi Gazette last week.

Another local newspaper reported that the Saudi education ministry had launched an awareness campaign in schools to dissuade students from marking Valentine’s Day.

The ministry cited a fatwa that describes it as “a Christian, pagan holiday that Muslims are not permitted to celebrate, or even acknowledge”, the report said.

The outlawing of Valentine’s Day is just one manifestation of the austere interpretation of Islam adhered to by Saudi Arabia. Celebrating Christian holidays such as Christmas is also prohibited and non-Muslims are banned from openly practising their religion. Even marking birthdays is frowned upon by many within the religious establishment.

But the muttawa, a force with wideranging powers to ensure the kingdom’s moral codes are observed, has become increasingly controversial in recent years.

Some Saudis say its members needlessly interfere in private lives and are often guilty of heavy-handedness in seeking out infractions such as unrelated men and women mixing. In 2002, they were accused of preventing unrelated men from rescuing 14 schoolgirls trapped in a burning building. The girls died.

Given the muttawa’s annual struggle against Valentine’s Day, there was a sweet irony in the fact that Saudi ruler King Abdullah chose February 14th to dismiss the current head of the force in his first major government reshuffle since coming to power in 2005.

As part of a reorganisation that Arab analysts have hailed as a major step towards further reform, the octogenarian king named four new ministers, including the first female deputy minister, and announced a shake-up of the Ulema council, a body of clerics whose interpretations of Islamic law underpin life in the kingdom.

The new head of the muttawa, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Humain, is believed to be more moderate than his predecessor. “We will try to be close to the heart of every citizen. Their concerns are ours,” Humain told Al Arabiya news channel.

Mohammad al Zulfa, a member of the Saudi Arabia Shura council, told Arab media that the appointments marked a major turning point for the country.

“It is the biggest change that happened in this country in 20 years. It is a new start for King Abdullah,” he said. “People are expecting changes. These are new faces that can bring change.”