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Religious police feel the heat

Feared and loathed by many Saudis, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice gets a little disciplining of its own.

“People are changing,” said Saudi journalist Najah Al Osaimi. “They used to believe in what the [commission was] doing. But now they lost their credibility. Now, we use our brains.”

Apparently hoping to defuse growing public anger, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz replaced the former commission president with Al Humain during a cabinet reshuffle in February.

Those who favor reducing the commission’s authority or giving it new duties — like running campaigns against illegal drug use — were heartened by the king’s move and by a trend of loosening the gender segregation that has impeded cultural events in the past.

For the first time, this year’s national celebration of Saudi culture, the Janadriya Festival, had family days, which meant that Saudi husbands and wives could attend the event together.

Women also had much easier access this year to the Riyadh International Book Fair, where they ambled from booth to booth amid throngs of other human beings who happened to be male.

At a Riyadh conference on child abuse, men and women sat on different sides of the auditorium, without a screen separating them. And a princess who addressed the conference covered her hair but not her face.

Then, in a country that has no movie theaters, the government held its first film festival last year in Dammam. People of both genders attended, but sat in different halls.

In December, a Saudi-made comedy was screened several times over a week in Jeddah. Male viewers sat separately from the women, who were in the balcony. But everyone was in the same auditorium. Popcorn was sold.

All this has encouraged people to increasingly challenge what they view as unreasonable demands by the commission. The Saudi Gazette recently reported that Saudi taxi drivers in the southern town of Taif have threatened to take the commission to court for harassing them when they drive female students to school.

And some members of Shoura Council, an advisory body, recently criticized the behavior of some commission agents, in particular for rummaging through people’s cellphones. They called for the organization to be restructured.

The commission and their powerful clerical supporters are fighting back.