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memri
January 8, 2004 No.
158

The Saudi Media Debates Flogging by the Saudi Religious Police

By: Yotam Feldner*

In recent years, a debate has surfaced in the Saudi media over the use of flogging as a punishment administered by the Saudi Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Hundreds of Saudis are flogged every week for alleged "vice" crimes, such as harassing women, congregating in front of girls' schools, and numerous other offenses. The following are highlights of the media debate surrounding flogging: [1]

A Recent History of Public Flogging in Saudi Arabia

The public debate on flogging began in 2001, when Saudi government officials set up a special committee to expedite legal procedures by assuming responsibility for administering flogging to youths accused of "harassment." The Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – the Saudi religious police – is in charge of overseeing this type of harassment by youths, and is authorized to administer up to 15 lashes for each offense. The committee, established in 2001, includes representatives from the Attorney General's office and the regional governorate.

Following the establishment of this committee, weekly reports of large-scale floggings of youths began to appear in the Saudi media. An October 2001 report read, "63 Harassers Flogged, 10 Of Them Foreign Workers," [2] and another, a week later read, "39 Harassers Flogged Last Week, Five Of Them Foreign Workers." [3] In December 2001, 177 youths were reported flogged in a single week, "five of them foreign workers." [4]

Just prior to Ramadan 2001, Riyadh authorities debated the advisability of flogging during the holiday. Ultimately, they decided "to continue flogging during the month of Ramadan: 59, among them eight foreign workers, were flogged last week." [5] The following week, there was a reported "increase in the phenomenon in the month of Ramadan: the flogging of 66 harassers, among them two foreign workers, in one week." [6]

The committee decided on a "short break" from flogging during the holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, but as soon as the holiday was over, "the committee summoned 140 youths involved in harassment for punishment by flogging." [7] Prior to Eid Al-Adha, a source on the committee said that flogging would continue during this holiday. According to the source, during holidays every year the masses go out to markets and public places, and as a result harassment escalates." [8]

Flogging: Not Only for Punishing Harassment

In a February 2002 press release, the committee described its methods. The first step, it wrote, is to warn the youth accused of harassment. If he does not heed the warning, he is arrested and taken to the police station for investigation. If his behavior in any way "impinged upon the honor of others," he is punished "with no more than 15 lashes." In the case of recidivism, his father is called in to attend the flogging. [9]

Flogging is not only administered to "harassers"; it is also used for other offenses, such as for street drag racing. Residents of the city of Al-Madina suffer greatly from gangs of street drag racers, and a December 13, 2001 report in the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh described the arrest of 19 drivers. Al-Medina Police Chief Youssef Al-Bunian explained that they were flogged in the center of town, "in the neighborhood where residents complained about the noise, the gatherings, and the danger to children caused by the wildly speeding cars." [10]

On another occasion, a court ordered 75 lashes for each of three students who assaulted a teacher, and the floggings took place in front of the school gates. [11]

In a well-known case, liberal journalist Mansour Al-Nogaidan was sentenced to 75 lashes [12] for allegedly cursing another man. A man who called Saudi poet Ibrahim Shahbi "secular" was sentenced to 60 lashes in front of a mosque following Friday prayers, but Al-Shahbi later asked that the sentence not be carried out. [13]

A minor convicted of an indecent act was sentenced to six years' imprisonment and 500 lashes. [14] A Saudi airlines flight attendant convicted of smuggling eight bottles of liquor was sentenced to 45 days in prison and 150 lashes. [15] Three months' imprisonment and 70 lashes was ordered for each of 36 men and women who participated in a September 2003 demonstration in Riyadh. [16]

The website of The Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice reports that each member of a group of youths that "attacked" the Authority's office was sentenced to three years' imprisonment and 3,000 lashes. [17]

For and Against Flogging

Most of the reports of floggings in the Saudi media focused on the "harassers," and these reports attracted criticism. Journalist Haifaa Khaled wrote that the practice of calling in parents to observe their child's flogging moved her to tears, [18] and in response Salah Jamil Al-Tami wrote: "I witnessed the flogging of a youth in his twenties at the shopping center… Everyone gathered around, and the sight was not very civilized… What was the point? Has flogging reduced harassment?... I hope we will be a civilized people whose members respect each other, and do not doubt each others' morality…" [19]

However, the Saudi media has given a broader platform to the supporters of flogging. Fayyad bin Hamad bin Muhammad Al-Fayyad, an enthusiastic proponent, qualified his remarks by saying, "I swear and even saw with my own eyes… that the woman is the main cause of harassment. Yes, the woman. It is she who forces the youths to harass her. She is the only culprit, because she goes to places where young men are – the markets, the sports centers… These women do not come to buy… they leave the market empty-handed. They go to sports centers wearing their finest clothes and jewels, and they sway and giggle loudly… Yes, the woman is the reason, she is the only culprit, and she is more deserving of punishment than the young men…" [20]

It is interesting to note that most advocates of flogging make it clear that the girls are to blame in cases of harassment. Ahmad Abdallah Aal Naji, a member of the teaching staff at the technology college in Abha, wrote that he "enthusiastically supports the punishment of flogging… Immediate flogging is the best and most deterring punishment. Besides, this punishment costs nothing. All you need is a few riyals and a skilled flogger."

Aal Naji also hastened to point out that in his personal opinion, "responsibility for 80% of the cases of harassment lies with the girls, because of their intentional temptations, their diaphanous robes, colorful trousers, provocative veils, tinted lenses, and long fake eyelashes. This is how they force young men into harassing them and following them into their homes. I demand flogging for girls who have been harassed, to be carried out by suitable female preachers in coordination with The Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and in the presence of their mothers, in order to correct what can be corrected before it is too late.

"Likewise, I can swear that young women who protect their honor … and wear robes over their heads [and down to their feet], and gloves, are not subject to harassment even when they are alone, because there is nothing to provoke the harassing young men." [21]

Academics Weigh In on the Flogging Debate

Saudi academics were also divided on the issue of flogging, as can be seen in an investigative report by the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh on "The Human Wolves." Dr. Suleiman bin Abdallah Al-'Uqail, lecturer in sociology at King Saud University, opposed the practice, saying that corporal punishment should be a last resort because its drawbacks outweigh its advantages.

On the other hand, Dr. Abd Al-Ilah bin Sa'd bin Sa'id of King Saud University said that "in most cases, flogging is an effective punishment because it causes the offender pain and humiliation. Yet there are some cases in which flogging is not effective. However, it is always young men who are flogged; what about the women, if it is proven that they are the cause of the harassment? Should these girls be punished by flogging?" [22]

Flogging Committees All Across the Country

Currently, Saudi authorities are trying to set up committees similar to the one in Riyadh across the country. Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice head Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Gheith announced that harassers must be flogged immediately and in public: "The Authority will immediately flog anyone proven to have harassed girls, because 'harassment' is a phenomenon that [need] not exist in our country, and is foreign to our society and to the behavior of our sons and daughters. Based on research, we have decided that the public interest requires immediate flogging for a treatment and a deterring solution for these people.

"It must be known that we protect the confidentiality of the families. If any youth is flogged in a public place, we do not reveal his last name, so as not to harm the family's reputation and to preserve its honor… Under no conditions will we flog before the guilt of the accused is proven. The Authority operates not according to suspicions, but according to facts." [23]

Sheikh Al-Gheith's announcement angered many. "There is no positive educational message in bodily harm," stated sociologist Badriya Al-Bashar. "The punishment must be connected to the deed. If you want to teach a minor a sense of responsibility, you must assign him to do social public service, by means of which he will learn a better meaning in life, and at the same time provide a public service and taste success. In addition to all these, he will feel a sense of responsibility."

Al-Bashar proposed a patient approach, and asking young people who have erred to clean public facilities, or requiring them to work in homes for the aged or disabled, orphanages, and the like: "All educational and mental theories have proven that there is no value whatsoever in beating as an educational means, and that beating engenders only negative values." [24]

The objections to flogging were also legally-based. Jurist Abd Al-Aziz Al-Qassem told the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "If the Authority and the police flog people immediately, this will lead to violation of legal human rights. It will be difficult in these cases to provide the fundamental right to a fair trial. This measure will expose innocent people to the danger of arbitrary trials, and this demands an effective initiative to amend the situation from its foundations, instead of primitive and dangerous solutions." [25]

* Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.


[1] For more on this subject, see Iranian Conservatives and Reformists Debate Public Flogging, December 7, 2001, "Conservatives and Reformists Debate Public Flogging."

[2] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 25, 2001.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 1, 2001.

[4] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 14, 2001.

[5] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 15, 2001.

[6] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 22, 2001.

[7] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 27, 2001.

[8] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2002.

[9] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 13, 2002.

[10] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 13, 2001.

[11] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 16, 2003.

[12] http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30E16F73F5E0C7B8EDDA80994DB404482.

[13] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 23, 2003.

[14] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 9, 2003.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 31, 2003.

[16] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 11, 2003.

[17] http://www.hesbah.com/newsdesc.asp?id=81.

[18] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 10, 2003.

[19] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 19, 2002.

[20] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 16, 2001.

[21] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 1, 2002.

[22] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 9, 2001.

[23] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 29, 2003.

[24] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 29, 2003.

[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 29, 2003.