Under new directives from the Saudi Arabian government, the country's religious police no longer have the ability to arrest citizens when enforcing Islamic laws.
The new measures, approved May 3, disallow Saudi Arabia's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice from arresting people for what they deem as immoral behavior under the country's strict sharia law religious code, according to CNN.
The CPVPV, known informally as the Hai'a, enforces Islamic moral codes in the country, such as dress codes for girls and women and separating men and women except for spouses and close relatives. Before reforms in 2007 outlawed the practice, the Hai'a carried wooden canes to strike those who violated the sharia laws. More than four thousand members of the Hai'a patrol public places enforcing the moral codes, according to the New Yorker.
Under the new directives, the Hai'a will have to report violations of the religious codes to the police, who will "alone have the authority to follow, chase, stop, question, verify identification, arrest any suspected persons," according to the new guideline.
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The new changes are a "significant development," according to Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics.
"In the past few years there have been many complaints by the public that the religious police has overstepped [its] authority," said Gerges, noting complaints which reported that the Hai'a mistreated families and overstepped its authority.
According to Gerges, many complaints about the religious police have focused on the force's mistreatment of women. Most of the grievances, said Gerges, have focused on women who were either not fully covered or were not accompanied by their male guardians.
Women are frequently targeted by the Hai'a and some are threatened with arrest simply for working retail jobs. "They tell them, 'If I see you here working tomorrow, I will take you back to a cell,'" according to the New Yorker.
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Gerges warned that the move should not be seen as a part of a major social reform in the country. The new directives are intended to respond to the grievances against the religious police and to separate the power between the religious police and the government's regular police force.