Starbucks mother flouted the law, say religious police in Saudi Arabia

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Submitted by Marcus on Fri, 2008-02-22 10:14

A US businesswoman living in Saudi Arabia fears for her life after the religious police issued a rare statement defending her arrest this month for having coffee with a male colleague at a Starbucks coffee shop in Riyadh.

Yara, a 37-year-old married mother of three, said that she was strip-searched, forced to sign false confessions and told by a judge that she would “burn in hell”, before she was released on February 4.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice denounced her publicly with a statement posted on the internet on Monday night saying that her actions violated the Sharia of the country.

“It’s not allowed for any woman to travel alone and sit with a strange man and talk and laugh and drink coffee together like they are married,” it said.

“All of these are against the law and it’s clear it’s against the law. First, for a woman to work with men is against the law and against religion. Second, the family sections at coffee shops and restaurants are meant for families and close relatives,” it continued.

The commission contested the version of events from Yara, saying that she was never strip-searched or forced to sign confessions. It accused her of wearing make-up, not covering her hair and moving around suspiciously while sitting with her Syrian colleague, who was also arrested but later released.

Speaking to The Times yesterday from the family’s home in Jeddah, the husband of Yara, who did not want the family name made public for fear of retribution, said: “We are afraid for our lives, for our family and from further harassment. The things that they are suggesting about my wife, of course it isn’t true. She’s a professional businesswoman and she was at a café, not at a bar. They are coming up with ways to justify their actions.”

The story of Yara captured international attention and has started fierce debate within Saudi society, where reformers and human rights groups are pressuring the Government to be more liberal.

The powerful religious police vowed to sue two newspaper columnists who have written in defence of Yara and who criticised the “Mutaween” and their handling of the incident, saying: “The commission has the right to sue the writers because of the lies they are spreading. It gives the wrong idea of Saudi Arabia.”

Yara, a managing partner in a finance company has returned to work but she no longer travels to the offices of the company in Riyadh.

Her family is contemplating a return to America, saying that they feel caught in the middle of a greater debate in Saudi society between conservatives and reformers.

“There are a lot of Saudis who are angry and they are using Yara’s story to say ‘Enough of these people in our country’. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree we don’t want to get further punished for this,” Yara’s husband said.

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