Vigilante gangs of ultra-conservative Salafi men have been harassing shop owners and female customers in rural towns around Egypt for “indecent behavior,” according to reports in the Egyptian news media. But when they burst into a beauty salon in the Nile delta town of Benha this week and ordered the women inside to stop what they were doing or face physical punishment, the women struck back, whipping them with their own canes before kicking them out to the street in front of an astonished crowd of onlookers.
Modeling themselves after Saudi Arabia’s morality police as a “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,” the young men raided clothing and other retail shops around the Qalubiya province over New Year’s weekend declaring they were there to enforce Islamic law, according to the Tahrir News.
Shop owners were told they could no longer sell “indecent” clothing, barbers could no longer shave men’s beards, and that all retail businesses should expect regular and surprise inspections to check for compliance. Frightened customers were ordered to cover up and threatened with severe punishment if they did not abide by “God’s law on earth.”
But when the women in a Benha beauty salon stood up to the young Salafi enforcers, they found support on the streets as well as online, with one amused reader suggesting that women should be deputized to protect the revolution’s democratic values.
Last month thousands of women marched in Tahrir Square in outrage over the clubbing and sexual humiliation of female demonstrators, like the notorious beating and stripping of “the blue bra girl” in December, whose videoed assault made headlines around the world.
In one of the first pubic apologies ever issued by the military, generals from the ruling council acknowledged the incident and apologized even before the Dec. 17 march had ended. The military faced a second rebuke a week later when a civilian court banned the military’s use of “virginity tests” to shame and humiliate female demonstrators.
In addition to invading shops, the “morality police” also smashed Christmas trees and decorations in front of stores and malls, declaring the celebration of Christmas “haram” or forbidden. Salafi sheiks have also banned the sending of Christmas greetings, prompting the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood to broadcast messages of Christmas cheer to their Christian brethren.
The conservative Salafi sect promotes the strict segregation of the sexes, with many Salafi women wearing the all-enveloping black nikkab gown with eye slits. The group has worried the tourist industry with their pledge to ban alcohol and mixed-gender beaches. Coptic Christians who saw two of their churches torched by Salafis last spring fear further persecution.
Sunni sheiks from Cairo’s respected Al Azhar mosque and university called an emergency meeting January 4 to discuss the problem, and declared that the Salafi morality police had no legitimate or legal authority on the street, according to Ahramonline.
Two days later, Egyptian former mufti Nasr Farid who was once responsible for issuing religious edicts or fatwas based on Sharia law agreed, stating that the young vigilantes were usurping state authority and did not have the jurisdiction to impose their concept of religious law.
In response, the group pointed to the al Nour party’s recent election triumph in which they won nearly 30 percent of parliament seats, as giving them a mandate to enforce Sharia law. They claimed they not only had the backing of members of Al Nour’s leadership council, but that al Nour leadership had in fact provided the funding to mobilize young volunteers.
The Al Nour party’s Facebook page however denied financing the group.
In a desperate effort to gain control of their public message, Al Nour party officials have tried to control the actions of their followers and silence individual Salafi sheiks, like Abdel Moneim el Shahat in conservative Alexandria, who has suggested covering the “obscene” figures on Egypt’s ancient monuments with wax.
The young members of the morality police held their first meeting this week, according to a report in the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, “to determine the tasks and geographical jurisdictions of the first volunteers, who would monitor people’s behavior in the street and assess whether they contradicted God’s laws. Volunteers would wear white cloaks and hold bamboo canes to beat violators and later would be provided with electric tasers.”
By Colleen Gillard