Drinking Coffee a Crime in Saudi Arabia?

An American woman who was arrested and strip-searched by religious police in Saudi Arabia for drinking coffee at a Starbucks with a male colleague says she is determined to stay in the strict Islamic kingdom to challenge its rules.

The woman, identified only as "Yara," is the mother of three children. She was born in Libya to Jordanian parents and is an observant Muslim, but she was raised as an all-American kid in Salt Lake City. She and her husband have for years lived in Saudi Arabia, where she has her own business in the capital of Riyadh.

Yara's detention has put her at the center of a growing controversy in Saudi Arabia over restrictions on women. Some experts believe her arrest is part of a backlash by religious conservatives in the face of growing pressure to loosen the restrictions.

Yara, 37, went to the Starbucks on Monday with her business associate to get some work done and use the internet after a power failure shut down her office. While the two were sitting in the curtained-off family section of the Starbucks, the country's bearded religious police entered and arrested her for being with a man other than her husband.

Reports in the Saudi press say religious police detained her for immoral behavior, took her cell phone, strip-searched her, kept her from calling her husband and prevented her from seeing a lawyer.

Despite her harsh treatment, Yara told The Times of London that rather than return to America, she wants to remain in Saudi Arabia to challenge its conservative interpretation of Islamic code.

"If I want to make a difference I have to stick around," she told the paper. "If I leave, they win. I can't just surrender to the terrorist acts of these people."

She has allies.

"Taking away her mobile phone, not letting her talk to her husband is against the rules. She did nothing wrong … the arrest was illegal," said Human Rights Watch's Christoph Wilcke, an expert on the Saudi justice system.

Yara was detained for several hours. She claims she was forced to sign a statement in which she admitted to being in a state of "khalwa," or immoral seclusion with an unrelated man.

"I told [the religious police] that I am a good Muslim, a mother of three, and a God-fearing person who would never do shameful things," she told Saudi's Arab News.

In Saudi Arabia, where social rules are based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic texts, interaction between men and woman is severely restricted. Additionally, the country does not have a unified legal system. Instead, judges and local authorities rely on their individual interpretations of the Koran.

"Since there's no written law, there's no law saying the khalwa takes place in X situation. It's not legally clear at what point men and women are restricted from being together," Wilcke told ABC News. "There's no written law between 'mingling' and 'seclusion.' The rules vary … there's no one definition, so the religious police interpret it according to their daily mood."

Yara's arrest is the latest in the ongoing tug-of-war among authorities in Saudi Arabia regarding the status of women. There have been recent steps forward.

Earlier this year women were allowed to stay in hotels without a male guardian, and press reports suggest an easing of the ban on women drivers may be announced sometime this year. This week there was a state initiative for laws against sexual harassment, to protect the growing number of women in the workplace.

But more conservative forces, such as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — the agents who arrested Yara for her Starbucks coffee — are pushing back.

"Unfortunately individuals are being caught up in this struggle between the authorities and their willingness to carry out their argument in public," Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution told ABC News.

There have been other recent incidents involving the religious police. A German-Egyptian journalist, who requested that she be identified by the initials G.R. to protect her privacy, told ABC News that she had had a similar experience last year, but managed to avoid prison time.

While reporting in Riyadh for a foreign network, she and her team went to eat in the family section of a Hardee's restaurant. The "women" and "family" sections of public restaurants are considered safe places for male and female coworkers to mingle.

The curtains segregating the halls were suddenly opened and two men with long beards shouted, "What are you doing here?" G.R. says she kept silent, pretending she didn't speak Arabic. Her colleague told the religious police they were not residents in the kingdom. She posed as a German and claimed she didn't know the rules. They were allowed to leave without further questioning.

"Had I spoken a word in Arabic, I would have been dragged to the police station. Those religious police, there is no point in arguing with them and it is even worse if you are a woman, they get extremely offended if a women opens her mouth," G.R. told ABC News.

"Yara … might have spoken in Arabic. That is why she was taken," G.R said.

In 2005 alone, religious police had 5,000 officers and 5,000 volunteers patrolling Saudi Arabia. The officers carried out 400,000 arrests, according to Human Rights Watch.

Last year the topic of religious influence in the Saudi justice system came under heavy scrutiny in the world press and diplomatic circles. The spotlight intensified when conservative religious judges sentenced the young victim of a gang rape to 200 lashes, to punish her for being in a car with a male friend when she was attacked.

In Yara's case, as in the rape case last year, public sympathy within the Kingdom and from foreign countries amplified calls for action and judicial reform.

"This is the time to seriously consider the scope and purpose of our judicial reform. There are thousands of undocumented stories of injustice in our courts," May Dabbagh, a Saudi native and research fellow with the Dubai School of Government, wrote in an editorial late last year.

Saudi authorities will reportedly look into the Starbucks incident. Arab News reports that Mufleh Al-Qahtani, vice president of the National Society for Human Rights, would investigate possible violations by the religious police that resulted from strip-searching and other violations of privacy. The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia also promised to file a report on Yara's behalf, reported the Times of London.

"I look at this as if she had been kidnapped by thugs," Yara's husband told Arab News, an English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. He says he is considering legal action following his wife's detention.