Drinking Coffee a Crime in Saudi Arabia?

U.S. woman strip-searched, detained for sitting in cafe with male colleague.

ByABC News
February 8, 2008, 7:17 AM

Feb 8, 2008— -- 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.