Saudi Arabia plans female religious police

Saudi women walk inside the Faysalia mall in Riyadh City, on September 26, 2011, Saudi Arabia's religious police enforce, among other things, Islamic dress codes

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The head of Saudi Arabia's religious police has said there is a pressing need to employ more women in the force.

Speaking to the official Saudi Gazette newspaper, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh said he hoped a recruitment drive would take place soon.

Saudi's religious police enforce the kingdom's strict Islamic laws, including dress and prayer times.

Correspondents say the introduction of women could be a sign of the king's cautiously reformist agenda.

Earlier this month, Mr Sheikh announced that he would curb the powers of the religious police, known as the "mutawa".

He himself was appointed in January to deal with growing public anger about excessive behaviour by the force.

Recently, a mobile phone clip of a religious policeman ordering a young woman to leave a mall because of her make-up went viral on the internet.

There is no indication that the introduction of women into the religious police would necessarily make the rules any less strict, but it would boost the presence of women in public life.

The sanctioned duties of the mutawa, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, include preventing women driving, enforcing modest dress codes, policing bans on public entertainment and making sure all businesses close for prayers five times a day.

Although Saudi Arabia remains a deeply conservative country, King Abdallah has recently introduced some cautious political and social reforms.

In September 2011, he announced that women would be given the right to vote and run in future municipal elections.

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