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SAUDI ARABIA: Religious hard-liners charge young Saudis over MTV reality show

June 3, 2010 | 10:18 pm

A controversial reality television show aimed at chronicling the lives of young Saudis clamoring for change has predictably riled authorities in the conservative kingdom and led to lawsuits against those who participated. 

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Media reports from Saudi Arabia say the kingdom's religious police have filed a lawsuit against three young Saudis for appearing on an episode of the popular MTV reality show "True Life," filmed in the Saudi city of Jeddah by two American producers.

Court officials in the Red Sea port city, considered the kingdom's most liberal, have confirmed the filing of the case alleging the crime of "openly declaring sin," and it will be another week or so before the Islamic sharia court decides whether to proceed with a trial or drop the case, reports the Reuters news agency.

The move came a couple of months after a Saudi court sentenced  Mazen Abdul Jawad to five years in prison and 1,000 lashings for boasting about his sexual exploits on a Lebanese television show.

But the latest television controversy involves a far more high-minded effort. "True Life -- Resist the Power, Saudi Arabia" was broadcast last month. It told the stories of the three young Saudis -- Ahmed, Aziz and Fatima -- and their quest to bring about change in their country where strict sharia law is applied. Those who break the Islamic code can be subject to hefty jail terms and floggings.

Ahmed is a women's rights advocate pushing for women to be allowed to sit on the city council. Meanwhile, 24-year-old Aziz keeps dreaming of meeting the girl in person he's been flirting with online -- a no-no in Saudi Arabia, which bans mixing between unrelated men and women.

Thrown into the mix is 24-year-old Fatima, who sells colorful abayas for women, providing a daring option to the black shroud-like garment women are required to wear in Saudi Arabia.

At one point, she goes biking in the streets of Jeddah wearing male clothing so as not to attract the attention of the religious police, saying "a woman should do everything that a man does."

Viewers are also introduced to the Saudi heavy metal band Breeze of the Dying and follow the band members' struggle to find a venue for their concerts, in defiance of Saudi conservatives who have denounced their music genre as satanist. 

The show rocked conservative Saudi society, and some were so angered by the content that they filed complaints with government offices, local media reports say. It also triggered reactions on online social media sites such as Facebook, where groups both in favor of the show and against it have been set up.

"I don’t appreciate MTV exploiting my country for entertainment. It IS entertainment, it’s not a documentary. It’s MTV, ladies and gents, don’t forget that!" Saudi blogger Souma wrote in a recent  post.

After watching the show, blogger Saudi Alchemist concluded that there is a need for more open and public debate in Saudi Arabia.

"I think it is very good and healthy to have people showing their opposition or agreement on social and cultural issues especially in Saudi Arabia. I personally think that it is better that we become open and honest about our problems. The mask strategy is no longer practical and Saudi should appear to the world with no makeup. We aren’t the best country in the world and certainly not the worst," he wrote

Some praise the youths for daring to appear on the show and speak out before the cameras.

"My feeling is that these young people are being truthful and have hope that change will come while many Saudis continue to be in denial about problems within their own country. Speaking out for change is something that can get people into trouble here. I have to admire these young people for having the courage to do so," wrote Susie of Arabia, an American woman who says she lives in Saudi Arabia, on her blog.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photos: An ad for "True Life-Resist the Power, Saudi Arabia" on MTV's website. Credit: MTV.