RIYADH: An MTV documentary on young people challenging Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict Islamic social code has sparked an uproar among conservatives and court and government investigations, officials said Tuesday.
Traditionalists have filed a legal complaint against the one-hour documentary entitled “Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia” broadcast on MTV in the United States last week,
Jeddah court sources said, adding that the complaint was being reviewed.
Meanwhile, information ministry spokesman Abdul Rahman al-Hazzaa said the ministry was looking into the film after a number of complaints were made.
“We are just beginning to investigate it,” Hazzaa told AFP.
The one-hour film depicts young Jeddah residents pursuing ostensibly normal endeavours against the harsh restrictions on public life of Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam.
Political activist Ahmed wants to push the all-male city council to allow women to take part. Aziz, 24, dreams of meeting in person a woman he has been flirting with on-line, in violation of rules against mixing by unrelated men and women.
A 20-year-old woman, Fatima, is shown trying to sell a line of coloured abayas against traditional rules requiring women to wear only black versions of the shroud-like garment.
The filmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, of New York-based Loki Films, follow the subjects around as they speak frankly about the restrictions posed by Saudi society and Islam.
“I want justice, equality,” Ahmad, 22, says as he shows his library of banned books and complains of web censorship.
“You are not going to get those rights, by somebody who gives them to you as a gift. You have to take those rights.”
As she sneaks a bike ride on public streets by donning male clothing, Fatima says: “A woman should do everything that a man does.” She also rejects the omnipresent black abayas that Saudi women wear.
“That’s the practice of Islam in our culture. But that’s not Islam at all.”
Such comments sparked an uproar among religious conservatives. A Facebook page started by Islamist activist Ali al-Qarni has amassed nearly 2,500 supporters for bringing legal charges against those behind the programme and those who took part in it.
“We will not allow the values of Saudi society to be broken, and we call for the trial of Aziz and the MTV channel,” they said.
They accused the heavy metal band members of following satanism and Christianity – crimes under Saudi Islam – and pointed to a Motorhead t-shirt one wears which shows the hilt of a sword, which they say is a Christian cross symbol.
Aziz has come under particular attack. On camera, he shows how he communicates with his “girlfriend” on line, and then tries to sneak into a mall during family-only hours to meet her for the first time.
Critics say he is guilty of the Islamic sin of mujahara, doing something bad and then talking publicly about it.
“Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia” has only been shown in the United States, and not on MTV Arabia, the US broadcaster’s regional operation. But many Saudis have watched it on the MTV website.
Director Ewing defended it as simply a picture of what some young Saudis are doing with their lives.
“I am a bit surprised about the controversy but feel that it will settle down as people realise our intentions and those of the participants were positive,” she told AFP by email.
“We do not pretend to have captured all the nuances of this complex place but a small look into the hearts and minds of a few people,” she said.
Khalid al-Dahlawi, a Jeddah-based freelance producer who worked on the film, rejected accusations that they filmed in secret, and said they had the necessary official Saudi permissions to make the film.
“This is the first time such a documentary comes out talking frankly with youth and covering such issues,” Dahlawi said.
But the controversy comes amid a battle by religious conservatives against a growing push to loosen many of the country’s social restrictions especially on women.
It also comes seven months after 32-year-old Jeddah airline employee Mazen Abdul Jawad was jailed for five years after he appeared on an episode of a popular show broadcast from Lebanon, boasting about his sex life.
Three others were also jailed for appearing on the show “Bold Red Line”, and the Saudi-owned, Beirut-based satellite broadcaster LBC which produced it saw its Saudi Arabia offices shut down.
Ewing said there was nothing similar between Aziz and Mazen, who was also accused of mujahara.
Aziz “makes no rude statements of any sexual nature at all. Like many young men around the world, he imagines finding love and having a wife and family,” as the film shows.
“I have confidence that Saudi officials know that he is not guilty of the nasty accusations made against him by a few.”