Saudi clerics deemed bicycles “The Horse of Satan” in the 1960s. Now with similar logic they refer to the popular Arab reality TV show Star Academy as Satan Academy. The common evil they see, asserts global communications scholar Marwan Kraidy, is the threat of women’s public presence.
The controversy in Saudi Arabia surrounding Star Academy has provided years of research material for Kraidy, a University of Pennsylvania professor who spoke last week at the University of Minnesota. The show, which Kraidy describes as a hybrid of Big Brother and American Idol, is produced in Lebanon, but it provokes the most heated controversy in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s most important media market. Even though Star Academy allows no swearing, alcohol, or sex, the visibility of women on the show draws ire from conservative Saudis and clerics.
“It’s really about keeping women under control in public space,” Kraidy says. Portraying women as sexual objects is one thing, but Kraidy points out that Saudi media policy doesn’t stop at banning indecently dressed women. Women engaged in sports are also banned from the airwaves. “The concern here,” Kraidy says, “is about women being social agents.”
Such policies square with the ubiquitous American perception of oppressed Arab women. But the reality is more complex. Saudi women hold positions of power in business and medicine, Kraidy notes. And they're winning reality TV shows, even more often than in the West, Kraidy says. (An Iraqi woman, Shatha Hassoun, won the fourth season of Star Academy with the help of 8 million Iraqis who paid to vote for her victory. She's now a national symbol, says Kraidy, in the state's public service announcements.)
What's more, ordinary Saudis have fairly liberal views about women’s rights. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that a majority of Saudis support women having the right to drive, work, and lead in government. Reality TV shows might irk conservative Saudis, but they may reflect the reality of prevailing attitudes in the society.
Dismissing reality shows as mindless and inconsequential is an easy reflex. But Kraidy makes a convincing argument for reality TV’s ability to upset preconceptions about women in the Arab world, for Westerners and conservative Saudis alike.