Editor's Note: On Wednesday, a Saudi court sentenced Mazen Abdul Jawad to five years in prison and 1,000 lashes for bragging about his his sex life on television, according to Ministry of Information officials. Read Octavia Nasr's blog about the incident – and the uproar it caused – below.
Octavia Nasr | BIO
CNN Senior Editor, Mideast Affairs
This is one for the Middle East’s record books; a story that falls under the ‘unbelievable but true’ category.
In August, a 32-year-old Saudi man appeared on an Arabic satellite channel and discussed – without reservation and in great detail – his sexual likes and dislikes, his favorite sex toys and how he lost his virginity to a neighbor at the age of 14. Mazen Abdul Jawad described how he picked up women in the ultra-conservative Muslim Kingdom, brought them to his bedroom and had sex with them.
But in a region where sex is considered taboo, Jawad’s public admission of his sexual exploits outraged religious conservatives in the Muslim state. He was arrested more than a week ago and now faces charges under the strict Islamic sharia law code.
As soon as the Jawad appeared on A Thick Red Line, a popular social taboos show on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), people all over the Middle East were quick to condemn his comments and the station that gave him a platform to commit the “sin” of “bragging about his wrongdoing.” The LBC has refrained from commenting on the situation.
The story, not surprisingly, made headlines around the region. Jawad subsequently denied it, claiming the station had fabricated the story and taken his words out of context. Saudi authorities then arrested Jawad and launched a full-fledged investigation into his real crime and tried to determine how to manage the major image crisis he had created for the kingdom.
While most people were simply shocked by his stories, others used the opportunity to discuss the antiquated societal norms of the Middle East that don’t respect people’s sexual freedoms. Others called for Jawad’s severe punishment. Suggestions ranged from flogging him on live television, to stoning him in a public place, to cutting off his sexual organs and hanging him to teach the masses and send a clear message that this type of behavior would not be tolerated in Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s holiest shrines.
Although Jawad’s fate has become the topic of the hour in many circles around the region, what really is the basis for the investigation? What crime did he commit? Is it his sexual exploits or the fact that he bragged about them? Judging by commentaries and religious explanations, it seems that the punishable-by-death act was the bragging.
Muslim clerics and scholars quote from the Hadith – a collection of stories and tales that Prophet Mohammed’s Companions told about his time on earth to which clerics usually refer in order to come up with rulings or edicts also known as “Fatwa” – that it is a sin to brag about a wrongdoing or an offense if Allah has already covered for you by not allowing others to find out about it. It’s a complicated story and millions of Arabs - especially in Saudi Arabia – find themselves grappling with its meaning.
The show that aired Jawad’s story is as popular as it is controversial in the Middle East region. It tackles taboos sometimes never discussed in public. In most cases, the show’s guests appear wearing oversized dark shades or wigs and strange clothing to disguise their identities as their lives can be endangered for talking about such taboo subjects. Previous topics on the show have included homosexuality, polygamy, spousal abuse, deviant sexual behaviors, forced marriages and honor killings.
The host is a popular young man who talks to his guests as if he’s known them forever. Think a Middle Eastern version of Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer: he has the ability to get guests to reveal shocking things about themselves and admit to their most hideous behaviors. In one instance, a guest admitted he put up his children for sale and tried to justify why he continued to look for the highest bidder even though his kids were begging him to change his mind and promised to go to work or beg in order to help him with expenses.
Jawad did not use a disguise when he discussed his sex life on the show. And in a society in which sex is never discussed, that fact alone could have been the most shocking piece of this bizarre story. Jawad invited the crew to his red-themed strangely decorated bedroom where Mickey Mouse meets stuffed bears in sexually suggestive positions. The cameras gave audiences a glimpse of the room’s nightclub-like chandeliers mixed with seafood-shaped wall sconces, perfume bottles, sex toys, condoms and a book in Arabic that Jawad calls his “reference” entitled ‘101 Questions About Sex.’
On the show, Jawad, wearing a red shirt, explained that he put his number and car details (a red Mini Cooper) on his mobile's bluetooth. He said that women usually call him to ask if the car is for sale. He went on to boast, “some go out with me that same night, others take longer and in all honesty some don’t work out.” At the end of the report Jawad walked away saying, “Time to check out my luck,” – in reference to whether or not he’d be able to pick up a woman that day.
Right now, the fate of Mazen Abdul Jawad hangs in the balance. Will he get the death penalty for bragging about his sexual life? Will he be held responsible for the acts he allegedly committed?
In Saudi Arabia, terrorists such as captured al Qaeda members - whose intentions are to kill and maim in the name of religion – are given the opportunity to repent and to be set free after undergoing special rehabilitation. With such an extreme “merciful” side, it sounds strange that a man caught bragging about his alleged sexual exploits could be sentenced to death by hanging.
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