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A Saudi television channel has aired a controversial rape scene that appeared in a drama series, drawing criticism from conservative groups in the Kingdom.
The scene was part of the TV drama series A-Sakinat Fi Qulubina (Dwelling in our Hearts) and was viewed by thousands when it recently aired on a Friday night.
The three-minute scene depicts two sisters who are kidnapped by men they met on the Internet, taken by force to a place outside of Jedda, beaten and raped.
The airing of the scene is an indication of a bolder line being taken by the Saudi media, which is now more inclined to expose social problems and reflect them in local productions.
The executive producer of the production company that made the program said he had expected the program to be controversial.
Hasan 'Asiri, of the A-'Sadaf company for Audio and Visual Production, told the Saudi daily Arab News that Saudi dramas, up until recently, tackled social ills more subtly and by implication only.
By making these problems more public, people will understand that such violence is unacceptable, he said.
The program has received top viewership ratings since January.
Other controversial issues that have been tackled in the series include AIDS, marital abuse, and problems facing Saudi women.
Critics of the program say it was one-dimensional and painted Saudis in a bad light before millions of viewers throughout the Middle East.
Regarding the rape scene, they said it conveyed the message that women who used the Internet were asking for trouble and that it erroneously implied that women should avoid using the Internet altogether, according to Arab News.
One drama critic said the series was more frightening than educational.
Abeer Mishkhas, a Saudi journalist and a columnist with Arab News, said the fact that it was being broadcast on the privately owned MBC1 and not on a government channel would likely be a factor in the high viewership ratings.
"Some people won't be happy to see this," she told The Media Line. "Conservatives in Saudi Arabia are not happy with having women on television in general, let alone showing rape scenes."
Thirty-five clerics recently called on the Saudi minister of culture and media to ban women from appearing in the media, warning against what they called violations of Islamic law by doing so.
They urged the minister to ban the showing of women dancing, singing, presenting news or talking: whether in Arabic or a foreign language.
As a female Saudi journalist, Mishkhas said she welcoms groundbreaking programs such as A-Sakinat Fi Qulubina. "It's about time we start talking about what's happening in society. We tend to cover up things and say they are private and shouldn't be discussed in public. But that approach hasn't helped and just made things worse," she said.
Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States in the war against terror, but it has come under international pressure because of its tight religious practices.
Saudi Arabia observes a strict form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism.
Restrictions in the Kingdom are particularly harsh for women, who are banned from driving and cannot perform most tasks outside the house without being accompanied by a male guardian, usually a husband, father or a close family member.
Women's rights activists say Saudi King Abdullah has been instrumental in bringing about reform to improve the situation of women, including opening up job markets for women and expanding their opportunities for acquiring a higher education.
Also, women have made considerable strides in the Saudi media over the past few years.
More Saudi women are getting high-level jobs in media -- including positions as correspondents or editors -- and women can now acquire a higher education in communications studies with the government's blessing.