Sexual Extremes Lead to Confusion

Women in Saudi Arabian Mall

In the past two decades, a large number of wealthy and highly educated (mostly) males from Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, etc.) have attended top universities here in the U.S. Many of them leave a land where women are barred from driving, a special police force monitors dress behavior in malls, and literalist wahaabi Islam continues to flourish. When they arrive on university campuses here, many of these young men are overwhelmed by the high visibility and frequency of sex and drugs.

16 Year-Old Disney Channel Pop Star Miley Cyrus Pole Dancing at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards

Saudi and American culture, each strangled by their own problems dealing with sexuality, have done a disservice to their populace, and the young men who have suddenly stepped from one world into the other face severe challenges. In the U.S., even the Disney Channel uses scantly clad, sexually suggestive young women to advertise its products. Mass consumerism is filled with sexual images and the objectification of women. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, more than 1 out of every 1,000 women received breast implants in 2010.

In Saudi Arabia, it’s seemingly the opposite. While a higher rate of women than men are graduating from Saudi Arabian universities, only 5% of the workforce is female. Images of women, modestly dressed or not, are rare. Saudi men are obsessed with women in a different way from American objectification, and feminine temptations are constantly criticized as being the cause for many of society’s ills.

One of the most famous satellite sheikhs in the world fell victim to the extremism that Saudi and American cultures facilitate. Having grown up in a conservative household, even by Saudi standards, Sheikh Ahmad al-Shugairi attended college in California. A practicing Muslim before he arrived in California, al-Shugairi’s habits changed, and he began to drink and chase women.

Some time after he returned from the U.S., divorcing a woman he married while there, al-Shugairi came back to Islam, and started down a religiously extremist path. Al-Shugairi says that he eventually found balance and realized that a conservative, middle path was the best approach he could take. Charismatic and relatively hip, al-Shugairi started a show in 2002 called Yalla Shabab, or “Hey, Young People,” which eventually led to his current show Khawater, or “thoughts,” which speaks of simple, practical ways to live out the principles espoused by the Prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago. Broadcast around the world in Arabic, al-Shugairi’s messages cover topics that others may not speak about, like sex, and has gained a wide audience of young Muslims across the Middle East.

Al-Shugairi’s story is interesting, but also alarming. It demonstrates the warped and dysfunctional systems of sexuality that many young Gulf Muslim men encounter when moving to the U.S. from their native countries. While strikingly different cultures, there are frightening similarities of female objectification and sexual extremism in both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Economic and security interests have awkwardly aligned the two nations, but it may also be of mutual benefit for these two societies to begin a dialogue about a healthier approach to sexuality–for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

What do you think about sexuality in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia? If you live in Saudi Arabia or have traveled there, please share your thoughts. What does Islam say about a healthy sexuality?

2 thoughts on “Sexual Extremes Lead to Confusion

  1. Although I am not Saudi, I was born and brought up in Saudi Arabia for the first 18 years of my life. As a woman, I would say this story can be applied to the female population too with a different twist, however, we never hear about those stories as Saudi girls hardly receive a higher education from abroad. The difference in the behavior, some would say is more enlightening for the women as they would realize the value of their independence in not needing to answer to a man. And some would say, that too would be taken to the extreme. Whatever the case may be, living in Saudi Arabia were some of the best years of my life. Maybe because I was brought in a liberal family. Maybe because I knew my limitations and freedom as a young, Islamic woman. Or, maybe just because life there is more simple than the complex, fast-pace life we face here in the US. When Saudi men or women come to America they are faced with so many options, choices that they do not know what to do with that freedom. Some misuse it, some use it wisely. I believe if the Saudi government starts paying more attention in educating the female population, they will use their higher education to better the kingdom in a way no one ever imagined before. Maybe that is one of the government’s fear.

  2. Expectations and ideals are set for women — by the media, by society, by a cleric’s interpretation of religion, and perhaps most harmfully by the men in their lives (be it with positive or negative connotations), etc. It is up to women to discover whether they accept these pre-determined ideals and question their origins. But it is not an easy route to take because:

    Children are taught early on that it is okay for Ariel to give up her voice for the man she loves in The Little Mermaid. That it is okay for Beauty to be physically harmed and thrown into a room by the Beast. And Snow White makes it acceptable for a woman to wait for her Prince Charming, while going to sleep and doing absolutely nothing meanwhile in regards to self-development.

    Sometimes, even men who are most attune with and sensitive towards issues of women’s rights, do not always know how to demonstrate that they care without overstepping the bounds of a woman’s free-will when she makes a decision. They crowd the process, and become protective when they feel she may be making a decision that they deem dangerous. Then, the woman retracts, and responds by retorting that she can take care of herself and that she is independent. Where is the medium in this case? It is not wrong for a man to watch out for a woman, or vice versa, but it is truly about how it is done, with careful attention being paid to privilege and power dynamics. Is her decision frowned upon, is it taken as an act of free-will, or a merely a silly experiment? Is it looked upon as a naive choice or an informed decision on her part? Most importantly, is there discussion or is there imposition?

    Rumi offers a few words in this regard: “The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts. But ignorant men dominate women for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.”

    While men need to harness their base natures, it is also up to women to be assertive and to question any and all expectations. Investigative learning can create this space. It is a difficult path, but also a vital one if we are to have a healthy understanding of sexuality and interaction between the sexes.