“…it was part of a plan to capture Barney the Dinosaur.”
By Sofi Munoz
Almost everyone in the world would agree that dinosaurs are awesome and cool creatures–everyone that is but the Saudi Arabian Agents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), a type of morality police dedicated to enforcing Islamic religious laws. For some unannounced reason, the CPVPV raided and shut down an exhibit featuring plaster models of dinosaurs that was on display at a local mall, adding “learning about dinosaurs” to the already extensive list of immoral actions prohibited by the state. No explanation was given for the abrupt closure; children were frightened and parents confused by the severe interference in an innocent and educational exhibit.
Such a repressive measure could be written off as just another instance of an authoritarian government crack down, yet this case stands out because of the backlash it generated not only in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the world, thanks to a little thing called Twitter. Within hours of the incident, disgruntled Saudis tweeted various theories as to why the exhibit was so abruptly shut down, causing the hash tag #Dammam-Hayaa-Closes-Dinosaur-Show to trend and bringing international attention, as well as a good deal of hilarity, to the incident. I encourage anyone looking for a laugh to search the aforementioned hashtag; gems include tweets suggesting, “it was a temporary measure just to ensure that the male and female dinosaurs were separated” or “it was part of a plan to capture Barney the Dinosaur”. My favorite tweets were those that took on a decidedly sexual perspective “I confess, I saw a naked dinosaur thigh and felt aroused” and one helpful tweet clarifying “No, no, that long thing is a tail!”
Clearly, Saudi Arabians are becoming more open to changes and less willing to tolerate state enforced social repression. What’s more, they’re tweeting about it. Less than two years ago, activist Manal al-Sharif defied the CPVPV and filmed herself driving, which is a criminal offence in her native Saudi Arabia. She then uploaded the controversial video on YouTube, drawing attention to the discrimintion she and millions of other women suffer.
Though al-Sharif was arrested for the crimes of “inciting women to drive” and “rallying public opinion”, the huge Facebook and YouTube following she acquired have brought about a great deal of international attention to the driving ban as well as empowering many other Saudi women to get behind the wheel.
Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are not only changing the way we relate with each other, but also the way we interact with our government. The strange case of dinosaur censorship in Saudi Arabia, while noteworthy for its comedic value, more importantly demonstrates how these changes may lead to a greater level of free speech and consequently, freedom in societies with authoritarian governments. #Dammam-Hayaa-Closes-Dinosaur-Show might not be a new Arab Spring, but perhaps with equal doses of free expression and humor, change may come to repressed societies.