Alia Turki Al-Rabeo
From her dimly-lit room, Jamilah cautiously makes a risky move of expressing her liking for Bashir, a young man who works at her father’s bakery.
To her utter shock, her father’s sudden entry in the home coincides with her expression for love. While Bashir manages to quietly escape from the scene, her father Abu Issam drags Jamilah from hair and mercilessly beats her until her mother and sister come to the rescue.
In less than a week, Abu Issam not only marries Jamilah with Bashir but also forbids her from speaking with him for the rest of life.
This is a routine scene from Bab Al-Hara (Door of an Avenue), the highest rated Syrian TV serial in the Arab world.
Television dramas, the most popular ones included, generally remain hostage to conservative, old-fashioned mindset when it comes to portrayal for the female folk.
For a variety of factors, Syrian society has evolved towards the better as the country offers a fusion of modern and traditional lifestyle. However, remote towns and villages remain tribal and conservative.
For that matter, more girls get higher education and get employed in urban centers than about two decade before. Yet their place in the society remains undermined on television screen and theatres.
Abu Issam’s character has many replicas with different names and family settings. Arab men with mindset of keeping girls indoors completely covered and extremely dependent on their male counterparts, remain abundant in various outlooks, often in western attire.
These daughters of great women, like Miriana al-Mrash who was first woman Syrian journalist in 1870, Zahia bint-e-Qastantin who went to Harvard as back as 1917 and anti-colonial legend Nazek Al Abed, are constantly demonized in TV drama serials. For Syrian soap operas, women can be either shown as weak and submissive to men or liberal and ultra modern with out any family or social obligations.
Popular Syrian serial ‘Bait Jedi’ (My Grandfather's House) portrays women as objects of pleasure for men. Young women are shown searching for their brides. Most men begin conversation asking about her age and soon the chat is over if the girl’s age is above 20 years. Not just that, the same serial shows women smelling the prospective bride to see if she is clean or besides judging her with questions and gesture for any disability.
Not all the serials portray women as household ‘material’. Some take the other but extreme view. Sabaya (Girls) depicts a different kind of image, generally referred to as liberal. The drama illustrates that these modern, outgoing girls find fashion, make-up and clubbing as the most interesting things in life.
The ‘liberal’ girls are shown ignoring their education or simply using shortcuts.
Even worse is the portrayal of women in Zaman Alkhof wa Alozla (The Age of Fairing and Isolation), a TV series that made new records of popularity last Ramadan. The serial was about two sisters, one sleeps with her lover without marriage while the other betrays her friend and falls in love with her husband.
Public appeal for such soap operas notwithstanding, critics blame an assortment of factors for gross misrepresentation of women’s role.
“Unfortunately, our TV channels do not evaluate content of a serial. They are just shopping around from famous producers and directors regardless of quality or topic,” says Mohamed Malaak's, writer of famous drama Wohosh wa Sapaya, (Monsters and Spoils).
In line with the great Syrian women in history, Radio show host Ola Malas (29) challenges the status quo by raising her concerns through airwaves.
The defiant young Syrian believes, “For me and for many other women, people, society and drama can say everything about us, they can close their ears from our voices but we will never be silent anymore and we will continue laughing, singing and talking.” Many amongst the female folk share her view that these ‘ostriches’ cannot always keep their buried in the sand.
Raham Al-Habib (26), who works in a mobile phone company, too seems tired of such dramas. “Depicting women as slaves all the time in Bab Alhara does not help the society at all. We are in the 21st century and the TV entertainment should guide the society to future instead of magnifying the dark pages of history," she explains, while listing great things of the past which get no attention from the playwrights.
Hanadi Zahlot (30), a columnist and women rights’ activist, says, "The Syrian drama often does not reflect reality of Syrian women today. Mostly portraying women are weak, submissive and sacrificial while they forget that women here today are working and supporting their families.”
Some believe that most directors and producers are males. They reflect mindset of an average Arab man, and write, direct and produce drama as a business to fulfill such vested demand.
Actress Yara Sabri's best known drama series Entithar and Qwlob Saghera (Waiting & Small Hearts) blames the entire society for backward and one-sided portrayal of women. “Until we provide a realistic picture of our societies, drama cannot change for the better," she warns.
Taking a historical perspective, playwright Mohamed Malaak clarifies that women decades ago were wearing scarf and veil (burka) but they were not far from the decision-making in their homes and society.
Undoubtedly, the Syrian women were actively involved in demonstrations against French colonization and their responsibilities at home and their dress code never became an obstacle.
“Even today, women in rural Syria sit with men without wearing a veil and contribute significantly to the rural economy,” he explains.
Many agree with Malaak that writing and producing drama is no more for intellectuals but for material men who please influential male folk by showing woman as submissive and make quick money.
Since popular soap operas from neighbouring Turkey are difficult to compete after they are aired with Arabic dubbing, the Syrian directors choose to work on their niche conservative and traditional topics. “Here they fail to realize how the situation on ground has changed towards the better, at least in certain matters,” says Malaak.
The new breed of soap opera directors and writers may be earning their big fortunes from one serial but soon appetite for cheap entertainment would diminish. The drama here is like fast food these days which can never replace real Syrian cuisine. Out of question!
The best lesson for today’s Syrian drama and theatre comes from incomparable, legendry American actresses and director Bette Davis. “Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life,” said Bette, the first one ever to secure 10 Academy Award nominations for acting in the 1960s.