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Ramadan, Soap Operas, and Sexism

July 7, 2009

art.ramadan.soap.mbcRamadan is an annual period of religious observance in Islam, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day for thirty consecutive days. Though Ramadan will not begin until the end of August this year, the Inter Press Service recently ran an article about a particularly interesting phenomenon that coincides with Ramadan in some Middle Eastern countries. Since the evenings during Ramadan are, traditionally, reserved for families to spend time together at home, television channels often premiere new soap operas during Ramadan. Often, however, these Ramadan-specific programs portray women in a particularly negative light. Karim Radhi, a writer from Bahrain, explains:

The dramas that are shown on our channels during Ramadan are of abused women who cannot fight or evil females who cannot live without destroying others…I know that production houses promote negative images of women not because they are against them, but just to sell their soaps…They can create a balance between what people want and (roles that) don’t stereotype women (as greedy, malicious, artificial or weak).

Radhi continues to explain that, due to Ramadan’s focus on family-oriented time, the soap operas that air during the month are watched by a huge number of people, of all ages. Furthermore, as the Guardian notes, the evening soap operas are staggered throughout the course of the night, so that families can surf between channels for hours upon hours of non-stop television viewing. As such, it is difficult for anyone to avoid watching these soap operas, which often involve sexist themes and images of domestic violence. The concern is that those violent images may be damaging for young children, who may grow up to believe that the violence against women that they see on television is acceptable to act out in real life.

The reaction to this trend, among Arab women, is mixed. Anisa Al Ruyaee, of Hamad Town Women’s Society, argues that the soap operas offer a glimpse into reality and, for that reason, should not be censored. She explains:

Why should we close our eyes on our problems – violence against women is increasing day by day! There is nothing wrong in showing it on TV as drama is only a reflection of our lives.

Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Women (SCW), on the other hand, strongly opposes the negative portrayals of women in soap operas, in part because of the connection between media and reality which Al Ruyaee noticed. In 2006, the SCW comissioned a study to be conducted by the University of Bahrain. The study concluded that the increased level of violence and negative stereotyping in soap operas during Ramadan could be of harm to the children watching the programs, and might also harm the progress of women’s rights in the Middle East.

From the Inter Press Service:

The findings stress the importance of ensuring that TV dramas are not disassociated from real life. It advises production companies to introduce strong women characters who can inspire social change and help women achieve the goals of empowerment.

“We cannot separate drama from our fights for better rights of women as drama reaches the masses and could indirectly change the perspective of viewers,” general secretary of the SCW, Lulwa Al Awadhi, told the press while releasing the recommendations by the study in 2008.

“Reformation of the Arab drama could help us, activists, reach our goals faster,” she adds.

Al Awadhi then quickly clarified, “We don’t want to control drama. Productions must create better images of women so ordinary people can through them understand the real strength and capabilities of Arab women.”

It’s important to keep in mind that not all Middle Eastern soap operas rely on conventional gender roles and stereotypes. Last summer, Noor, a Turkish soap opera that gained popularity in Saudi Arabia and the Gaza Strip, told the story of a man who supported his wife’s goal of becoming a professional fashion designer. That soap opera, however, did not air during Ramadan.

What role should television play during this time of high-volume viewing? Should soap operas reflect the reality of female suffering, as Anisa Al Ruyaee might argue, or should they present well-rounded, complex, strong images of women as a way of advancing women’s rights? I fear that soap operas that reject gender stereotypes may not receive much support from television producers and station managers, who rely on violence and negative portrayals of women for the purpose of securing higher ratings. With that in mind, is it better for women to have any representation at all on television, if the ideal representation is challenging (but not impossible) to come by? What are your thoughts?

  1. July 16, 2009 6:43 am

    That’s interesting for me to read just so I can make a comparison with Pakistan where I am originally from. The regular soap operas come to a halt during Ramadan in Pakistan and are replaced with special dramas for the month. Last Ramadan, one of the most popular channels showed a month long play showing the life of a neighborhood on every day of the Ramadan until Eid. It tried to instigate family values, rights of neighbors but in a very light way which was funny too to watch. It showed every day concerns too of women who end up not getting married and children who tend to elderly parents and robberies in areas and poverty but tried to find answers to it in the Islamic light to inculcate a positive feel. I think the media abroad shows all the negativities in Muslim cultures and mixes it with religion but doesn’t talk about the nice aspects.

    On the other hand, in my opinion, if in Middle Eastern countries the regular soap operas continue and show the plight of women and if they reflect reality then i don’t see any harm in it.

    • Carrie permalink
      July 16, 2009 11:58 am

      Thanks for your input, Fiza. The program from Pakistan that you describe sounds more like what I would have imagined soap operas during Ramadan to be like. And, certainly, it’s likely that there are many soap operas like the one you describe (and like Noor) — unfortunately, it’s always the sensational television shows that gain the most media attention.

      As for depicting violence against women on television — I agree with you that if, in fact, these images are reflecting reality (which would include presenting the women as fully developed, three-dimensional characters), then there’s nothing wrong about showing them on television. If, however, the images are shown out of shock value, or to gain better ratings, or to intentionally depict violence against women as a positive thing, then I do think the images are harmful and don’t belong on television. But since I haven’t personally seen these programs, there is no way for me to judge which is actually the case.

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