Women On Arab Television

Let me make this clear right off the bat. I don’t watch much TV. Ever since I got back to Jordan I’ve been avoiding it like the plague. Don’t get me wrong, I have a TV in my room but it is dedicated solely to movie watching, which I do plenty of. But no actual satellite TV programming watching.

I do however have run ins with the TV. My retired parents watch a lot of it so it’s usually on during the evening and I’ll sit with them every now and then for obligatory family time purposes.

The news is usually their favorite thing to watch. They’ll watch the news on Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabeeyeh, and then the local news of practically any Arab country, including Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon. But that’s a complaint for a whole other post.

Because every now and then I’ll run into them watching an actual Arab television show. Now I usually have a mental allergic reaction when watching these shows. Most are quite pathetic, and my parents consider me a killjoy as I’m prone to constantly point out the mistakes made throughout these shows, out loud.

And I mean I’ll criticize everything I hate about every scene and every shot. The lighting, the directing, the way characters turn their backs on each other like it’s a soap opera. To unlikely plots, scenarios, situations and absurd characters. And of course, redundancy. The same story, the same story, the same story. Different names and faces, but the same story, the same story. Rinse and repeat.

Even my criticisms have become redundant.

Some of these shows are social commentaries. They are designed to be too preachy in the most unsubtle of ways. The protagonist struggles and finds a way through tradition, religion, society or whatever it is that’s out there and trying to get him.

Emphasis on “him”.

For this is the centerpiece of my latest criticism.

The overwhelming absence of strong female roles who are in fact the protagonists, the heroines.

Female roles in these shows can be whittled down to the following:

1) An old woman who is a mother and wife and stays home most of the time trying to marry off one of her daughters or sons.

2) A young girl in university who is “seeing” a fellow classmate and planning to get married. They usually share soft drinks by the Nile river and talk about how they’ll go about getting married, which makes the whole scene wholesome.

3) A young girl whose father or mother plan on marrying her off to someone she doesn’t want to marry. This is a Bedouin classic and will sometimes feature another young man who the young woman truly loves, and will fight for her love.

4) Then there’s the young girl who is either in university or just graduated and has most of her scenes taking place at home, in her pajamas, or walking to work. This is the young girl who is eye candy for the protagonist young man wanting to marry her.

Every woman and every girl is done up in full make up. Whether rich or very poor. Whether living in a palace or a tent. Full make up. And usually, the silliest lines will be given to women.

All of the female roles are either young women wanting to marry, destined to be married, or old women marrying the younger ones off. Their roles are either as students or housewives. If their character happens to have a job, it’s usually a secretary (who will eventually be married to the boss or the boss’s son).

Oh, and of course there’s always the rich young man who wants to marry the young girl but, naturally (just like in real life), she’s in love with the poor man.

In the very, very rare case of a woman being a strong independent individual, high-level management working woman, who is also a mother and a wife, well, she’ll also be a bitch. They’ll make her the meanist person alive. Because surely a woman who tries to take on so much will be driven to bitterness and madness.

The other night I sat down next to my parents as they were watching some Syrian drama. During the show, I noticed there was this one woman who must’ve been in her late 20’s, unmarried and living with a relatively poor father in a household of 2 or three other younger female siblings. She was beautiful; didn’t wear too much make up, no hijab, educated, wise and a working woman. Her poor, relatively conservative father, is even proud of her. I was almost taken aback, and intrigued to continue watching. As the show continued I was frankly impressed. She was courageous and even didn’t take crap from anyone. Something must be wrong, I thought to myself. This woman is breaking barriers here. It’s too good to be true. The producers and writers are destined to be accused by conservatives of brainwashing young girls into thinking, you know, they could actually be someone.

Lo and behold I was right. It was too good to be true. The woman gets fired and tries to hide it from her poor father, semi-dependent on her income. The father ends up beating the crap out of her and sending her to the hospital. While she wallows in a hospital bed with her bruises and black eyes, other characters are busy pleading with the father to “forgive” the daughter and seek her out. He’s stubbornly resilient to the idea and whenever he walks into his house the other daughters are scared as hell. Eventually he does go to the hospital and begs his daughter’s forgiveness. It was a heartfelt moment. I mean between the sentimental music, the father choking on his tears and the daughter’s face turned away with him, with a single teardrop streaming down the side of her eye; it really invokes something from the viewer. And when she forgives him and they hug, it’s like a real genuine moment.

But then I suddenly stood up and realized that had this been an episode of “Law & Order”, this is right about the scene where the father gets hauled off by the police in handcuffs screaming out “I didn’t mean to!”. The whole beating-the-girl followed by seeking-redemption was so off beat and irregular, especially in the midst of a scene that begs the audience to stand up and applaud the reunion.


My point is, TV is a tool of social change. Shows shouldn’t be just about a reflection of various stark realities and social tragedies that swim beneath the surface of our own social discontent. It should be aimed at changing minds. It should push the envelope. If people are so heavily influenced by the television culture, why not use it to change minds? If people can’t be equal off screen, at least present them as such on screen. What’s the worse that could happen; being accused of not being true to reality? It’s television!

And now that I’m on the subject, it’s not just female roles, but actual social issues. Stop being so preachy. Present scenarios that offer solutions. Talk about the taboo subjects. Why is every episode about some business conflict? Why are all the characters busy trying to get married? Talk about honor crimes, terrorism, extremism, actual realistic political corruption.

Talk about the pertinent issues, but don’t turn them into clichés and say you just did.


  • That is true for a lot of Arabic series, but there are some good exceptions especially in the Syrian drama. They actually do some good work and with competition they are raising the bar of their creativity. Lets see how things would go in Ramadan. There is a serious competition between the egyption and syrian drama where Ramadan screens is their ground battle. Hope it would raise the bar and shows us new thing. I bet there would be some impressive work this year.

  • The only time I catch those types of shows is at the barber shop, where they always seem to be playing on the television. Your assessment seems to be spot on. I don’t understand half of what they are saying, but I always get a laugh out of the acting/lighting/scenario/storyline.

  • Beside that, Arab women now watch shows such as desperate housewives,days of our lives, the bold and the bootiful, Meg Ryan’s Hollywood crap!Dr.Phil, Oprah discussing sex life, orgasm and such issues.

    Anyways, people watch TOOOOOOOOoooooo much TV! Too much free time. The other problem is if you want to spend sometime out of your home, it usually involves paying a fortune. Yeah, like your average Jordanian women will be going to Abd Hameed Shooman or The Amaneh public library :D, oh well, educating women is a waste of time anyways (views and comments expressed by Firas should be taken seriously)

    Women are only good for making babies, cleaning, cooking and making her man feel important….”I’m Firas and I approve this message because it’s time to take our country backwards.”-vote for me November 2007,third district

    PS: You’ve forgotten the 40something actress playing a college student (usually Abeer Essa, with her fancy words and moral lectures

  • Oh ok sorry, you are talking about women ON Arab TV , I thought it was about Arab women and TV
    I guess this clearly show that I read the post in 40 sec, which makes me a Jordanian PM material….I am good at fights too…

    Yeah as much as I hate everything about Syria (I know it’s wrong, but I can’t stand that place) thanks to Syria’s regime (yeah believe it or not) their public schools are coed all the way,even at high school, unlike all other Arab countries.

    Usually women are the civilized part of any society, in the Arab world it’s actually women who teach their sons to look for the girl with the lightest skin (hence,Full make up,too much foundation”,tell their daughters to “obey” the man , that their mission in life is to get married ASAP to feel protected, and then live worrying he’ll never marry another woman,and other junk that keeps …. us over amd over again.

    What’s even worse is the Arab feminist, who for some weird reason leave everything and start with issues such as sexual freedoms,vaginal health,the hymen thing, and any other issue that will guarantee their failure.

    Hilllarious 😀

    i just cant possibly force myself to watch an egyptian show, syrian ones are somewhoe better, but egyptains are a total disasters, with possibly the very longest experience in film making in the Arab world, it totally, totally dispices and insults your intellegence, whenever i commit the msitake of watching anything made in egypt, i curse myself for making the same mistake once more. its just frustrating to the point i want to bite off the tv screen, and then bite off my own head. haha 😀

    The most irritating things also are the full make up in bed when she just woke up, somebody needs to explain to egyptian film makers that women dont wake up looking like that in bed, it actually takes an hour to put these 2 kilos of chemicals on a human face. sombody needs to tell them to put some make up on the neck too, so you dont find the actress ace too white while her neck is seriously black. feels like you are watching a Japanese show. that whole make up issue is just one issue, let alone all the other things you mentioned, and so many others, its a total disaster.

    The other day i was really about to kill myself because i couldnt kill every actor and actress in what i was watching, i was in a hotel, after a long day of work i retun to my room, i lay down on the bed, grap the remote control and turn the TV on, flip flip flip..one chanel to the other, on and on, then there was this egyptian movie i decided to waste 10 seconds of my life watching, only to discover, to my pure shock and awe, that its an exact, complete precise copy of “Pretty Woman” I kid you not, its the exact same script, only in egyptian, seriously, seriosuly bad acting, to a disgusting point, and even some of the lines were mistranlated from english, i can tell because i could actaully remember these lines in the original film, and thus managed to understand how the translator messed up and got the line or the expression the wrong way or translated to arabic literaly. Starring Fadooq il fishawi replacing Richard Gear. that alone is a tragedy itself, you know.

    Anyways, what i wanna say is: cant we just line up everyone that has anything to do with the egyptian shows, all of them, in one line, and excute them and put them all one mass grave for their crimes against humanity, taste, humor, smart people’s brains, and so much more?

    And dont even get me start on the horribly ugly actress-es that were beautiful 40 years ago but just cant comrehence that 20 face lifts, nose and eyes job, every other operation available, cant really make them less ugly anymore, and that they should at least, for heavens sake, stop doing seduction roles?

  • Well … you have valid points Nas but following up on the Arabic drama from the 80’s till now … it is much better now especially that we are seeing some competition

    I cannot generalize and say that all Arabic movies/drama/shows suck because that would be unfair

    I think that change needs time and in order for us to use the TV tool to educate the community at large .. we need these creators/directors/editors/producers/actors to believe in the power they have and actually do something with it … but it it really got much better than few years ago

    As for Egyptian Vs Syrian drama … well; you get good and bad ones on both fronts but for example; in the past few years; the Egyptian director Hatim Ali did some really good shows that I actually enjoyed watching … so there is some hope after all and with more educated people, they have to work hard to convince us with the events and actions or they will be in for strong criticism which will make them lose viewership

    I agree that women perception needs to be improved dramatically because she is always secondary and when she is primary; she is always a bitch that regrets at the end of it and goes back to the right path of being just women … normal women who need protection by the strong powerful men .. no this really makes me sick

    Thanks for raising this issue .. I enjoyed reading what the guys had to say above 🙂

  • I always enjoy the nausea induced by over liberal use of the zoom lens. Whoa…. is the room spinning or am I just watching an Egyptian soap opera?

  • I can’t bare to sit through most modern Arabic movies, but I find the classical black and white very enjoyable, and some of the ones from the 70s as well. Ic ould say the same about the music.

    I am quite fond of Yusra though, recently I saw a movie for her where she plays a bored married lawyer who rediscovers joy and vitality through dancing ! The story was copied from an American movie with JLo and Richard Gere, but it was good nevertheless.

    The miniseries, well the ones in Ramadan are the only ones worth watching. I particularily like the historical ones. No matter how bad the special effects, the props, the clothes, the battle scenes, as long as the actors are credible, they’re often worth watching.

  • well.. i know it’s too late for me to add my comment.. but i’ve just found this page and, after reading all of your comments, i found out that i HAD to say something…
    first of all, i totally agree that the egyptian drama is an “enormous” disaster.. lol.. and instead of developing, they seem to be going backwards!! i just can’t describe how much i HATE watching egyptian shows & series.. they really make me sick!!
    on the other hand, the syrian drama is obviously the best among all of its arab competitors, although syria has no colleges or universities that offer the specialization/major/course of “film making”… it has a one & only institute that teaches the arts of theatre, which means that syrian directors and actors/actresses always depend on their own creativity and work hard to develop.. some of them are real stars that deserve to be respected!
    now talking about “Hatim Ali”.. i was shocked when i read what “Khalida” wrote… the guy is syrian!! that’s why he’s one of the best! 🙂
    i also like the background music & soundtracks they use for their shows.. always suitable for the events, and very touching.. i think that music plays a big role in describing the situation, and in presenting the whole thing to the spectators.

  • oh, one more thing…
    “firas”, sorry for being so clear and honest… but i want to ask you a question… did you read the article?? did you notice what it talks about??
    i hope you won’t take it personally.. but i’d like to tell you that this is not the place to discuss our feelings towards other countries, please stick to the subject!! maybe I DO AGREE WITH YOU, but again i tell you this page was created for talking about drama.. arabic drama… neither politics, nor public schools, nor “the reason why women exist” or “what women are there to do”… and certainly NOT for discrimination… 🙂
    i’m sorry again

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