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We hope to have a longer analysis once Ethar is available in mid-August, but the issue is too hot not to talk about right now.
The issue I’m speaking of is the Turkish soap opera Noor, which has become hugely popular in the Arab world despite having flopped in Turkey. It’s been getting all kinds of press lately, being described as the reason for a recent “rash” of divorces, nasty condemnations from muftis, an increase in Arab tourism to Turkey, and being billed as “planting seeds of change” for women’s rights in the Arab world.
The idea that a soap opera is responsible for female empowerment comes as a surprise (to me). In the U.S., though soap operas often are the first on television to deal with issues that society feels are “taboo”, they often present them in ways that don’t advance or help the social discussion, portraying subjects like Muslim women, transsexuals, or gay men in unflattering lights (see our reviews on a U.S. soap opera’s female Muslim character here, here,and here). Having a token character whose actions, speech, and overall portrayal echo popular stereotypes about them isn’t a form of a dialogue—it’s a way to look like one is engaging conversation while still validating and manufacturing bigoted viewpoints.
Thus, I am a little skeptical when hearing that the main characters (Noor and Mohannad) are offering women in the Arab world a glimpse of what a marriage “should” be. At first glimpse, all this trumpeting of Noor‘s success in regard to women’s rights seems to gloss over all the women in the Arab world who work hard for Arab women’s rights, both in and out of marriage, but especially those who work to win back the rights that are guaranteed to (Muslim) women in the Qur’an but have been ignored in favor of patriarchal cultural traditions.
However, as a believer in the power of media to influence the masses, I can’t help but appreciate the idea of what seems to be an equal partnership portrayed in the media, and the fact that it’s receiving powerful ratings and creating strong social ripples.
Feminism is often said to be a movement for the middle and upper classes. But the fact that the program is dubbed in colloquial Arabic makes it much more accessible to those of the lower classes who may be illiterate or who may not understand classical Arabic (which other foreign soap operas are dubbed in). And the first step to understanding something and then applying it oneself begins with awareness of this something: “If Noor can have a handsome husband who loves and supports her, why can’t I?”
But there are also class and racial lines to think of: both Noor and Mohannad are very light-skinned and very well-to-do. Many stars of Middle Eastern (both Arab and non-Arab) TV are light-skinned because of their appeal (lighter skin is often equated wit beauty and sometimes even “pure” blood or nobility), which can create a dissonance between a viewer’s perception between television and real life. Knowing the effect that thin and light-skinned models have on our societies and perceptions of ourselves, I wonder whether Noor can create real change or whether viewers will simply believe that their fortunes will not be like Noor’s unless they are lighter, thinner, and richer.
Because of its mass appeal, Noor may be the first step to a social change in conservative Arab societies. Despite the racial and class lines that may be a barrier to some, there are women who have looked at Noor and seen a window of change (or so they tell the newspapers).
However, since I haven’t seen Noor, this is all theorizing. I’d like to know readers’ viewpoints. Have you been watching Noor regularly? What do you think about it, especially in the context of social change and women’s rights?
Here’s a clip if you haven’t seen it. Unfortunately, there aren’t any with English subtitles or dubbing, but here’s what all the fuss is about: