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Ramadan is over, and this is normally the time for loads of critical commentaries on soap operas featured on Arab television during the holy month. Several Ramadan dramas like “Al Hassan Wal Hussein” (on the roots of Sunni-Shi’ite tensions) and “In the Presence of the Absence” (on the late renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish) have generated heated debates across the region.
Yet, here in the Gulf Region, the most controversial Ramadan television series has been “High-School Girls,” (Banat al-Thanawiya) which was banned on Kuwaiti Al Wattan network because it claimed to tackle highly sensitive issues pertaining to teenage behavior. Dubai television has been the only network to boldly air the serial, scoring the highest viewership mark in Ramadan. The show addressed what we view as women-related cultural and social taboos. Its airing across the region was quite important for creating genuine awareness about a long-forgotten age group: female teenagers.
“High School Girls” tells the story of five teenage girls attending the same high school in Kuwait. Like other young people of their age, those girls made jokes in class, dreamed of love, disagreed with their parents in relation to their private lives, and so on. Samar, Reem, Manal, Muneera, and Shahed come from different backgrounds, guiding each other in some situations while moving on a collision course in others.
The Kuwaiti soap opera throws light on the five girls’ lives in different contexts, ranging from family to school to other settings in a rather comical fashion that embodied a good deal of subtle criticism. The director of the soap opera, Saed Huwari, called on five emerging actresses to play high school student roles.
The fact that “High School Girls” focues on a long-forgotten age group segment in Arabian societies (teen-age girls) provided it with all features of success. In a conservative Arabian society long defined by strict taboos pertaining to young women’s behavior, the soap opera was bound to strike a sensitive nerve. It showed school girls as not as mere passive females, but as independent human beings who are able to think, criticize, make decisions and even question the well-entrenched taboos in our culture. In a significant way, that work would also change many of the stereotypes about teenage girls as immature, uncreative, male-dependent and lacking reason.
I found Al Wattan’s promo of the soap opera quite exciting. The promo featured scenes that were attractive and thrilling, though some of them appeared out of their context. In one of those scenes, Shahed tells her friend: “I only love his new car, that’s what attracts me most.” This part of the scene suggested that the girl might have been going out with boys only to enjoy their cars and money, but if we put the scene back in its real context, we’ll find that Shahed is only talking about a guy that she never went out with, but was rather attracted to him.
The controversy caused by the soap opera prompted me to watch it on a daily basis. For me, it was reminiscent of good old memories of high school and old friends. What “High School Girls” showed was the real lives of these girls with no reason to think it was trying to harm their reputation or image. These girls were active in school, studied very hard for their classes, participated in school plays, etc.
Television critic Jameel Daher of MBC, commented on “High School Girls,” noting that, “the bold face of this work flows from the fact it was produced in the Gulf, viewing society as composed of devils and angels, which is a positive recognition. Some might consider its controversial features as a sort of sensational hype, but at the end of the day, this work tackles the lives of five teenagers, and with this age group comes controversial ideas. Such productions should be watched because they carry a good deal of truth.”
Like other human beings, those girls love, cry, laugh, and enjoy their lives in different ways. This made me think the whole idea of banning such a production as highly odd. Should such an age group in our society stay hidden and never be heard of, thus allowing us to keep viewing them through stereotypical lenses? Or should they be out there in the public sphere, telling us about themselves so that we may better identify with them?