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TV Dramas Demean Women

(06-Feb-09)
By IWPR
In the yard of her traditional Damascus house, Suad accuses her neighbour of throwing rubbish over her clean laundry.



A row ensues, and Suad’s husband Abu Issam emerges, furious because his wife’s voice can be heard from the streets outside their house.



As Abu Issam scolds Suad, she begs him helplessly to forgive her.



This is a typical scene from Bab al-Hara, one of the most popular Syrian TV series, which depicts life in an old neighbourhood of Damascus at the beginning of the last century.



Television production in Syria has witnessed a boom in the past few years, with 50 soap operas produced annually in the country, according to a report published by the official news agency SANA last September.



Most of these shows, say observers, reinforce a negative, out-of-date image of women, generally as submissive housewives in a patriarchal society.



“The soap operas present Syrian women, particularly from Damascus, in a way that brings back to mind images of pre-Islamic barbaric ages,” said prominent writer Colette Khouri.



Khouri said women were regularly portrayed as being predestined to spend their lives doing little more than cooking, pleasing men, and bearing children.



While Syrian history is full of distinguished female role models, they are never represented on the small screen, she said.



Series like Bab al-Hara, said Khouri, present a narrow view of society by portraying all women as passive and lacking in ambition.



“Most Syrian shows touch on women’s issues superficially,” said TV scriptwriter Dalaa al-Rahbi, noting that some programmes depict women as irrational beings, always worried that their husbands might take a second wife.



One recent series, Layl wa Rijal (Night and Men), has female characters who resort to witchcraft to solve their marital problems or become rich.



In Big Dreams, the main female character is an obedient housewife who is often shown at home serving food to her husband, worrying about her children, or praying for their success.



Most of the dramas have trivial storylines, overlooking the issues which affect women in real life.



“We haven’t seen shows dedicated to women’s problems such as unemployment or violence against them,” said Muthana Sobh, a TV director.



Only a few series have bucked the trend by presenting women as proactive or sophisticated. One such show, called Breaking News, tells the story of a female journalist and her daily struggle to write honest reports about corruption in Syria.



Rahbi suggested that one reason for the largely negative portrayal of women is the shortage of decent scripts. Most scriptwriters are men and their work reflects the patriarchal views inherent in society, she said.



Others argue that editorial values are influenced by producers from more conservative Gulf societies.



“The problem is that Gulf states participate to a large degree in the production of Syrian shows,” said television critic Muhammed Aboud, adding that such producers alter drama scripts to fit with the strict social values of their home countries, which are also markets for these series.



Others maintain that the programmes simply reflects what most viewers want to watch.



Bassam al-Mulla, who directs the Bab al-Hara series, said the show simply portrays the kind of “good housewife” that the TV audience likes.



Actor Marwan Abu Shahin says production companies deliberately cater to the conservative tastes of viewers.



“Production companies…don’t care about women’s issues. Their only concern is increasing profits, so they focus on [appealing to] audience mentality,” he said.



For 22-year-old drama student Osama al-Khidhr, it is society rather than the TV producers that is to blame. “Let’s stop pointing accusing fingers at the scriptwriters,” he said.



The storylines certainly convey a sense of female powerlessness.



In the Bab al-Hara series, when Suad’s brother learns that Abu Issam has humiliated her, he forces her to return to their parents’ home in order to preserve “family honour”. Suad obeys, although she would rather stay with her husband.



With no control over her own life, she must simply wait for the two men to become reconciled and then decide her fate.



(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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