The author steadfastly watched a multitude of television series this Ramadan, so that she could share with you here the wisdom she gleaned on a daily basis.
A lot of valuable lessons have been delivered and received over the past 30 days of Ramadan TV. Mainly, that it’s pretty terrible being an Egyptian woman.
Living this reality on a day-to-day basis in Cairo is not enough, however; nor is the omnipresent sexual harassment and second class-citizenry. Every Ramadan, day after day women are force-fed the brutal reminders of our lowly position in society. With the exception of a few shows like “Ramez,” “Zarf Iswid” (The Black Envelope) and “Le3bet Iblis” (The Devil’s Game), most of the shows are clearly targeted at women — this becomes pretty obvious during the commercial breaks, with ads ranging from laundry detergent to children-friendly luxury compounds.
I now know what kind of woman I should be as a result of the valuable lessons I acquired from these shows over the past month. From Dalila in “Tariqy,” I learned that being a talented and famous female artist in Egypt usually comes with a lot of baggage and turmoil. Constantly faced with a choice between her family and her music, Dalila teaches us that you can’t have it all as an Egyptian woman. You either decide between your career or your family, and if you try to have your cake and eat it too, you’ll choke on cancer and die.
From Ghada Abdel Raziq in “Kaboos,” l received a crash course on how to always look good while also raising your kids to have the most severe psychological complexes as adults.
From Dorra in “Ba3d al-Bedaya,” I learned that being a journalist in Egypt means you have to be prepared to live in an action film in your day-to-day work, and that no matter what, you will always be a lesser species than your male counterparts.
The many commercials taught me that in Egypt, the only place for a woman is in the laundry room or in the kitchen, where we must compete against the seductive Sharp refrigerator and its angular body.
In my opinion, “Taht al-Saytara” (Under Control) was the show with the most important topic and real lessons to learn, regardless of its melodramatic delivery. While many didn’t find it as entertaining as other shows, calling it “nakady” (depressing), drug abuse and addiction are rampant in Egypt, and the show brought forth a lot of interesting discussions about the topic and available resources, such as Narcotics Anonymous, detox centers and rehab. It was also one of the few Egyptian productions that represented female drug use and addiction somewhat accurately. Of course, there was some extreme sensationalism every few episodes, but the show didn’t represent the drug-dependent characters as total villains.
On the contrary, the show serviced the delivery of an under-discussed topic straight into the gut of hundreds of thousands of viewers, helping to convey the idea that there is a way out of extreme drug use. Mariam was ultimately a representation of that — a broken woman who redeemed herself through motherhood and self-sacrifice, overcoming her addiction by filling her emotional void with love and giving. The troubled teen Hania, on the other hand, shows us that extended drug use will eventually manifest itself physically. Maybe even in the form of gangrene.
But putting all the depressing melodrama aside, I think who I learned the most from was the 1990s-2000s pop star Simone — not necessarily from the role that she played in “Bein al-Sarayat,” but from her comeback after almost a decade off the air. For me, Simone’s feminist stance in songs like “Fear Me” back in 2008, and her ability to still maintain artistic production and integrity through her decades of work in television and music, is a testament that some women can have it all, and still live to tell about it.
Mustaches say a lot about a person. Over the past several weeks of watching Ramadan TV, I learned a thing or two about the different types of facial grooming men rock to express their identity to women. Here’s a cheat sheet to understanding the type of guy behind the mustache:
In last night’s episode of “Taht al-Saytara,” Hania and Ali go to buy some more heroin, but they don’t have any money. Broke, strung out and desperate, Ali cons Hania by making a shady barter with the Bedouin drug dealer: in exchange for a sack of H, Ali lets the Bedouin rape his wife as he peels out of the desert, crying. While this is a dramatized portrayal of one of the worst possible scenarios that could arise when scoring drugs, it does hold some truths, and thus I can’t even call it that far-fetched. There are a lot of real-life stories not so distant from Hania’s that lead me to know for certain that scoring hard drugs in Egypt is no joke. Between the endless checkpoints with cops going through everything from your tampons to your wallet, or the physical and mental violence that could arise when abandoned in a dodgy desert drug pin, the scene in the show succeeds in making you wonder, is it worth it?
I never knew that Golden Chef cooking spread is actually something called “ghee,” which is “clarified butter” and supposedly a more organic version of the gooey dairy goodness. Clarified or not, if we actually use Golden Chef with every meal as this commercial suggests, then I’m pretty sure we run a big risk of feeding our family heart disease and cholesterol problems.
In Egypt, women are literal punching bags. Or so it seems from the repetitious scenes of domestic violence and abuse in nearly every single Ramadan soap opera this year.
Not surprisingly, for the most part women have been on the receiving end of backhanded slaps, pulled hair and even some medieval father-whips-daughter sessions. From watching hit after hit, to the point where I no longer flinch, it becomes apparent that television is a mechanism in which domestic violence is normalized and, in a way, condoned. The producers are irresponsibly shaping the public’s perception through these ceaseless scenes of domestic abuse, contributing to the normalization of sexism, the devaluation of women and most importantly, violence against women. The same goes for the scenes of domestic violence against men, which are few and far between, but still present. Be that as it may, I’m reminded of something I learned in the first grade: keep your hands to yourself.
It’s incredible how fast and loose the word “welleya” (ولية, a slang expression for “woman”) is used to address women in the Ramadan soaps. There’s something innately derogatory about being called “woman” rather than by your name. Thinking about it in an English context makes me really uncomfortable. Imagine calling out to a waitress at a diner in the US, “Hey woman, I want to order.” She’d likely smack you.
I hear the word used in the shows at least two to three times a day, be it in historical dramas or present-day plots. Oftentimes, an angry man yells “welleya” at some overweight, middle-aged woman; men typically wield the word against women as a punishment for her inevitable shortcomings. I’ve even heard women use the word against each other, and without fail it always has a negative connotation.
In this gem of a video below, Tawfik Okasha describes the “welleya” as a woman who “wall-wells,” which means a woman who basically communicates in a hysterical, hyperventilating manner, with a shrill and panicked voice, often slapping her own face — as seen in the cover image of this daily update series. Before going through this TV-binge, I never really noticed the word “welleya,” but now I know it is a word that I will consciously never use.
A contribution from Rowan El Shimi, culture writer at Mada Masr.
In the show “Taht al-Saytara,” Hatem’s new wife Yasmine, commonly referred to in the series as “Barbie,” is obsessed with plastic surgery. In episode 21, she wants to get permanent make-up done. When Hatem mocks the fact that she would be like Hollywood actresses who wake up with make-up on, she says, “Should I be blamed that I want to look beautiful for you, even when I’m sleeping?” Hatem responds, “Who told you I want you to be beautiful when you sleep? I want to feel like I married a human being, not a doll.”
Aside from the fact that Yasmine clearly has an addiction to plastic surgery, this got me thinking about the obsession to live up to beauty standards set by the media. Women put on make-up, the trends of which constantly shift; they have a particular weight they want to reach, a particular look they strive to obtain … whereas in reality, a significant other — and most people, for that matter — would prefer a woman’s natural appearance, not this societal ideal of how she should look.
A contribution from Zena Sallam, a Mada Masr reader.
The series “Al-Beyoot Asrar” describes itself as “examining the position of women in society and their relationship with their families and city.” I learn from Rahma’s experience in the show that when an Egyptian father suspects that his daughter had an 3orfi marriage (a secret, informal marriage), she can prove her innocence by taking him to a “woman’s clinic,” where a doctor will confirm that she is still a “bint sharifa” (a virgin). The show’s portrayal of this process normalizes the lack of agency that women have over their own bodies. We must be able to prove our premarital virginal status, while men are left entirely free to their own sexual whims without the need for a post-coital medical exam. Lovely, “Al-Beyoot Asrar.”
A contribution from one of our readers, musician Mariam Ali.
From “Al-3Ahd,” and particularly characters like Gomar and Segag, I learn that you can successfully be leading a family, or a town, or even an army, but still be freaking out and hatching mad plots because you have no male heirs to lead when you’re gone (because of course, your many daughters can’t be your heirs, since women can’t lead). Go figure. I found it really frustrating at first, but actually, I know a lot of women in Egypt who really do think like this. They have no faith in themselves or other women, despite having survived and succeeded against extraordinary odds.
I’ve consumed nearly 100 hours of Ramadan TV shows, most of which have been hardcore melodramas with plot lines revolving around exiled peoples, murdered siblings, Freudian nightmares, miscarriages, thugs and drugs. After that many hours, my sense of humor has been replaced with a montage of looping scenes of the worst possible human scenarios imaginable. But today, I was reminded of how to laugh at this entertainment spectacle when watching this hilarious sketch on a comedy platform called “Peace Cake Productions” on YouTube:
In a bid to preserve her sanity after watching Ramadan soaps for more than two weeks straight, Maha took the night off and solicited the aid of her fellow Mada editors. Day 17’s lessons learned come from Dalia Rabie.
There’s a raging debate on Facebook right now about this Ramadan’s “it” couple: Hania and Ali from “Taht al-Saytara” (Under Control).
The hopelessly romantic among us are posting pictures of the duo on the beach, in the pool, in a dark smoky room snorting drugs together, all under the hashtag, #relationshipgoals. But a disgruntled group was quick to counter this trend, arguing that running away, dropping out of school, getting pregnant and developing a heroin addiction are not goals they set for their relationships.
I’ll admit, I am pretty invested in Hania and Ali’s relationship. But I also knew that their bliss would be short-lived. Because, a) This is a television show trying to shed light on the negative effects of drug abuse, that at times shoves this message down our throats, and b) This is a television show. It’s helpful to remember that we should turn to television shows for their entertainment value, rather than rely on them to address what is morally acceptable or to model relationship goals on.
And now the party’s over, the money’s dried up and Ali Alouli is pulling Hania by the hair. This is what happens to naughty boys and girls. And it’s not over yet.
Will the hopelessly romantic change their minds? Probably not. The memories Ali and Hania made in Ain Sokhna are hard to erase.
In the show “Haled Eshq,” leading actress Mai Ezz Eldein plays a radio hostess who falls from riches to rags, then bounces back again. All this movement through the social strata ends up being pretty rough on her relationships, and I learn from her that if you refuse the marriage proposal of an upper-class boy, you might be faced with this scene:
We’re about halfway through Ramadan, and it appears that being a leading lady in the show “Haret el-Yahood” doesn’t require much actual acting. Until now, actress Menna Shalaby has performed only one expression throughout the entirety of the show: the “mish adra” (I can’t be bothered) face. From this, we learn that if you perfect the “mish adra” face, you have a good shot at becoming a leading actress in at least one of next year’s shows.
I’ve really got to give it to the creative agency handling the Always campaign this year. This might be the only female-targeted product to advertise through strong female role models instead of the typical, clichéd portrayals of the good housewife. In a new version of their “Being Girl Arabia” campaign, Always features Egyptian writer and media entrepreneur Amy Mowafi of the MO4 Group (which produces popular sites like Cairo Scene and Cairo Zoom). The commercial shows Amy juggling her two children and a lot of family obligations with her multifaceted career as a writer, chief editor and leader of the MO4 Group. She’s also written two novels. The commercial closes with a simple lesson that you don’t hear in Egypt very often: “To be successful in both your work and in your house is not impossible.”
The past two episodes of “Tariqy,” starring Sherine Abdel Wahab as an aspiring artist named Dalila, were pretty disturbing.
Earlier in the season, Dalila’s brother Said and her best friend Salwa were dating, but things went sour real fast. Before they broke up, a very drunk and sweaty Said forced himself on Salwa and raped her. Some months later, Salwa finds out she’s pregnant — but at this point she’s got nowhere to turn, because her former best friend, Dalila, betrayed her by marrying her father. When Yehya finds out about his pregnant daughter, he shows her no sympathy. Instead, he locks her in her room and beats her brutally with a whip.
In the next episode, her father feels some (but not much) remorse, and attempts to reconcile with her by telling her how much he enjoyed the lunch she made, and that she should make lunch every day. Salwa then smiles with redemption.
Based on my conversations with rape victims and women who have had abortions in Egypt, it seems that not much has changed since the 1960s, when the show takes place. A woman who has premarital sex here and becomes pregnant is still considered utterly blasphemous and entirely at fault, even if she was raped.
It seems that the Fayrouz soft drink has finally cracked the code to the complexities of the female psyche and the subsequent, albeit stereotypical miscommunications between men and women. So, thank you Fayrouz for teaching us that women never say what they really mean, and for finally giving men the key to appease and understand us, in the form of a beverage.
Tonight I learn that to keep up with on-trend facial grooming, all good Egyptian women must paint on extra-thick, blocky tattooed eyebrows, regardless of how absurd it actually looks.
In this year’s Ramadan sweeps, there are many shows with females leads, such as Nelly Karim in “Taht al-Saytara,” Mai Ezz Eldine in “Halet Eshq,” Ghada Abdel Raziq in “Kaboos,” both of Fifi Abdo’s shows and Mennat Shalaby in “Haret el-Yahood.” But despite this opportunity for diversity, women are often depicted as falling into one of two camps. She can be the weak damsel in distress in need of a knight in shining armor, or a powerful, manipulative and totally shameless villainess. In tonight’s episode of “Ba3d al-Badeya,” I learn from Amira al-Idy that Egyptian women have few contemporary television characters to look up to. Instead, we are left to watch darlings and monsters.
It always amazes me just how much hashish is present in TV shows during the holy month of Ramadan — a month supposedly dedicated to morality, but that brings relentless debauchery and drugs onto the screen. After watching the Ramadan soaps for several days, I finally know just how to look cool and dramatic while smoking hash.
I’m not sure what I’m learning from this exactly, but I really like the message in this Always sanitary pad commercial. By using the testimonial of a female soccer player and showing her play, they claim that their pad stays comfortably intact during exercise. While I disagree about the comfort and convenience of pads in competitive sports, I think it’s cool that this commercial promotes women’s sports, particularly as our society still deems football as an unladylike activity. It’s also great to see a female-targeted commercial that doesn’t involve a woman in a totally clichéd scene, like doing something in a kitchen, giving to charity or over-ecstatically doing laundry.
“When I was a kid,” says the woman, “I had a different kind of dream…”
A sad lesson came about in “Haret el-Yahood” last night, when Laila, a Jewish woman, wanted to marry Ali, a Muslim soldier. He has yet to make it back from the Arab-Israeli war —but regardless, Laila will likely never be able to marry Ali, because then, as now, Egyptian women must marry within their own religion.
It’s not clear yet where “Taht al-Saytara” is going ultimately with its moral lessons on drugs and redemption, but so far Mariam’s long battle with drug dependency seems to be progressing with a positive portrayal. The show shows safe, supportive Narcotics Anonymous sessions, while disseminating NA literature fragmentally through her monologues. I do worry that it focuses too much on the drugs and less on the parallel issue, mental health. But last night’s episode reminded me of something more basic then this — about the society around Mariam and most Egyptian women. There is an omnipresent demand to put everyone before ourselves (kids, husband, parents, friends), but in one scene, Mariam put a pause on all that:
“Everyone needs something, and needs it now,” she says. “And no one stops to think if it’s good for me. Hatem wants me to have kids now. Dad wants me to go to the Maadi apartment right now. No one realizes that right now, in particular, I need to focus on Mariam.”
Last night a number of shows seemed to mesh into one blurry mess, but I still managed to learn something from a commercial — namely, that no woman should trust El Araby’s new, state-of-the-art Sharp refrigerator near their husband or boyfriend. It looks so sleek that it might transform your whole apartment into a scene out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (see image). Whenever you open the door, a sleazy version of Ain’t No Sunshine waffs out, and fridge’s contents seem to be very seductive. Are they targeting the male desire for smooth looks and sensual fruit? Or is it that being in the kitchen among lean appliances that remind one of America makes a woman sexy?
In “Tariqy” (My Way), we follow a young aspiring musician trying to make it big in the 1960s. It’s hard to know who Sherine Abdel Wahab’s character, Dalila, is based on (if anyone at all), although some have a strong hunch it’s Shadia, the Egyptian singer and actress famous for her songs and romantic comedies during the 1950s and 60s. Dalila is often singing Shadia’s famous numbers, like The Heart Only Loves Once. Regardless, I learnt something very important while watching last night’s episode: Unless it’s Halloween or you’re playing out a bedroom fantasy, a 35-year-old woman just cannot pull off playing a schoolgirl. There’s only so much make-up and pigtails can do.
From a commercial, I learn that “all of Egypt’s women,” except me, “have changed to Ariel Gel.”
Should I have switched to Ariel Gel years ago? Maybe then I’d be married.
In “Taht al-Saytara” (Under Control), Mariam (played by Nelly Karim) and her husband are having some problems in the sack. It has nothing to do with her unresolved drug problem that no one seems to notice, and everything to do with having the wrong “baby doll” lingerie. After all these years of wondering who shops at downtown Cairo’s many lingerie stores, I learn that it is more important to spice up one’s sex life than seek help for what could be a deep psychological issue.
In most hospital shows, doctors and nurses wear crocs or other rubber slip-on shoes. But in “Ba3d al-Bedaya” (After the Beginning), the female doctor shows me that it is much more empowering to wear heels. It also makes total sense to wear kitten heels that are 2.5 inches high on a 12-hour shift, running from room to room carrying vital organs for fellow human beings.
Meanwhile, in “Kaboos” (Nightmare), Ghada Abdel Razek shows me that giving birth in hospitals is very passé in light of more organic approaches. If you find yourself heavily pregnant and lost in the desert, it is in fact possible to give birth on your own without smudging your lipstick or breaking a sweat.