Ramadan television shows have often stirred debate with controversial issues that tend to tackle to attract a wider viewership. In recent years, women’s issues were frequently discussed, but female characters were often depicted as passive and one-dimensional, sometimes victims of domestic violence and incapable of changing their lives. However, this year’s shows have dealt with women’s issues differently, presenting women as well-developed characters who are actively trying to change laws, lift bans, and reclaim their lives. The current Ramadan series blame gender inequality and mistreatment of women on social norms and rigid interpretations of religion. The role of the state, on the other hand, remains distant in this exploration of women’s rights.
The Egyptian series “Faten Amal Harby” follows the story of a divorced woman fighting an abusive ex-husband for custody of her children. Throughout the series, flaws and loopholes in Egypt’s Sharia-derived personal status law are highlighted to show its bias toward men over women. Since its airing, the series has stirred widespread and lively debate due to the lead character’s frequent challenge of religious scholars. Faten demands religious scholars provide proof from the Quran for what she suggests are unjust elements of the personal status law and criticizes the significant influence enjoyed by the clergy. She says that she doesn’t want their interpretations of the Quran and fatwas, “but only God’s words.” The show prompted a backlash on social media, and journalist Ibrahim Eissa, the writer of the series, was accused of encouraging bypassing scholars responsible for providing interpretations of religious texts. Eissa has previously attacked Al-Azhar and has accused the institution of being a breeding ground for extremism. Al-Azhar released a lengthy statement to warn against the show’s misconceptions of religion and its mocking of religious texts and scholars.
Egypt’s personal status law, which was first codified in 1920, has been subject to wide debate for the past few decades. In February 2021, the Egyptian Cabinet proposed a draft of a new personal status law to Parliament. The draft came under heavy criticism, especially by women’s rights advocates who argued that it would set them back 200 years. This led to the withdrawal of the bill and promises of a more comprehensive one. The current Egyptian leadership has tried to present itself as a supporter of women’s rights, which is reflected in the Ramadan series as well. When Faten goes to the National Council for Women (which used to be headed by former first lady Suzanne Mubarak) she is told that both social norms and “misunderstanding of religion” are the reasons behind the unjust treatment of women. She is also told that “the state is with women in their every step” and is actively working on removing all their legislative obstacles. To underline the point, a “reformed” religious scholar tells Faten that her real fight is to raise awareness and highlight the importance of implementing just laws regardless of gender and religion.
The Kuwaiti series “Mn Share Al-Haram Ela …” (From Haram Street to …) has attracted broad criticism due to the controversial themes it presents. The show’s depiction of Kuwaiti society, as well as its inclusion of Egyptian and Syrian characters, has helped the series draw a wide audience inside and outside the Gulf. The series follows the matriarch of a large family, including her sons and their wives, and shows how, in their everyday lives, men enjoy privileges over women. The female characters are well developed and distinct from one other. This is especially shown in the way they navigate their marital lives, which are tainted with infidelity, polygamy, and neglect. In one episode, one of the women criticizes another for reading a self-improvement book arguing that such a genre is only for foreigners, not for them, who “do not even have a ‘self’ to improve.” On Instagram, a well-known Kuwaiti personal development coach posted different personality descriptions based on the show’s female characters. The large number of comments on the Instagram posts and extensive engagement show how the series was successful in presenting a diverse set of well-developed female characters. These descriptions also initiated an online debate on the effective ways women can tackle cultural norms and respond to society’s expectations of them.
The Saudi series “Al-Asouf” (Winds of Change) returned this year for a third season, continuing to chronicle the history of Saudi Arabia before and after the discovery of oil. The show debuted in 2018, sparking controversy due to the depiction of Saudi society as not religious by, among other things, alluding to the presence of extramarital affairs. This year, the show is focusing on the 1990s, during the height of the Sahwa (Islamic awakening) movement and the rise of terrorism. In contrast to the Egyptian and Kuwaiti series, “Al-Asouf” presents female characters as dependent due to the time period. However, the show does portray the 1990 driving demonstration, which took place in Riyadh during the Gulf War, even though – or perhaps exactly because – this issue was highly contested until very recently. In the show, women drivers are encouraged and sometimes even pressured by their male relatives to defy the driving ban, which they do until the police and religious police stop them.
“Al-Asouf,” briefly addresses the aftermath of the driving protest, blaming the conservative Saudi society for these restrictions on women. This is contrary to the arguments of many women’s rights advocates, since the state had the power to both lift the ban and normalize the driving issue for women. Interestingly, though, the portrayal of the demonstrations in a positive light contradicts how such actions are normally condemned as a public display of civil disobedience. This episode, in its attempt to blame society and religious institutions for the constraints imposed on women’s mobility, sent mixed messages about demonstrations in a state that does not tolerate civil unrest.
All of these shows reveal differing perspectives on the extent to which religious scholars hinder women’s rights. In “Faten Amal Harby,” religious scholars are heavily present in the show and are portrayed as falling into three groups: the traditional segment, which is close to everyday Egyptians, such as the muezzin and Quran teacher, with limited ties to official religious institutions; the young and emerging class who are depicted as interested in utilizing ijtihad (independent reasoning); and the clerics who are exploiting religion for fame and influence. While the Kuwaiti series does not seem to confirm any state narrative, it focuses on how religious men can use social media for political gains, as depicted by the religious character who tries to get elected to the National Assembly. He is shown neglecting his children and multiple wives and is later revealed to have fathered a girl when he was a student in the United States. In the Saudi show, “Al-Asouf,” the religious police are on the receiving end of most of the criticism. This is in line with the efforts by the state to significantly curb their power since 2016. In combination with the demonization of the Sahwa, this narrative is part of the ongoing rewriting of the history of the last 30 years in the kingdom.
While religious scholars and institutions are widely blamed for the situation of women in these shows, the role of the state in these situations is portrayed as either positive (Egypt), absent (Kuwait), or minimal (Saudi). In “Faten Amal Harby,” the state provides facilities and accommodations for victims of abuse. Furthermore, judges are depicted as sympathetic to the women but restrained by a legislative system biased toward men. In “Mn Share Al-Haram Ela …” the religious character is shown as hypocritical, proposing gender segregation as part of his political campaign, while at the same time dealing with an unexpected visit from his illegitimate child. In “Al-Asouf,” the role of the state following the driving demonstration is minimal, although, in reality, the government confiscated some of the protesters’ passports and some of them even lost their jobs. Instead, the government is depicted as preoccupied with the Gulf War, providing shelter to Kuwaitis, and tackling terrorism.
Ramadan has always been an opportunity to introduce new ideas to nudge viewers’ reactions. During Ramadan in 2020, a series shedding light on Jewish communities in the Gulf Arab states was followed by the signing of the Abraham Accords. In Saudi Arabia, “Al-Asouf” continues to rewrite the narrative of the Sahwa era, including its repercussions on women, society, and national security. The show is in tune with the state’s policies, including diminishing the powers of the religious police and constraining the influence of religious groups. Similarly, in Egypt, the third season of “Al-Ikhtiyar” (The Choice) tells the story of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power following the Arab uprisings and the role of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the subsequent clampdown on the group. In both contexts, a comprehensive rewriting of recent history focuses on the negative role of religious groups and institutions.
The position of women in society has always been intertwined with religious beliefs, social norms, and family laws and regulations. This has delayed and sometimes prevented taking strict measures to improve the situation of women in different Arab countries. Ramadan has become an opportunity to rewrite history and generate discussion on women’s issues. While changes to the situation of women may take time, these shows are helping acknowledge the existence of gender inequality and the need to tackle the mistreatment of women in the private and public spheres.