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The Netflix Teen Drama That Goes Deeper Into the Arab Patriarchy

posted on: Sep 19, 2021

The Netflix Teen Drama That Goes Deeper Into the Arab Patriarchy
When it premièred last month, in more than thirty languages, “AlRawabi School for Girls” quickly became one of the most watched series on Netflix in several countries.Photograph courtesy Netflix

SOURCE: THE NEW YORKER

BY: YASMINE AL-SAYYAD

When one first sees the promotional imagery for Netflix’s newest Arabic series, “AlRawabi School for Girls,” which shows two girls in pink button-ups glaring at each other in a pink-tiled bathroom, one expects a teen-age drama with teen-age consequences. And yet the series, which is set at a fictional upscale high school in Jordan, begins with a stunningly brutal act: a student named Mariam (Andria Tayeh) is beaten up by three popular girls, who push her to the ground, injuring her head. “Let’s get out of here before someone sees us!” they shout, running away as she bleeds. Mariam’s bullies are, of course, talented, beautiful, and athletic; they’re also harrowingly spiteful. They terrorize the entire school—even the employees—but Mariam is a favorite target of theirs. In one scene, Layan (Noor Taher), the leader of the clique, falsely accuses Mariam of having groped her breasts, which leads to the rest of the school branding Mariam as a “freak.”

Mariam is radicalized by Layan’s intimidation and decides to strike back against her tormentors, recruiting two outcast friends to help with her revenge plan. But it doesn’t take long for the rivalry to get out of hand, and soon adults are conscripted into the brawl, revealing the deeply patriarchal society in which the girls are living. At this point, a Western series might proceed to tell the story of the girls’ battles with the men and the culture that has so oppressed them. “AlRawabi School for Girls,” however, was created by the Jordanian director​​ Tima Shomali; it was also written, produced, and directed by a women-led team. The series is bold in its willingness to depict young women weaponizing patriarchal violence against one another, to ultimately chilling ends.

“AlRawabi School for Girls” is only Netflix’s fourth original Arabic production. When it premièred last month, in more than thirty languages, it quickly became one of the most watched series on the platform in several countries. The young actors are relative newcomers, but their performances are nuanced—particularly that of Taher, who gives soul and depth to Layan, an instantly hateable character who becomes more sympathetic in the course of the show’s six episodes. Taher and the other cast members sensitively execute the show’s sharp plotline, which has hints of the Spanish Netflix teen drama “Elite,” minus the heavy-handed narrative around that show’s two Arab Muslim characters, one of whom wears a hijab and discards it as the series progresses. After all, “Rawabi” is set at an institution in Jordan, where being Muslim or wearing a hijab is not enough to base a character on. The distinctions in the liberties that the girls allow themselves are quite subtle, and certain visual cues can be misleading. Very few students at the school cover their hair in front of men, for example, but that hardly says much about the many other lines which they draw for themselves or which their families might draw for them. Layan may be freer with boys than her fellow clique member Ruqayya (Salsabiela A.), who wears a hijab, but Layan doesn’t go very far, either. And Ruqayya’s hijab doesn’t preclude her from being one of the most popular girls at the school.

As part of her revenge plot, Mariam creates a fake Facebook account and messages Ruqayya, pretending to be a male admirer. The two of them message back and forth for days, before the boy asks Ruqayya to send him a photograph of herself with her hair uncovered. She receives the request while at a school event, and goes into a bathroom stall to take the picture, but eventually demurs. “Sorry I can’t,” she writes, worried about revealing herself to a stranger. He replies, “I admire you even more for saying no to what feels wrong,” which flatters her into sending him the photograph after all.

Mariam and her friends, who also managed to hack into Ruqayya’s Facebook account, post the picture on her profile page, where she is immediately overwhelmed by a barrage of insulting comments: “So cheap.” “You look disgusting.” “Your family did not know how to raise you.” Ruqayya’s mother is scandalized by the photograph, too. She pulls her daughter out of the school and chides her for ruining not only her own reputation but the family’s good name, potentially jeopardizing her sisters’ chances at marriage: “With what people are saying about us, who even knows if your sisters will stand a chance?”

Ruqayya’s mother is made out to be an especially unlikable character, but her sentiment is entirely pedestrian. There is an expression that mothers are known to repeat to their daughters in some Arab countries: “What would the doorman say about you?” (More permissive mothers might counsel their daughters with a well-meaning “Do not let the doorman see you.”) The doorman—and it’s nearly always a man—knows a lot about a woman’s comings and goings. How late did she come back? Who dropped her off? This comedy of deference to the opinions of one of the otherwise most overlooked figures in Arab society is not lost on the women and girls who are urged to pay attention to it. Yet that doesn’t make the demand any less serious. Ruqayya’s mother did not invent the rules—we don’t entirely know how she feels about them—but she knows what it takes to survive. And, although it is certainly not very enlightened of Mariam to exploit her country’s patriarchal attitudes with the goal of hurting another woman, such attitudes are splendidly ripe for exploitation. The parameters of acceptable female behavior might be narrower in Jordan, and certainly in Ruqayya’s family, than they are in some other places, but publicly leaking what can be considered a revealing photograph is an enduring way to harm a woman pretty much anywhere.

Mariam, who is presented as progressive and feminist—her bedroom is littered with “The Future Is Female”-type posters—doesn’t appear to lose any sleep over hurting Ruqayya. It’s unclear whether Mariam is blind to the contradictions between her actions and her purported value system or if she simply doesn’t care. (To be fair, she is seeking retribution, and Layan and her friends continue to be cruel to her after the Facebook debacle.) The show does have a few “Big Little Lies”-like moments, in which the girls put their rivalries aside in order to stand up against the explicit violence or predation of men. But, more often than not, Mariam and her friends are unwitting stewards of the patriarchy, employing tactics of “revenge” that are tantamount to policing. Toward the end of the series, Mariam’s friends start to realize that perhaps they’ve gone too far. Mariam, though, is unrepentant throughout.

“Rawabi” climaxes when Layan skips school to spend the day at her boyfriend’s house. Layan’s boyfriend, Laith, is in college, and she has kept their relationship a secret from her family. Mariam sends a text message to Hazim, Layan’s emotionally volatile older brother, snitching on Layan’s whereabouts. He drives to Laith’s house and breaks in, brandishing a gun. He finds Layan wearing one of Laith’s shirts and presumes—incorrectly—that the two of them have had sex. He points his gun at her. “How could you do this?” he asks, his hands shaking, eyes brimming with tears. “You know what they’ll say about our family now?”

Like Ruqayya’s mother, Hazim worries about his family’s reputation. He is not any more sympathetic for seeming conflicted over the prospect of hurting his sister, but his hesitation does make him seem real in a way that is often missing in other film and TV portrayals of family conflicts in Middle Eastern countries. One frustrating example is the French submission for the 2015 Academy Awards, “Mustang,” which is rife with heavy-handed scenes of abuse and virginity tests. An overprotective Turkish uncle drives his sexually active niece to suicide and then carries on with his day, suddenly unconcerned with his family’s reputation—and the shame presumably brought upon it by suicide—despite the fact that it had agonized him before. The movie, a box-office success in France, was received with less enthusiasm in Turkey, where critics argued that the film was designed for Western tastes. In contrast, the scene between Layan and her brother, in “Rawabi,” is reminiscent of the ending of “The Postman,” a classic Egyptian film from 1968. The movie closes with a father walking down a bleak village street, carrying his daughter’s dead body after having killed her upon discovering that she was pregnant out of wedlock. His body is rigid, his face expressionless, but, as he looks down at his dead daughter, his stoicism begins to break. His face twitches. No one warned him about this part. Now he nervously looks around, no longer sure which way to go. His inner conflict is not a character endorsement—it’s honest screenwriting. The father is a damned fool.