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Post Arab Revolutions: TV Challenges Stereotypes, Pushes New Frontiers

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In Syria:

Syrian soap operas (musalsals) that once united a country now are a "casualty of war." Soaps likeDamascene Days (Ayam Shamiya) were popular, even if closely allied with Assad's Baathist regime and ideology in the '90s. One soap harked back to Sultan Saladin, a 12th century hero who defeated the Crusaders and liberated Jerusalem. This soap thinly disguised the Crusaders as Americans and Israelis -- both manipulative and unacceptable. These soaps also focused on Ottoman oppression and demonized the French colonialists in Syria.

Arab media expert Omar Adam Sayfo, however, makes a key point: even propaganda infused historical soaps united diverse viewers -- Druse, Christian, Sunni or Alawite. Viewers cheered on the TV hero confronting the French soldiers and the TV heroine, "Um Joseph, the Christian woman who protected the Muslim neighborhood." Bottom line: The soaps -- though poisoned by ideology and demonization -- made Syrians proud of their history and heritage, even as they entertained viewers on hot, sultry afternoons in Ramadan. Though Turkish soaps now fill the gap for Syrians, old is still gold for the old timers, I suspect -- if only in memory.

In Saudi Arabia: TV tests fault line between modernity and tradition?

In the NYT, Alessandra Stanley reports that Saudi television is chipping away at patriarchal customs, "The Internet has emboldened online malcontents on both sides, but television, especially at Ramadan, is where society measures itself." This, I believe, is where the fault line between modernity and tradition is tested.

Saudi Arabia is technologically sophisticated. It is an early adopter. King Faisal was first to introduce television in the '60s in Saudi Arabia, which prompted his assassination. Today, even traditional Saudi imams use social media.

With large, captive audiences, Ramadan, the month of fasting, is when new TV serials are released and the ratings war starts. Saudi audiences have access to racy Turkish soaps and sexy Moroccan pop singers as well as Gossip Girl and CSI from the U.S. However, most regional broadcasters respect Saudi limits on modesty and political dialogue.

Three new TV shows shine the spotlight on paving new ground, challenging old norms:

Omar, a $30 million production with 31 episodes, focuses on Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, a companion of the Prophet and a revered founder of the Islamic empire. The serial, though instantly banned by the grand and blind mufti of Saudi Arabia, broke new ground by showing Omar's face on TV, a taboo. Viewers interpreted the showing of Omar's face as hope for change.

The Girls' Room series with minimal sex and focused on single, home based, Saudi women -- was still disconcerting to some viewers. The breakthrough here came in an episode where the young, married heroine asks her friends: Why they did not stop her from getting married?

Hindistani is a soap opera with a nod to India's Bollywood. A man, played by a Saudi actor, and his wife, played by an Iraqi actress -- for obvious reasons -- indulge in Bollywood style fantasy films from India. The couple, dressed in bright shades of green, hot pink and yellow, sings and dance as they discuss their love and jealousy in Arabic. The bright colors, dancing and modern music all defy Saudi protocols.

Hush Hush is a quiz show. Viewers call in to "Every Day a Car" and if they win, they get a Kia. But here's the catch: If a woman wins, she can register the car in her name but she must let her brothers and father driver her!

In our own backyard:

Recently, I watched an interview with the producers of Will & Grace who will soon release their new show, Partners. Charlie (David Krumholtz) who is straight and his business partner Louis (Michael Urie) who is gay are determined to break down negative stereotypes surrounding gay people. Ideas implanted in movies and on TV often show up intolerance and reframe old concepts in acceptable ways. The media is a vital starting point which can change entrenched stereotypes and humanize "the other."

As for the breakthroughs in the media in the Arab world -- it is one of the critical levers of change. Inshallah it will impact reform and respect the rights of women, minorities and other marginalized populations.

The exciting possibilities of using traditional and social media to advance rights and progress takes me back to my grad school thesis focused on using TV for development and social change. Our Bombay-based team produced the first Sesame Street pilot focused on teaching the Hindi alphabet, jingles and all, to slum dwellers in Mumbai!

The Arab revolutions have brought to the forefront pain, anguish and high death tolls. Let these not be in vain and let's invest and support the levers of change -- of which the media and Internet are a mainstay.

Shahnaz Taplin's blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.