Doorha Botoula, or Her Role is Being the Hero, was a campaign run by Netflix Middle East and North Africa during the month of Ramadan that put a spotlight on women creators from various walks of life — and, therefore, women in general — in the Arab world. The special series featured 30 women artists and entrepreneurs from countries throughout the region including Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Jordan, and Sudan, among others. The women each made short video pieces describing themselves and their realities in any creative means they chose including using female characters from Netflix shows. The results are radically different than any portrayal of Arab and Muslim women images seen in the Western world.
Generally speaking, images and stories of Arab and Muslim women from Egypt to Saudia Arabia are mostly limited to the stories of their oppression from polygamous marriages, violence, the assumed compulsory headscarves, among a few other common tropes. But when Netflix asked the women to talk about their lives, what the women came up with amounted to a collage of life in the region: Women in pink and blue hair, riding motorcycles, and using all funky and daring visual arts to express themselves, their realities and their dreams. The common theme among most of the women’s expressions is the contrast between ambitions to be strong and fully active in society and between traditional expectations to be good mothers and perfect household stewards that are foisted on women.
Doorha Botoula opens with a piece by Alaa Balkhy, a Saudi fashion designer who poses with dark sun glasses, loose long black hair, a black dress, and black shoes accented with her brown purse designed by her fashion company Fyunka. Balkhy draws figures of women wearing all kinds of head coverings — black, gray and white veils stamped with bold messages such as: “GIRL BOSSES Don’t Compete. They Collaborate.”
Maha Jafar who is from Sudanese and Iraqi origin, takes on various characters in her YouTube comedy series and hams them up by taking on accents, expressions and cloths, to comment on what it means to be a queen from an Arab woman’s perspective. After a comic discussion among her characters that ranges from seeing a queen as one who should know beauty to one who should master cooking, Jafar’s characters conclude that a queen is one who should be strong, cares about her people and serve their interests even if that entails sacrificing herself for their wellbeing.
Perhaps the most daring and creative expression came from Tima Shomali of Jordan. Shomali is a writer and a comic actress who is known for her FemaleShow, which draws tens of millions of viewers in the Middle East. Her two-minute contribution to the campaign, which she directed and co-wrote with Shirin Kamal, might as well be a trailer for a Netflix show for women in the region. The video depicts the contradicting demands on women’s lives — the tension between encouragement to be a successful and strong career woman and the expectations for her to be a dedicated housewife and mother. Shomali brings that dichotomy to life by showing contrasting images of her driving a rugged sports truck or riding a motorcycle in tight jeans and a leather jacket in between traditional images of a herself as mother caring for her child, and driving a hatchback slowly and carefully. Shomali’s message: “Women should not choose between between being a good mother and a woman who lives her life. She can be both and not have to choose between [her] career and [her] family.”
“Women are strong and are multi-taskers in the Arab world but they give up fast because of pressure from our society. And there is a lot pressure from our society for women to prioritize their household chores and motherhood over their career,” Shomali told me during a recent Skype interview. “I am a career woman — I see it and experience it always. So my message to women is: don’t expect the society to help you. On the opposite, the society is pulling us down so we have to stand up for ourselves. And it is hard to stand up for myself as there is no encouragement but still I do it. And still we need to do it for ourselves,” Shomali added. Watch her video below.
Like many women in the region, Shomali warns against generalizations of Arab women. “There are different levels of cultures and levels of thinking. You can not generalize [about] those women who live in one city from the other. In Amman, we are told to ‘work as you wish but find a way to take care of the kids.’ In Irbid, on the other hand, a woman can not leave her home or express her opinion … or whose husband has multiple wives. You can not generalize [about] the culture. It is very different from city to city and town to town. The capital is progressive and the other provinces tend to be more reserved. Sometimes that difference can be seen from East Amman to West Amman. There can be a huge gap in a five-minute ride between the two parts of the same capital,” Shomali said.
But neither Shomali nor many other women are giving up on their dreams. In explaining that phenomenon, she said, “Though it is not a common story in our culture that there is 50 percent partnership between women and men, it does not mean that it does not exist. It happens but it is not a common story. I can tell you, though,” Shomali added, “I refuse to marry any man who expects me to fulfill traditional roles for women. He will have to be my equal partner.”
Whether or not Netflix chooses to take Shomali’s trailer and make it into a series, the question remains: Can an international company help promote new images of what it means to be a woman in the Arab world, where the predominant population is not only women, but those under the age of 30? What Netflix’s first campaign for women shows is that many women see themselves in different lights. They are almost the opposite of how they are portrayed in the world around them, and almost all of them capture the complexities between their desires and self images and social expectations of what it means to be a woman in the region.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.