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Changing Society One Soap at a Time

August 20, 2008


Mass media has always protested that its influence is greatly exaggerated. Although relief workers assert that the “CNN effect” is real, by which they mean that the crisis that gets the most attention gets the most resources, some in the media deny it. After the U.S. responded to events in Somalia during George H.W. Bush’ administration, the media was accused of more or less forcing the administration’s hand through its constant coverage of the crisis. Dan Rather, then the news anchor for CBS, famously wrote:

“To give television credit for so powerful an influence is to flatter us who toil there. … Some may wish for the power to direct public opinion and to guide American policy — but they don’t have it.” [“Don’t Blame TV for Getting Us into Somalia,” New York Times, 14 October 1993]

Mr. Rather, of course, was in the wrong business if that is what he really believed. He was brought to you each night by sponsors that paid a lot of money believing fully that television had the power to influence and direct public opinion — and to get you to buy their products. Cigarette advertising would not have been removed from television if people didn’t believe that mass media had power to change society. It is exactly that power and influence that has many people in Saudi Arabia concerned [“A Subversive Soap Roils Saudi Arabia,” by Faiza Saleh Ambah, Washington Post, 3 August 2008].

“A Turkish soap opera featuring an independent fashion designer and her amazingly supportive and attractive husband is emptying the streets whenever it’s on and has more than doubled the number of Saudis visiting Turkey this summer. Millions of people — especially women, apparently — are tuning in nightly to find out whether the couple will stay together or be torn apart by jealousies and old flames.”

I would call that a pretty powerful influence. Beyond fostering Turkish tourism and getting hooked on the storyline, Ambah reports that the soap opera’s potential for changing society has generated many critics in Saudi Arabia.

“‘Noor,’ the story of a multi-generational, upper-class Turkish family, has also sparked a backlash. The show has become the subject of angry Friday sermons in this strict Islamic kingdom, and the country’s chief cleric recently issued a fatwa calling it ‘decadent’ and sinful to watch. ‘Noor’ has had such a deep influence because, unlike American or Mexican soap operas broadcast here, it is about a Muslim family living in a Muslim country. The show is also dubbed in an Arabic dialect, not classical Arabic, which makes it easier to understand and feels more intimate to viewers.”

American television has elicited the same kind of responses from people who fear that the loose morals that are grist for most soaps and situation comedies will continue to have long-lasting societal consequences, including the spread of STDs, increased divorce, and the break-up of families. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Muslim clerics are raising their voices in protest. But the seeds of societal change contained in the Turkish soap opera go beyond religion to the secular status of women. Ambah continues:

“There’s that husband. The blue-eyed, blond Muhannad, played by Kivanc Tatlitu, a 24-year-old Turkish actor and model, is tall, handsome, romantic, respectful and treats his wife, Noor — the title character — as both a love object and an equal. ‘Saudi women fantasize about what they’re lacking,’ said Amira Kashgari, an assistant linguistics professor at King Abdul Aziz University who writes about social issues for al-Watan newspaper. ‘They are almost obsessed with this show because of the way he interacts with and treats his wife.’ Saudi Arabia, a deeply patriarchal society, has few role models for powerful, independent women. The kingdom does not allow women guardianship over themselves, whatever their age. They are not allowed to drive and cannot travel without the permission of a male guardian, sometimes their sons. According to the Saudi-owned satellite channel MBC, which airs ‘Noor’ across the Arab world, 3 million to 4 million viewers in this country of 28 million have been tuning in daily.”

“That husband” is causing all sorts of problems Ambah reports. Why? Because “the husband” ensures there is “romance within the marriage” as well as “open, honest communication between husband and wife.” As a result, millions of women are now asking their husbands, “Why can’t you be more like Muhannad?” Not exactly what a man wants to hear when he sits down to dinner.

“According to several local newspapers, Saudi men have divorced their wives after finding photos of Muhannad on their cellphones or because they found their wives too taken with the Turk with the soulful eyes. In the series, Muhannad is not afraid to show his soft side, and he showers his wife with flowers, gifts and surprise vacations after they fight. Several cartoons in the local press show men promising their wives to have plastic surgery to look like Muhannad.”

It’s hard to compete with a fantasy. Women in the U.S. have protested for years that expecting every woman to look like a super model is unfair and unhealthy. I suspect Saudi (and Turkish) men are feeling pretty much the same way these days. The show’s finale is set to be aired at the end of August, just in time for Ramadan. I suspect that “Noor” is just the tip of the iceberg. Saudi society needs to brace for the changes that are about to come. They should embrace what is good about those changes even as they try and figure out how to deal with what they consider unacceptable. Like many relatively closed societies, they have tried to censor upstream media content with little success. In the future, they are going to have to deal with downstream behavior.

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