New Internationalist

Breaking silence

Issue 382

A reality television show has shattered an age-old taboo for Arab women. Reem Haddad finds opinions divided.

Sarah John
Sarah John

I’ve never been interested in reality television shows but I was intrigued by the latest programme to hit the Arab world: women – with problems – living together as they underwent psychiatric treatment.

Even I was a little shocked that an Arab, especially a woman, would openly talk about her problems on air. Like all Lebanese children, I was taught to keep any problems within the family. It is considered shameful for friends and acquaintances to get a less than perfect image of the family. Women, especially, are expected to bear abuse in silence.

But Starting Over defies all norms. Based on a US show, the programme groups seven women who divulge their anxieties on camera. ‘Arab women have had enough,’ said Rania Barghout, the presenter of the show. ‘They want to talk. They want to be heard.’

Once I heard that the filming was taking place in Lebanon, I made my way to the hills just outside Beirut to see the set. While I wasn’t allowed to interview the women, I was given a tour of the flat and introduced to its occupants.

Among them was Jinane, a 20-year-old Iraqi. Her father was killed during the Iraq-Iran war and her mother abandoned her. She was raised in an orphanage and is desperately seeking someone’s affection.

Ibtisam, a 37-year-old Syrian, never got over her husband taking a second wife – especially an older one. She lost her self-esteem.

Rasha, an Egyptian, 24, was severely abused by her husband. While learning to like herself again, she wants to tell Arab women to beware of abusive men.

Abir, 28, a Saudi Arabian, is an orphan who was neglected by her adoptive family. She now finds herself uncontrollably hitting her small daughter .

Two psychiatrists are helping the women. If one is successfully treated, she is free to leave and another can replace her.

I looked around the flat with interest. There were 22 ceiling cameras monitoring everything 18 hours a day. For this reason, one of the two veiled women never takes her scarf off. The other, Abir, only dons it on air as Saudi Arabian custom dictates.

‘The women who came forward have courage,’ said Badry Moujais, the show’s director. ‘We asked them: are you ready to go on national television and talk about this?’ Producers were taken aback when in response to the announcement, they received 40,000 applications. ‘The biggest surprise for us has been that they really have nothing to hide.’

But this is still the Arab world and the women had to have their families sign a release form. ‘We didn’t want to find ourselves in a position where a woman is in the house but she came here without the will of her surrounding family,’ said Badry. In keeping with Arab tradition, subjects such as sex and graphic body terminology are taboo. ‘In our culture, the people are more programmed to use proper language when talking about personal lives and don’t use demeaning words. Here they talk mostly about their emotions.’

Judging by the thousands of emails the producers have received, the show is a hit and has been accepted by the Arab audience. Only a year ago, an Arabized version of Big Brother – a reality show where men and women live together – was quickly cancelled. In a region where many girls and boys are segregated at schools and mingling between the sexes is frowned upon, it had mortified its Arab audience.

‘If you ask me,’ said one friend, ‘these women should be ashamed. We are becoming like the Americans, needing counselling and understanding all the time. Get over it, I say.’ Other friends were full of admiration, and yet others didn’t care.

‘It’s a wonderful thing when Arab women speak out,’ said my friend Zeina. ‘When an abused woman is interviewed on television, her face and voice are usually distorted. She’s ashamed. But these women are speaking out. They have my support.’

Some male friends admitted changing channels when the programme is aired. ‘It doesn’t really interest me,’ said Rami, ‘though I do think they should solve their problems in private.’

The show is only on for a few months but women activists hope that it has encouraged women to break silence on abuse.

‘There are so many issues out there to deal with,’ said an activist, ‘ranging from domestic abuse to “honour” crimes. If women can see that’s it is all right for them to tell the world about their problems, then maybe we can get somewhere.’

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

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