Strong is the new beautiful

A shift in women’s representation in the Gulf media

As a Saudi woman interested in media and gender studies, when I watched the Indian movie Mary Kom back in 2014, I thought it to be the perfect example of empowering women on TV, which led me to write a review about it in Arabic calling for similar local films. Mary Kom is based on the true story of Indian boxer Chungneijang Mary Kom Hmangte whose journey to becoming a boxer, riddled with difficulties and struggle, culminated in her finally winning the 2008 World Boxing Championships in Ningbo. These difficulties, as depicted in the film, included facing sexist social values, gender-based bullying and harassment. The film stars Priyanka Chopra in the lead role of the eponymous boxer, with Darshan Kumar and Sunil Thapa as her husband and mentor.

When I watched the movie, five years ago, I admired how it represented a woman empowering herself and working on herself to finally win the world boxing championship. I wished there were similar examples of empowered women in my own local TV and film industries. In February 2018, I was astonished to watch a Saudi TV series starring a Saudi actress, Mia Al-zahrani, as a boxer. The series represents this young woman who returns home after having studied in the US and  faces social restrictions. More interestingly, the series shows how she helps her local community especially by challenging their stereotypical perceptions of what women should and should not do. In one scene, the boxer is shown angrily saying, “Is that all that you want me to do? Marry, give birth to babies and hire a maid to look after them?”

A person wearing a costume

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Mia Alzahrani starring as a boxer in the recent Saudi TV drama

It is really interesting to see that recent reforms to women’s situation in Saudi Arabia are being reflected in the media so quickly. This is an example of open-minded television dialogue that, to my knowledge, is not common on the local television. Saudi women have recently been allowed at a football game, and female football teams have been created across the country. Neighbouring countries, such as the UAE, also show examples of recent TV productions that empower and star women. One example is the Netflix show Justice, which depicts an ambitious lawyer, Farah, who returns home after having obtained her degree in the US and wants to push legal and cultural boundaries while having a good time with family as a young independent woman. This show is said to be the most expensive Emirati TV production ever staged, according to Image Nation CEO Michael Garin.

A group of people posing for the camera

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Farah stars as a prominent lawyer in the recent UAE’s TV series

Interestingly, both shows star young women who return from abroad, specifically from the US, and face similar social and cultural restrictions. Yet instead of isolating themselves, they help their communities and families by challenging negative stereotypes about women. Their way of doing that is simply by being themselves: successful and independent women. This is clearly a shift in women’s representation in the GCC media, perhaps an outcome of the recent broad reforms to women’s social situation in the region.


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