In Saudi Arabian television comedy Jameel Jeddan, a young woman falls into a coma after a road accident. She wakes up five years later to a changed country, where women are allowed to drive and the religious police who once roamed the kingdom’s cities have vanished.
What follows is a dark comedy that breaks the mould for how Saudi women are depicted on screen in the conservative kingdom. The show on Shahid, the content streaming arm of Saudi state broadcaster MBC, is the first in the country to be created, written and led by a woman, Sarah Taibah.
“Women are usually portrayed in Saudi content as the love interest or wife or mother, you don’t see them as a flawed protagonist or anti-hero,” said Taibah. “It was fresh to portray an angry raw character who was unapologetically natural and didn’t try to look different.”
The show, whose six-episode run ended this month to critical acclaim, is not overtly political, but takes place against the backdrop of the reforms sweeping the conservative country. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the day to day ruler, has over the past six years upended social and economic norms, as he tries to develop new industries and create jobs for his youthful population. The kingdom has been seeking to rehabilitate its image since the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi and has trumpeted the social reforms as part of that effort.
The extent of the reforms is made clear when in the first episode, Jameel — who went into a coma before the reforms took place — looks on with astonishment as a young woman drives past her in a sports car. “Wow, even women can drive now? Amazing,” she says. In subsequent episodes she dances in public with her new love interest and dines out with him — behaviour unheard of prior to the reforms.
Jameel searches for her missing father over six episodes, as she adjusts to her new life back in high school. Along the way, she browbeats a boy into dating her, drugs a double-crossing friend at her wedding before burning down the ballroom and sends her tiresome stepbrother to hospital by pummelling him with a chair at the dinner table.
Her portrayal contrasts with female characters conceived by male writers, who may not be entirely sure how women behave among themselves. “Between women, we don’t normally see friendships. Usually it’s cliched,” Taibah said.
Taibah said she wanted to flip stereotypes. Her character’s name means “beautiful” in Arabic, but in the masculine sense. Her love interest is a man called Nour, which is a unisex name in the Arab world. “I wanted the lead female to have a male name and the lead male [to] have a unisex name that’s usually associated with females. I wanted to set a different mood and world where we break the stereotypical roles.”
Certain scenes in Jameel Jeddan remind the audience of some of the deep-seated resistance to change. The socially liberal reforms are popular with many Saudis, but others believe Prince Mohammed has gone too far — and too fast.
In one episode, their car breaks down. Jameel tries to flag down a passing car for help but Nour reminds her that they are not “in California” and as an unmarried couple could face questions. They might dance together, but Jameel and Nour have a platonic relationship on screen.
Taibah and other actresses credit Prince Mohammed’s reforms for their ability to tackle more difficult subjects. Last year, the government hosted a film festival in Jeddah, attracting stars from across the region. At times, this glitz sits uneasily with Prince Mohammed’s low tolerance for dissent. He has jailed critics, including activists and bloggers. This includes women activists who campaigned for the right to drive, which the government granted in 2018.
“The current leadership sees young creatives as allies in pushing for cultural change and presenting a new vision of the country in global cultural forums, such as film festivals and art biennales,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Shows such as Jameel Jeddan were also crucial to the government-owned MBC’s drive to compete with Netflix for audiences in the region, said Mazen Hayek, a media consultant and former MBC spokesperson. Netflix has carried shows that could not find a home on Arabic broadcasters, including Takki, an edgy Saudi production that tackles issues such as poverty. It was originally uploaded to YouTube in 2012 because no channel would touch it.
“Shahid is meant to be a global platform for Arabic content. It is meant to be serious competition to Netflix,” Hayek said. The government had consolidated its control over the broadcaster after it swept up dozens of tycoons, including the channel’s head, and detained them in the Ritz in 2017. The government said it wanted to retrieve ill-begotten gains. Critics said it was a powerplay by the ascendant Prince Mohammed.
Taibah said she was happy that she and like-minded artists were now finding a platform. “I think there’s just more space for us. Even people who didn’t give us space, they’re now realising the importance of our voices, especially if they want an honest reflection of our generation.”