Stigma in the Middle East comes in many forms. Infertility, skin colour, disability, being adopted, being a lone parent or a member of a minority faith. In cultures where shame and honour play a big part, these and other characteristics divide and rank people in many people’s eyes.
That’s why Backstage, a new SAT-7 ARABIC drama series, is immersing viewers in the lives of a diverse cast of characters who all work in a fictional advertising agency in Egypt. As viewers get drawn into the storylines and identify with the characters, Backstage helps them to understand the struggles and see the strengths of people they might have shunned or overlooked in everyday life.
“This programme presents the issues of freedom of belief, accepting the ‘other’, minority rights, and gender equality – all inside a story that will attract viewers,” says George Makeen, SAT-7 Arabic Channels Programming Director.
“It’s a drama about a company where there is a lot of competition – women against men, poor against rich – and where lots of employees have private struggles that impact the conflicts at work. The workplace and office conflicts Backstage shows are a metaphor for the divisions and issues that can arise between members of society in general.”
“A really big theme in each episode is acceptance of those who are different from me,” says Ramy, the series producer and head of Arascope, the Egyptian company who filmed it. “We aren’t looking at issues in the abstract,” he stresses: “We wanted to create something that is relevant to the audience.”
To do that, they concentrated on three things. Firstly, a fast-paced script. Then recognised actors who have “star power” and will attract an audience. Thirdly, they did lots of casting to achieve the wide representation they needed of characters from different backgrounds. These include a girl with Down’s syndrome, and a young Nubian man who plays a Christian who faces discrimination because of his race.
Ramy says the star of the show is a woman who is managing the company and parenting her children alone while she also tries to restore her relationship with a husband who has been using drugs. This strong portrayal of a female manager is unusual in Egyptian drama, he explains. In one episode she goes further against the norm by exposing a family member who has sexually harassed an employee. It’s something that many women in the Middle East would not do because it means shaming the family.
The character who plays the mother of the Down’s syndrome girl is divorced and would be seen as inferior by some. But she is the person who defends the Nubian when he receives racial abuse from a client.
A third woman faces so much pressure from her mother-in-law to have children that she resorts to wearing a pillow to fake pregnancy. “In this society, it is the woman’s responsibility to bear children,” Ramy says. The episode is one example of the ways in which older female relatives in Arab cultures often push younger women to ignore their own choices. One of the worst is where young women are pressurised to arrange circumcision for their daughters to conform to social norms.
“Every character in the show has a dark secret,” Ramy explains. “In each episode we open the closet into the hidden thing. Each one of these is something looked down on in Middle East societies: single mums, a childless mum, a parent whose child has a disability, people with low income and status.”
In so doing, the storylines examine a variety of topics that are taboo in many communities. But by building emotional connections with the characters and events, Backstage, helps viewers to examine their own attitudes in a non-confrontational way.
Backstage is part of a wider SAT-7 project focused on minority rights and peaceful co-existence. Aimed mainly at a young adult audience, it has been funded by the Norwegian government. Alongside Backstage a series of public service announcements were created to get people thinking, Building on this, Backstage engages viewers emotionally with the issues, while a magazine talk show, You Enlighten Us, shows young adults talking and reacting to them.
Together, the project aims to increase empathy and understanding, and build stronger, more cohesive communities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – a region with the world’s largest gender equality gap and many countries with poor human rights records.