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Fighting poverty in the Arab world: with Soap Operas?

Amina Semlali's picture
Also available in: Français | العربية
This post is part of a blog series that we hope will provide some food for thought on the critical questions outlined in the report on social safety nets.

Some of you might frown when you hear the words "soap opera". Others might chuckle and recall “Besos y Lagrimas” (kisses and tears) - Saturday Night Live’s hysterical parody of the usually overly dramatic Latin American "telenovelas". If we are honest, however, quite a few of us have a hard time containing our excitement and anticipation for the latest episode of our favorite show.

If you think you are immune to the lure of a soap opera then try watching an Egyptian soap. At first, you will be amused and perhaps even laugh at all the melodrama, but in the end you will most certainly find yourself wondering: Will Alia expose her evil twin sister? Will Omar learn how to read, propose to his beloved and be accepted by her upper-class family?

Photo Source: Nasib AlbitarSoap operas have an appeal that cuts across a broad social spectrum; viewers range from highly educated people to those with little or no formal education.  The Middle East is no different. Although men might deny that they watch soaps, they too become engrossed. In fact, more than 80 million people from Casablanca to Riyadh regularly clock in for a single soap episode and these viewing figures rise significantly during the fasting month of Ramadan. In the past, people would gather after the breaking of the fast to listen to a “hakawti,” or storyteller, recount tales and myths. Soap operas now fulfill the same role as the “hakawti.”  Today, Arab satellite channels will air dramas that last for 30 episodes, one for each night of Ramadan, when whole families gather to watch.

Soap operas in the Arab world often address issues of class, with stories that often include central characters that are struggling to escape poverty. They combine the usual characteristics of American soaps – extravagant plots, love and family drama – but also carry certain cultural values that audiences  can relate to. Viewers often identify very closely with the lead soap characters.  Khadija, a 49 year old seamstress in Rabat, Morocco said about her favorite heroine: “She is like me, she suffered and had her heart broken but she still tried to make life better. Just like me.” Soaps also provide an escape from the daily routine and harshness of reality, particularly in conflict affected countries. In Gaza and Yemen for example, you will find the streets empty as the soap of the moment is airing.

Soap operas can play the same role that myths and fables have throughout history. By introducing a critical social issue into the soap narrative, the soap can go from being simply “entertainment” to being “entertainment-education” - or in short: “edutainment”. In fact, around the world edutainment soaps have often helped bring about critical behavioral changes. In South Africa following a televised drama that addressed sexual practices, it was found that viewers of the soap opera were four times more likely to use condoms than non-viewers. Enrollment in literacy classes increased nine fold in Mexico City after the airing of a soap with a central storyline about a character learning to read. In the US state of Colorado, the number of low-income families applying for child health insurance increased drastically after an edutainment soap highlighted its importance and how to find it.

Even topics that are considered taboo can be brought up within the fictional universe of soaps. They can help to decrease the stigma surrounding certain issues without being socially or culturally intrusive. Soaps in the Arab world have already begun confronting sensitive, at times taboo, subjects. In Jordan for example, there are several so called Bedouin soaps that portray traditional village life. Highly sensitive issues such as honor killings have been confronted, and the tensions between the traditional and modern ways of life explored.

There are many topics that the Arab entertainment field could help shed light on through this popular medium, soap operas. Poverty alleviation would be an important one.  In the Arab world, a growing middle class exists alongside abject poverty. According to a recent World Bank report Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa”more than a quarter of the children in the lowest economic strata in Egypt, Morocco, and Syria are chronically malnourished. At the same time, the subsidies that governments rely on to protect the poor are mainly captured by the rich. Even in the face of strong evidence that  there are more effective ways of fighting poverty, alongside compelling international examples, citizens of the region tend to resist subsidy reform. The poor also seem to share the belief that subsidies are their best option. One way of changing attitudes and paving the way for critical reforms is for governments and international organizations to team up with the entertainment industry to use the power of soaps to educate the population. By introducing the theme of how poverty can be better fought into soap operas, the message could reach wide audiences across the Arab world.

What might at first look like light entertainment could indeed be a potent tool to influence attitudes and break down social prejudices and stereotypes. With their tremendous reach and popularity, it is time to take soap operas far more seriously. 

Read all the posts in the social safety net blog series:
Who should pay for the poorest in Lebanon?
NOW is the time to bring MENA's poor Into the net

It is time for the Arab world to invest in people not subsidies
Fighting poverty in the Arab world: with Soap Operas?
Can a game teach us how to better invest in the poor in Jordan?

Comments

Submitted by AndreaVem on
Such an entertaining yet important piece! We all watch soaps and deny it… great to know that educational material can be embedded within (will make me feel better about my guilty pleasure). I agree, international organizations should team up with governments and the entertainment industry – not only in the Arab world, but also in other regions. That is the way you reach the masses!

Submitted by elham on
Great piece Amina and so relevant. Your concluding paragraph is exactly right and dead on. Thank you for your powerful insights!

Submitted by Milad on
This piece is simply excellent, well-written and points out a real social development. The author writes: "you will find the streets empty as the soap of the moment is airing". This reminds me the soap opera called Narges in Iran 3/4 years ago. My family and friends couldn't miss a single episode for the same reasons exposed in Amina Semlali's piece! From 7pm to 8pm it was impossible to plan anything, the answer would be: "naaaa! Narges!!" Though 24 or Prison Break are famous in Iran (at least, they were famous 2 years ago), a lot of Iranians if not a majority prefer basic soap operas because they can easily identify themselves to the characters (also like Bollywood movies which are a great confort to people since the movies deal with topics people can identify themslves with). (that's also why Farsi 1 is very successful in Iran! It's mostly Soap opera). Great conclusion, soap operas should be considered more seriously and I also believe that it could indeed be a interesting tool for development.

Submitted by Tevye De Lara on
Excellent piece! It is very interesting to see one case of how pop culture can be used for the betterment of a society. The media has a major role in contributing to positive attitudes and dissuade misleading stereotypes in society. I think in the case of Mexico, where soap operas are ever so popular, the television duopoly (Televisa and TV Azteca) has shown little social compromise in that respect. In Mexican television the exploitation of religious beliefs and the continuation of social stereotypes are persistent and systematically presented as the only valid behavioural structure. Best regards from Mexico City.

Submitted by Avid Gharagozlou on
So true that soaps help "...decrease the stigma surrounding certain issues without being socially or culturally intrusive...." Even in western society we see taboo issues first on television shows/ soaps and somehow it lightens the discussion. Very interesting article Amina. To see the positive trends of safe sex in S. Africa to the increased literacy in Mexico with soap viewing, edutainment cannot be underestimated as a very powerful sociological tool.

Submitted by Raghada on
Very excellent piece. I agree that Soap Opera has wide audience here in Egypt, not only Egyptian Soap Operas but now welcome to Turkish ones. I'm personally a fan and the more episodes the merrier and the more I get attached. It will be so much helpful if important issues like you proposed/suggested can be introduced and discussed subtly through such episodes. Its effect will be far more wide than reports or articles, especially with the right crew :) The World Bank has such innovative approaches now ,Thanks to you, and I wish it could be implemented really Good job

Submitted by Milad on
Excellent and well-written piece which points out a real social development. The author says: "you will find the streets empty as the soap of the moment is airing". It reminds me the soap opera called Narges in Iran 3/4 years ago. My family and friends couldn't miss a single episode for the same reasons exposed in this piece! People would identify themselves to some characters (like in Bollywood movies which romanticize familiar situations) and I totally agree with the conclusion.

Submitted by Pip on
This a great article addressing an issue I have never even thought about previously. It is really thought provoking! I have dismissed soaps as a guilty pleasure and never considered what a powerful tool they are, given that they are so addictive to almost every walk of life.

Submitted by Clinton Beastrom on
I agree with the comments so far. In particular it seems most are in agreement that this is a thought provoking article. I am forced to start thinking more about our evening drama shows, which are really just soap operas under disguise. I am also reminded of teen / soap opera / drama shows like 90210 or the OC, which seemed focused on teen issues of the day. It is very hard for me to believe that they have any value in America when I think of how ridiculous they are. But, this article is convincing, given the viewership and the addictive nature of the shows, that they do have value and power.

Submitted by Natalia on
Interesting analysis on the influence of the soap operas in our life and culture. Regardless of the status of the program it shows how important the content of it becomes in our daily life decisions. Thank you for sharing Amina

Submitted by fay moghtader on
the author mrs semlali,has depicted the role of these fictional soap operas quite extensively.she has covered every corner,from social aspects to political.very well written.one needs to also question the hidden intend of these shows to occupy the public,for some hrs to escape the reality of their lives.contrary,in the US we see these shows mostly during the day time,when most women and men are at work and the kids in school,because the intend is mostly to entertain the women who are at home and elderly,but in these countries,they are shown in evenings,when people are home and together.i was shocked in my last visit to iran,how these trivial shows has occupied the homes of so many of my friends and family,crossing all educational and social barriers.thank you again to mrs semlali for her thorough analysis.

Submitted by Ziad S on
Sure, perceptions can be changed through media. There are topics the people can gain more information about, like the article sais that there are better ways to help the poor.

All makes sense - the big question is to me are the GOVERNMENTS interested in it themselves? Do they try to reform this? Even if people would be more interested in subsidy reform is this something the people in charge would pursue? I'm not so sure.

Do you have any examples?

Submitted by Najuan on
Interesting piece indeed. We tend to criticize soap operas, especially those produced in the Arab world, claiming that they distract people's attention from their often harsh reality. However, their popularity could be leveraged to address critical social and political issues in the region. I am also curious to see whether the recent revolutions in the Arab world, will impact the content of these soap operas.

Submitted by Ali A on
I also read the other blog on subsidy reform and discussed with the author there in the blog. Interesting to use soap operas to educate about this. New to me but I like it. Something has to change and the poor need to be helped better. I will read the report that you mention on social safety nets. If I have any comments or questions I will write a comment for you and the other authors. Thank you all for having an open discussion.

Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I hope to respond to all of you - for those of you I unwittingly omitted, please forgive me.

Dear Andrea,
I agree, wouldn’t we feel better spending an hour in front of the TV if we knew we might be learning something! There are many interesting initiatives of non-profits, governments and international organizations teaming up with the entertainment industry globally. A couple of interesting examples: in Nicaragua non-profits worked with producers to introduce messages into the soaps aimed at changing cultural assumptions – mainly around domestic violence and in East Africa, USAID worked with soap producers to insert messages on HIV and tuberculosis. There are also nonprofits that focus on developing “edutainment” content only. They often say that the critical thing is that the narrative is around the characters in the story, rather that the educational message itself. After all it is the relationships that make the soap opera interesting and it is those relationships that will capture the eyes of the masses.

Dear Milad,
Many thanks for your very interesting comment and kind words. I can't help but smile as I read your comment about the “Naa! Nargees!!” how it was impossible to plan anything as the soap was so popular in your home, and across Iran. Yes, soap operas can indeed be an escape mechanism, especially in conflict affected areas and people struggling with everyday life. I once heard someone say that it is “psychotherapy via the soaps”! At least we can conclude that is provides a break from everyday chores. The Bollywood movies are indeed insanely popular across the whole Middle East. I was also told that in the 90ies Iranians used to tune in faithfully to a Japanese dubbed soap, “Oshin” about a hardworking woman who sacrificed all for her family. I never knew Japanese soap operas were popular in Iran. Thank you again for your insights.

Dear Teyve,
Thank you very much. Correct, media does indeed carry a critical role in contributing to positive attitudes and dissuade misleading stereotypes in society. I have seen some of the Mexican television shows you refer to. I agree it is very unfortunate when media reinforces and adds fire to negative social stereotypes. The power of media can indeed be used for good and for bad. On a good note, some of the Mexican television writers-producers have inspired the edutainment globally. I learnt that the Mexican writer-producer Miguel Sabido was the one that developed a framework of character types for edutainment soap operas. Three basic character types: positive, negative and “transitional” characters. The latter is the one the audience is meant to identify with. When the transitional character spends time with a good character she will be rewarded and the reverse when she hangs out with a bad character. This way the viewer will get an insight into consequences of certain behaviors. Sabido meant to encourage the viewer to think before acting etc. Are you familiar with Sabido’s edutainment soap operas? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks Teyve!

Dear Avid,
Thank you for your input. Very true that also in western society many taboos were first addressed through TV shows/soaps. Sensitive subject can be addressed more easily as it happens to a third fictional party. In Kenya for example the highly difficult and sensitive topic of “how to convey to your spouse that you are HIV infected” was addressed in a soap episode. In the Middle East there are many highly sensitive topics that soap operas could help shed light on. I am glad that some dramas have already began touching upon those areas a little bit (such as the Jordanians introducing the topic of honor killings into the story line). I agree, it is an underestimated sociological tool. Thank you for your input.

Dear Pip,
I am glad that you found the piece thought provoking. You are right; the soap operas can be very addictive to every walk of life. A lovely example of how engaged viewers can become is a late 60ies Peruvian telenovela that depicted the struggle of a farmer that struggled to learn to read and then become a designer. The soap became incredibly popular and when the lead heroine married (her literacy teacher) 10,000 avid fans put on their best Sunday outfits and gathered at the church where the scene was being shot with gifts for the “newlyweds.” A plus is that literacy classes also shot through the roof after the airing of the show. In fact, this show might have been the originator of “edutainment.”

Dear Fay,
Thank you for your kind comment. Your observation is correct, these soap operas tend to air in the evenings across the Middle East. Initially they aired during day time but because of their popularity moved into prime time when whole families can gather. With such a tremendous viewership (imagine 80 million tuning in for a single episode!) one can only hope that this opportunity is capitalized on and educational messages inserted. I am not surprised to hear that also in Iran people from all social and educational backgrounds gather to watch. Thank you again for your comment.

Dear Raghada,
Thank you for your comment. Yes the famous Turkish soap operas have indeed captured the hearts of the Arab world. It is fascinating to see how popular they are, I guess a lot has to do with familiarity. Turkish series carry certain cultural values that the Arab world can relate to – (in addition to juicy story lines of course). There are large numbers of Facebook fan pages, groups, wall paper downloads and You Tube videos, originating in the Arab world, honoring these Turkish soaps. The Turkish shows have been very bold when it comes to gender equality. Also, the heroine in one of the most popular soaps - “Noor” (which you may know) is fighting to establish herself in the workplace and create a career, which women across the Arab world have said that they felt inspired by. Yes, important messages can be disseminated in a very efficient way through this medium. Thank you for your feed-back.

Dear Yaa,
I am so glad you found the piece thought provoking. Thank you for your kind words.

Dear Elham,
I am very happy you found the piece relevant. Indeed, with the tremendous reach and popularity of the soap operas it is time to take them far more seriously in the Arab world.

Dear Clinton,
I am glad you found the idea of edutainment thought provoking. I agree with you, evening drama shows are indeed "soap operas in disguise." As you say, these types of shows can be very addictive - which also is a large part of its power. Soaps combine two of the most important elements of television art: suspense and continuity (in fact, in Arabic the word for soap opera is "musalsal," which literally means "chained, "continuous"). All that being said, l et's hope that more educational material is added to these shows -in the Arab world, the US --- and why not globally. Thank you for your comment.

Dear Natalia,
Thank you for taking the time to comment. I hope you will continue to follow our MENA blogs.

Dear Ziad,
Thank you for your comment. Yes indeed. A number of governments in the region are now either in the process of reforming subsidies or exploring ways of doing so. Jordan has actually done it recently and instituted a cash transfer program at the same time. There are ongoing discussions and plans in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco that you can follow in the news.

Submitted by Marsha Ershaghi Hames on
The concept Amina has touched upon is very much in alignment with the philosophy on behavior change we we use advisors in Corporate Governance, Culture & Leadership. As a management consultant there is a tremendous amount of research I've done around how impactful edu-tainment and storytelling can be in raising understanding and perspectives, ultimately allowing viewers to 'see themselves' in the story. Dramative narratives that are emotionally provocative, capture audiences and keep the conversation relevant. We have found this approach to be very effective with multinational organizations operating in emerging countries with challenges around local 'business culture'..where the grey lines of ethical decision making can arise. Very interesting to see the parallels of how this concept of edutainment is impacting and sometimes lifting the minds of hearts of people struggling through difficult country conflict and injustices. Nicely done Amina!

Thank you to Amina and Marsha for acknowledging the crucial role that entertainment media, particularly soap operas, can play in effecting social change. Our affiliate organization, the Population Media Center, has created radio and television soap operas in more than three dozens countries on a whole range of issues affecting gender equality and reproductive health in the developing world. Their pre- and post-testing results show conclusively that positive role models can raise public awareness and change attitudes and behaviors about domestic violence and other socially harmful practices. PMC's programming and methods have also addressed issues such as reforestation and sustainable farming practices.

Submitted by Linda Forsberg on
Another piece with an interesting and out-of-the-box perspective. I much appreciated you taking something average and possibly also misprized such as soaps. Your blogg upgrades the value as you show the potential of soaps to serve as a tool to build awareness and enhance motivation for change. Looking forward to your next contribution!

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