Every now and then, the BBC still gets something right.
Watching Syrian School on BBC 4 again last night, I was thrilled to see the documentary tear through Western stereotypes of Arab culture, especially when it comes to young women. Originally aired in 2010, and therefore filmed before the recent uprisings and turmoil, the series follows pupils in four different schools in the capital, Damascus.
The film makes valid reference to the lack of political freedom and the prevalence of propaganda in education, providing us with a glimpse of the climate before the protests began in January, as well as to the strict Muslim inclinations of some teachers and families. But more overwhelming is the predominance of strong, virulent teenage characters, girls in particular. Though some wear the hijab, many do not, and many that do pair it with Western-style clothing – it is a personal choice. We meet girls who throw discus, girls who play basketball and travel the country with their team, girls who vent at length and with confidence about the politics of their country and the wider world, girls who defy their teachers and parents to write and perform rap music about the Palestinian struggle, girls who write poems about love and read them aloud at competitions while their proud fathers watch on, not to mention the extravagant head of the Zaki Al-Harsuzi girls-only school, Mrs Amal Hassan, clad in knee-length skirts, shoulder-padded jackets, and fantastical make-up.
It made me happy and proud to see young women with their heads screwed on like that, fighting against cultural norms, striving to be top of their game, whatever that may be. And it made me sad to think of teenage girls in this country, afflicted by princess-itis, crushed by conformity, oblivious to the oppressive nature of the inane and superficial pop culture, living and dying by the sword of X-Factor…
Where are you, girls? Say something.
While the ongoing revolt in Syria is clearly justified after many years of political repression, the Ba’athist government was (is) a secular one. I hope that these girls’ freedom of expression can be maintained in whatever regime comes to bear.
Watch last night’s episode of Syrian School on BBC iPlayer here (UK only, I’m afraid).
Find more information about the program, its contents, and the Syrian education system here.