This was written by Zehra Rizavi and originally published on AltMuslimah.
An attractive Arab woman in her mid-30s, wearing a silver silk hijab and high-collared matching silver blouse, looks into the camera and says, “Recently, in Qatar there has been talk of providing sex education to the youth. Subjects [would] include dealing with sexual desires, homosexuality, relationship issues and sexual harassment.” The hostess then turns to the three women seated beside her and a candid discussion ensues, with the eldest of the four women throwing her hands up and saying with exasperation, “We’re uptight because we try to hide from children what is natural!”
Meanwhile, a group of working class Egyptian men lounge outside in the early evening in front of a small television fixed against the wall of a shop and watch this panel discussion. The elder men burrow their heads in their newspapers, only lifting their eyes occasionally to glance up at the television screen; the younger ones recline on rickety chairs and play board games, while smoking the hookah and keeping one ear trained on the program. Others still plant themselves directly in front of the small screen and listen intently. Nearly all offer a comment, at one point or another, resulting in a discussion that mirrors the enthusiasm and animation of the one taking place on the screen. “Things will only escalate that way. It’ll create chaos, we can’t have that!” says one young man, his hands gestures broad and quick, adding to the passion in his voice.
This is Kalam Nawaem, a sixty-minute talk show that airs every Sunday night on MBC, the first independent Arabic language satellite television station. Launched in 2002, Kalam Nawaem, or “Sweet Talk,” was inspired by the American TV show The View. This fearless all female show has been routinely described as intelligent, edgy and daring and perhaps this is precisely why tens of millions of loyal viewers across the Middle East and across the globe tune in each week. The four hostesses are all well-educated, well-read working mothers but the similarities end there; by design the show does not deliver one message with one voice and in order to stimulate debate on a variety of issues, the creators of the program selected women with different nationalities who perch on different points of the religious and political spectrum.
Saudi-born and raised Muna Abu Sulayman serves as the academic and the voice of reason on the show, usually offering facts and historical references to bolster her points of view. She is also seen as the most conservative of the group as she appears on each show wearing a hijab along with loose-fitting, long-sleeved, coordinated blouses. In fact, Abu Sulayman is the first Saudi woman on international satellite television to don a hijab. She shyly but proudly admits that Saudi women often approach her and gush, admitting that they consider her the representative of the otherwise enigmatic, veiled Saudi woman. Abu Sulayman even receives positive feedback from Muslim men who are pleased that she dresses modestly while appearing on TV.
Lebanese-born Rania Barghout and Frarah Besiso, who comes from the Palestinian territories, do not enjoy such a warm reception from many of the male viewers, who constitute 38 percent of the audience. Barghout began her career as a music show host, while Besiso first came into the public eye as an actress. Both women often dress provocatively by Muslim standards—sleeveless tops and short skirts— igniting criticism from many male viewers and some females as well, although their attire is tame by the norms which prevail in the Western world. Both confess that they are passionate, vociferous women who do not hold back. “I am very spontaneous. I say everything that comes to my mind,” says Barghout and then adds laughingly, “They edit me out!” Besiso opens up in a different way; she feels that she speaks though her personal experiences, not from a rigorous intellectual vantage point and, as a result, feels compelled to allow the audience into her private life, the source of her world views. Viewers have watched Besiso weep as her fiancé proposed to her on the program and have even been invited into the delivery room in the moments before Besiso went into labor.
Kalam Nawaem runs the gamut on religious, political and social issues, all pressing and highly sensitive. The women dish about inattentive husbands and marriage as well as confront contentious issues such as incest, infidelity or divorce. Prior to Kalam Nawaem, all other Middle Eastern television shows featuring women revolved around and remained confined to fluffy, inoffensive topics—hair, makeup, fashion and recipes.
The show has capitalized on the popularity of satellite television in the Middle East. Nearly half the women in the Arab world are illiterate and satellite TV programming, which primarily consists of news, music videos and reality shows, serves as their window into the wider world. Kalam Nawaem cleverly fills an intellectual vacuum by offering their viewers, particularly women, an opportunity to listen to sharp discussions on salient issues.
After one particular episode which spotlighted the climbing divorce rate in the Arab world and investigated the possible reasons behind the dissolution of marriages, working class women gather on the rooftop of a Cairo apartment building and continue the discussion. Reclining in lawn chairs, sewing needles in hand, they chat about this latest topic on Kalam Nawaem while keeping one eye on the children who dart along the rooftop in their games. Some lament that their husbands eagerly watch scantily clad women who appear in the music videos which inundate the airwaves, and suggest that such “wandering eyes” are the cause of the rising divorce rate, while others feel that Muslim couples should make their faith and its practice their primary goal and in doing so will cultivate happy marriages.
Prior to the satellite TV revolution, a show that so openly approached issues of such immediate relevance to so many would not have been possible. Before the advent of satellite dishes, Arab viewers depended on terrestrial state television—in other words, a handful of channels with strict government oversight of all programming. In the early 1990s, following the introduction of satellite dishes, the number of channels exponentially multiplied and independent transnational media began encouraging public discourse. Today one will find channels bypassing national borders and government control and censorship. Most are owned by for-profit corporations, funded by advertising and target consumers.
Such circumstances allowed Kalam Nawaem to flourish. Still, the program does have to submit to the scrutiny of a censorship committee which reviews the content, largely for obscenities or a glaring insensitive religious remark. The committee also insists on inviting a religious authority to offer his/her take when tackling a difficult or taboo subject. The producers abide by these rules not only because they are mandatory but also out of an instinct for self-preservation. The creators of the show are astute enough to recognize that if the program slips into an offensive, imbalanced, judgmental tone, the viewers will drop away.
So the creators and the hostesses of Kalam Nawaem make a conscientious effort to challenge, question and debate in a friendly and balanced manner. The show gears itself for the masses, not the liberal elite, and in doing so successfully reflects the opinions of the majority while respecting the minority.