Runtime: 6x 45 minute episodes
Director: Tima Shomali
Writers: Tima Shomali, Shirin Kamal and Islam Alshomali
Stars: Andria Tayeh, Noor Taher, Rakeen Sa’ad, Yara Mustafa, Joanna Arida, Salsabiela A., Nadera Emran
By Calum Cooper
Tima Shomali’s “AlRawabi School For Girls” (2021-) adopts the look and style of a teen drama miniseries in order to tell a compelling story and explore blistering themes. It’s a show that already sets itself apart with its Arabic setting, and focus on the teenage Arabic woman, a perspective that is still hugely underrepresented to this day. Yet it quickly sheds the disguise of genre familiarity it dons to deliver something that sends chills down your spine and provokes far more than just your thoughts. It is a singular show both from a storytelling and a production standpoint. It is one of 2021’s best, and most criminally underrated, shows.
“AlRawabi School For Girls” takes for its subject matter the often explored concept of high school bullying. Mariam (Andria Tayeh) is a studious, virtuous 17-year-old at an elite private girls’ school in Amman, Jordan. She considers school her happy place, minus one thorn in her side – Layan (Noor Taher). Layan is the queen bee of the school who, alongside her loyal clique, torments Mariam and others, while simultaneously using the authority of her important father to manipulate the faculty of the school itself.
Tensions between the girls boil over into a bloody conflict that leaves Mariam severely wounded and later ostracised by both the school and her family when Layan further frames her. Distraught by this gross lack of justice, Mariam decides to get revenge on Layan and her clique, recruiting fellow outcasts Noaf (Rakeen Sa’ad) and Dina (Yara Mustafa) to help her execute her plans. But as the story progresses, the initially clear cut roles of victim and bully become further and further interchangeable, and the consequences of the girls’ actions could hold potentially devastating results.
In interviews, show creator Tima Shomali (best known for her online comedy career) has stated the importance of having stories about women being told by women. This is a principle she acts on with “AlRawabi”. Not only is the vast majority of its cast female, with literally every leading role being female, but the majority of its crew is also female. Shomali directs and writes every episode, alongside co-writers Shirin Kamal and Islam Alshomali. Meanwhile, Rachel Aoun serves as lead cinematographer, Farah Karouta of “Under the Shadow” (2016), another Jordanian set story, serves as costume designer, and Rand Abdel Nour serves as production designer, among a plethora of other positions that are primarily held by women. In that sense, “AlRawabi” is a truly inclusive show, not just from its underrepresented choice of character perspective, but also in terms of truly embodying the female gaze in its approach.
“AlRawabi” is a truly inclusive show, not just from its underrepresented choice of character perspective, but also in terms of truly embodying the female gaze in its approach.”
Unfortunately, given the setting of the show, patriarchal attitudes and beliefs are something that cannot be entirely shaken off. The Arabic world, including Jordan, often has patriarchy, and even a hierarchical structuring of the sexes, ingrained into its every culture. Therefore even a show this predominantly female was never going to be able to escape the concept of patriarchy completely. However, this is part of the genius of the show. Unable to truly rid itself of patriarchy, “AlRawabi” instead portrays patriarchy, and particularly the oppressive nature of it on women, as a shadowy force of antagonism that both explains Layan’s aggressive behaviour and informs Mariam’s decision making when she finally chooses to exact revenge. This choice influences not only the key themes and narrative, but actively works to make the tone a rollercoaster ride of feeling in which you can be sad one minute, elated the next, and completely mortified the minute after that.
Empathy is the driving power behind any good story, and “AlRawabi” has this in abundance. Mariam’s character journey is one of the most fascinating and tightly written of any show in 2021, in how brilliantly realised and delicately layered it is. Here is someone who is confident, hard-working, and righteous. She is bubbly, kind, and intelligent, but not free of flaws or insecurity. An easy character to relate and empathise with; something enhanced by Andria Tayeh’s radiant and commanding portrayal. The heartache you feel for Mariam when she is on the receiving end of such abuse and injustice shatters your very soul at times. Yet the more she invests in her plans, and her tunnel-visioned hatred of Layan, the further she travels down the path of darkness . For Mariam is aware of her world’s patriarchal structure, and is quietly resistant to it. But, when given the opportunity to manipulate its oppressive ideology to her advantage, Mariam is willing to do whatever it takes to get even.
Balancing this out is Layan’s character journey, which has more than a few thematic and narrative parallels to Mariam’s. Where many teen dramas portray bullies as one dimensional obstacles for the heroine, Layan is equally, if not more, compelling. Even though she starts off as the familiar rule-flouting diva, Noor Taher’s effortlessly charismatic, even frightening, performance keeps us interested in her story. But as the show goes on, it becomes clear that her bullying ways are a response to the patriarchal mentality that her family, and by extension Arabic society, embodies. The authority of her father scares even the head teacher of the school, Ms Faten (Nadera Emran), so Layan’s actions could be interpreted as her way of resisting such male-dominated authority, or even achieving her own authority, something that is denied to her simply for being a woman in a patriarchal society.
As these parallel revelations come to light, the viewer’s empathy is extended and even tested repeatedly. As Mariam, Layan, and their respective cliques move away from their initial black and white roles into deeply grey territory, the idea of what justice looks like becomes harder and harder to pin down. We are taken through a hurricane of emotions as the story revels in the consequences of these girls’ actions. We start off with clear support for Mariam’s cause, only to become disenfranchised with her actions when they bode horrific ramifications. But then we remember why she was doing this in the first place when she is further bullied, and the cycle of uncertain, even messy, empathy starts all over again. As the forces of patriarchy start emerging and looming over these girls with increasing threat, it becomes clear that the show’s argument is how both of these girls, despite being foes, are victims of an oppressive societal structure that actively treats them as inferior, and ends up costing women their reputations, their moral compasses, and sometimes even their lives, all to appease the male need for control.
“It is a show that spellbinds in terms of representation, genre experimentation, and emotional strength. From its heartbreaking opening scene to its terrifying final shots, it does not set a foot wrong with its storytelling or its philosophy.”
Perhaps what is most powerful, and upsetting, about the show’s anti-patriarchal sentiments is how it argues that such societal beliefs can destroy the lives of even women as young as its characters. The craftsmanship and attention to detail in “AlRawabi” is a sight to behold with its riveting music, expert mise-en-scene, and evocative use of camerawork – particularly its impressive utilisation of close-ups and mid-shots to achieve feelings of intimacy and intimidation depending on which character is on screen, and what they are doing. However, its incorporation of the colour pink is particularly noteworthy. This is a colour commonly associated with young girls, and the colour is everywhere in “AlRawabi”. It’s on the school uniforms, on the walls, on the flags and among the props. Even the cinematography has a distinct pinkish tint to it, as if the show itself is expressing its story through the perspective of someone as young as its lead characters; another way of showcasing how trauma and patriarchy can rob even children of their innocence.
This makes its setting and overall themes on oppression, gender inequality, and the murkiness of revenge and personal justice all the more harrowing and impactful. If the actions of these girls were to have happened in a western environment, then there might be some harsh punishments, but the consequences would be nowhere near as potentially life-shattering as they are within the societal and cultural context the show takes place in. Whatever these girls have done to each other, they should not have to pay such a high cost for what is literally adolescent conflict. Yet under the patriarchy, an ideology that prioritises the authority of men and treats women as subservient commodities, those are the prices they may very well have to pay. In that sense, Shomali and her team weaponise the tropes and familiarity of the show’s genre to convey some difficult and hard-hitting messages.
Ultimately “AlRawabi” asks questions that are nerve-wracking to answer – questions that its characters end up having to wrestle with too. Do you support Mariam or not? Do you sympathise with Layan or not? And do either of their feelings justify their actions? The fact that there is no clear cut answer to any of these questions is a testament to the show’s titanic emotional and thematic power. What is clear though is the way “AlRawabi” berates the patriarchy, and its use within Arabic society, as an oppressive, and destructive force that benefits no-one except the few. Through its brilliantly realised characters, its gripping ensemble cast, and its piano-wire tight screenwriting and direction, we have a show that is nail-biting, tragic, and, enormously empathetic; emotions that are only amplified as the story leaves behind its overtly pink YA roots and descends into something much, much darker.
“AlRawabi School For Girls” achieves all of this in the span of just six 45-minute episodes. It is a show that spellbinds in terms of representation, genre experimentation, and emotional strength. From its heartbreaking opening scene to its terrifying final shots, it does not set a foot wrong with its storytelling or its philosophy. Even if it doesn’t sound like your kind of miniseries, the sheer amount and admirable diversity of women amongst its cast and crew should still be worthy of celebration. For it is proof that when women of all backgrounds, nationalities, and beliefs are allowed to tell their stories unrestrained, we get something truly utterly special.
“AlRawabi School For Girls” is streaming now on Netflix