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Soap opera upends traditional Arab gender roles

CAIRO, Egypt –  A relative newcomer to Arab TV, the Turkish soap opera "Noor" has helped narrow the gender gap between men and women across the Middle East.

Women see the lead female character – the independent, aspiring fashion designer Noor -- as a role model. Meantime, her husband on the show -- the blue-eyed former model and athlete Mohannad -- has become the region's first pin-up boy.

The nightly soap opera has mainly female viewers glued to their TV sets not only because Mohannad is a cuter version of Justin Timberlake, but because he offers something many lack in their lives: romance, tenderness and a supportive partner to his independent wife. Mohannad has become the standard against which many Arab men are being judged, much to their chagrin. 

Image: A family watches the Turkish soap opera "Noor"
Susan Baaghil / Reuters
A family watches the Turkish soap opera "Noor" in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday. 

Too much to live up to
According to Arab newspapers, marriages in Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia have dissolved because wives insisted on putting Mohannad's picture on their mobile phone display, or on their bedroom wall. In Bahrain, a woman allegedly begged her husband to have plastic surgery to look like the actor. Another recent divorcee allegedly told her husband "I want to sleep with Mohannad one night and then die." 

In Saudi Arabia, where about one in seven people tunes in each night, men circulated the rumor that Kivanc Tatlitug, the actor who plays Mohannad, is gay, which left female viewers distraught until the rumor was dispelled. 

Saudi society abounds with Mohannad jokes such as this one: A Saudi woman was touring Turkey with her husband and son when her husband went missing. As she described him to the police, her son shouted, "But that's not what Daddy looks like." "Be quiet," she whispers, "They might just give me Mohannad."

Image: Palestinian women walk past T-shirts
Muhammed Muheisen / AP
Palestinian women walk past T-shirts with pictures showing the lead characters of Turkish TV soap opera "Noor,"  in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on Sunday, July 20.

"Mohannad" and "Noor" are now the hottest babies' names in Saudi – even though the religious establishment has condemned the show. A top Saudi cleric forbade viewers from watching the "malicious" soap operas that "corrupt and spread vice" and has also declared that any TV station airing them is against God. This has put Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC), which airs the show three times a day, at loggerheads with Saudi religious leaders.

Saudi clerics may have an uphill battle: The Turkish serial has so wooed Saudis with its scenic backdrops of the Bosporus, and green, clean vistas of Istanbul that Turkish tourism officials say it has caused Saudi tourism to the country to more than double. 

The series has not only made Saudi women aware of the failings of their partners, but the advantages engendered by a more liberal, tolerant Islamic society such as Turkey. 

"It is eye opening for Saudi women. They haven't seen such a sensitive, passionate, giving personality," explained Dr. Fawzaya Abu Khalid, a writer and women's activist based in Riyadh.

For many women, the show has opened a whole new world and a lot of men aren't happy about it. "Men feel threatened. It is the first time women have a role model for male beauty and passion and can compare him with their husbands," said Abu Khalid. "It is the first time they found out their husbands are not nice, that they are not being treated the way they should be, and that there is an option outside." 

Glued to TV across the region
Filled with scheming relatives, corny romantic scenes, melodramatic acting and amateurish effects, the sequence bombed in its native Turkey, but found new life among Arab women of all ages from Riyadh to the West Bank, when MBC began airing a dubbed Arabic version four months ago.

Reem, a young Saudi businesswoman who prefers to use her first name only, was introduced to the show by her nieces, ages seven and eight. Reem explained the show's allure. "Romance is not here, living in a dry desert. Saudi women are missing something in their lives, in the treatment in the family, the wife with her husband and the husband with his wife. What I see from my female customers is that they are attracted by the love and romance and the way the man is treating the woman." 

And in east Jerusalem, every night at 10 p.m., the streets are suddenly empty – everyone is glued to the TV watching "Noor" there, too.

Bakiza, the matriarch of a large household in Jerusalem's Old City, surrounds herself every night with her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. They each take something different from the show. "I admire the story of Mohannad and Noor because of what it shows about how a family should be," said Bakiza. "The grandfather, Fikhry, is the one who takes care of the whole family, decides everything, and solves all the problems. Everyone respects him."

Malouk, a 15-year-old niece of Bakiza, has her own reason for watching the show. "I can only watch it because of Mohannad. He is handsome, romantic, and takes care of his wife. In fact, he is better than his wife."

The popularity of the series goes beyond the family room. It is also a business success story in the local communities. Restaurants, coffee shops, and clothing stores, proudly display posters of the couple in their windows to attract business. In Ramallah, nargila cafes (where water pipes are smoked), have their TV sets tuned for the channel of the series, to keep the customers there.

Even small children are onto the show and are making purchases based on the series' merchandising. Haitham al-Halak, 45, a grocer in the Old City, says, "I was surprised how children from 6 to 15 years old, are buying from me only the potato chips with their pictures on it!"  said Haitham al-Halak, 45, a grocer in the Jerusalem's Old City.

A positive role model for women
To some young women, the aspiring fashion designer Noor, provides a positive female role model and encourages them to raise the bar not only on future spouses but on themselves. 

In Cairo, Na'ama Hegazy, a single 25-year-old, watches "Noor" three times a day and says it has influenced the way she sees her future.  

"I want a romantic [man] who treats me like how Mohannad treats his wife. Every day he brings her flowers and tells her romantic words," said Hegazy. "The life will be very good when a husband treats his wife [like that]."

But Hegazy also wants to emulate Noor who is a both a good wife and mother, and a self-reliant professional. "When she has troubles with Mohannad, she wants to him to leave her alone. She wants to work and doesn't want anything from him. This means any woman who falls out with her husband can work and depend on herself."     

NBC News' Lawahez Jabari contributed to this report from Jerusalem.