Netflix’s latest Arabic original series has landed, shedding light on social and cultural topics rarely discussed through Arabic-language entertainment.
AlRawabi School for Girls, created by Tima Shomali and Shirin Kamal, is a six-episode limited series that follows a group of high-school girls in Amman, Jordan as they plan revenge on their school’s equivalent of the ‘Mean Girls’. Other Arabic-language Netflix originals released in recent years include Paranormal (Egypt), Abla Fahita (Egypt), and Jinn (Jordan).
Starring Andria Tayeh, Joanna Arida, Noor Taher, Rakeen Saad, Salsabiela and Yara Mustafa, this latest Netflix original manages to tell a compelling and thrilling contemporary tale that also provides important and timely commentary on bullying, women’s rights, psychology, religion, and relationships. That may sound like a lot, but for many young teens at school, these are just some of the everyday issues they silently battle all at once, often with little appropriate support.
Note to readers: the below contains minor spoilers for the show, especially for those who have not watched its trailers.
In the opening minutes of the show, which was first commissioned by Netflix in 2019, Mariam (Andria Tayeh) is lured by a mysterious text message to an abandoned field at her all-girl school. Mariam is suddenly attacked from behind, pushed to the ground, kicked and eventually has her head slammed into the dusty, concrete floor. As blood spills out of a wound on her head, her attackers flee, leaving Mariam unconscious.
For Mariam, as she narrates during the attack, school was her “happy place” – a place she loved going to everyday.
“I had lots of friends,” says Mariam as she’s being relentlessly kicked by her attackers. “Life was good. But not any more. Now, school is my nightmare.”
But this is not a mystery series. Following the opening sequence, the episode flashes back to two weeks earlier and it quickly becomes obvious who Mariam’s attackers were: Layan (Noor Al Taher), Rania (Joanna Arida) and Roqayya (Salsabiela).
The diverse trio, led by Layan, terrorise other girls, and even teaching and administrative staff, without thinking twice. This is aided by the fact that Layan can get away with almost anything as a result of her father being a powerful figure who the school relies on to remain operating: from skipping school to meet her older boyfriend to threatening to get a school janitor fired unless she followed her orders.
One of the incidents of malice and terror spearheaded by Layan occurs in a locker room after football practice. Layan pushes herself onto Mariam and then claims to have had her breasts been groped by Mariam. Rania and Roqayya, along with others, quickly back up Layan’s false claims and Mariam is branded as a “freak”.
Seeking swift revenge, Mariam informs the school principal that Layan had secretly hopped off the school bus to skip school. After just a slap on the wrist, Layan, Rania and Roqayya discover that it was Mariam who exposed Layan and lure Mariam to the empty field where she is attacked. During a school meeting for parents and students following the attack, Layan admits that she had hit Mariam, but argues it was self-defence: Mariam had first groped her in the locker room then tried to attack her at the abandoned field. Layan’s friends and classmates do not hesitate to support her, and Mariam quickly becomes an outcast who is sent to therapy by her parents for her alleged subversive behaviour.
From there, the show switches gears and Mariam eventually teams up with new girl Noaf (Rakeen Saad) and best friend Dina (Yara Mustafa) to hatch a plan to exact her revenge on the trio.
An important exploration of bullying and women in society
Throughout the revenge plot, the show’s writers explore the impacts of bullying on children and, briefly, even adults. In recent years, school violence and bullying has come under the microscope in Jordan and the wider Middle East. In Jordan, a 2018 study found that 34 percent of schoolchildren fear getting bullied at some point in their academic life. Meanwhile in Egypt, the Egyptian government recently criminalised bullying after a number of high profile cases. A UNICEF study found that 70 percent of Egyptian children aged 13-15 were victims of bullying, meanwhile a research paper published in 2019 reported that 77.8 percent of youths in rural Egypt experienced bullying.
In AlRawabi School for Girls, the impacts of bullying touch every character in different ways: from obvious bullying such as toxic gossip and malicious pranks to less apparent instances of bullying between siblings and between school administrative staff. Mariam, Noaf and Dina are not the only victims; in fact, the line between victim and bully is blurred a number of times throughout the show, shedding a light on the complex nature of bullying.
Yet, bullying isn’t the only major theme explored in AlRawabi School for Girls. Without depicting Jordan or its neighbours as ‘backward’ or simply ‘conservative’ (the way many Western shows portray Muslim-majority countries), AlRawabi School for Girls delves into the microaggressions, toxic masculinity, and societal expectations young women encounter in their communities in a way that is relatable for women ranging from both Jordan and across the world. This is executed in a number of creative, nuanced ways that are not overly obnoxious and is largely achieved thanks to the writers’ focus on character diversity. Each character in the show is unique in their upbringing, socio-economic status, and religiosity; yet many encounter the same underlying issues, albeit in different forms.
Were it not for the bullying, the viewer is left to wonder: could these girls actually be friends if they had the opportunity to openly discuss the issues they face at home and in society?
The success of the show’s exploration of bullying and women in society is also thanks to each cast member, who bring brilliant on-screen performances.
Andria captures the all-too-familiar anger, rage and confusion of a bullying victim and throughout the show smoothly portrays Mariam’s development into a cunning and calculated teenager who has had enough of bullying. Andria’s in-show friends Rakeen and Yara also stand out with their performances of an alternative, non-conformist and sulking newbie and a bubbly, light-hearted and slightly naive best friend.
Meanwhile, Noor manages to depict a realistic version of a modern day bully who at ease is able to switch from a charming young girl, adored by all, to a terrorising, cold-hearted bully. Noor’s co-conspirators Joanna and Salsabiela are also naturals in their roles of characters to Noor’s Layan with starkly different personality traits: Joanna’s Rania often showed hints of empathy and normally just followed along, while Salsabiela’s Roqayya played the role of the aggressor and instigator.
Importantly, AlRawabi School for Girls displays diversity rarely seen in Arab entertainment: few of the characters are alike in personality and appearance, yet none of the relationships depicted seem unnatural or out of the ordinary.
Having premiered in 32 languages across 190 countries, AlRawabi School for Girls is a must-watch for young and old Arabs and non-Arabs. The battles of the young teenagers are all too relevant and will spark important conversations and debates on societal and cultural issues. However, Arabs in particular may especially appreciate the show and its social and cultural nuances. While some Western critics and viewers of the show believe the show ended on a cliff-hanger, for Arabs the ending is clear.