Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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A Girl called Zat: A Soap Opera which Depicts Multifaceted Aspects of Egyptian Society, Culture, Politics and Gender Dynamics from 1952 to 2011
Aliaa Dawoud

Last modified: 2017-12-05

Abstract


Zat – Arabic for self – is a unique historical Egyptian soap opera about a girl called Zat, who comes from a lower-middle class family. It is based on a novel by a leftist political activist. The soap opera enjoyed very wide viewership rates and was commended by intellectuals, because it was produced at a time when most Egyptian soap operas are more on the trivial and/or sensationalist side.

The soap opera begins with Zat’s birth on the eve of the 23rd of July ‘Revolution’ in which a group of young military officers overthrew the King in a bloodless coup d’etat, thereby using the reaction of Zat’s family and their friends and neighbors to convey how Egyptian society experienced this pivotal moment in Egyptian history. As Zat grows older and she and her family, neighbors, friends, classmates and later on her co-workers, go out about their daily lives, the same tactic is used throughout the soap opera to illustrate Egyptian society’s take on many other important historical events. These include the devastation and humiliation Egyptians felt when they were defeated by Israel in the 1967, war as well as the sense of pride and restoration of Egypt’s honor after Egypt ‘won’ the 1973 war with Israel. The soap opera also depicts the Egyptian people’s dismay and opposition to Sadat’s initiation of a peace agreement with Israel thereafter, which culminated in the assassination of Sadat.

Furthermore, the soap opera also clearly illustrates how a lower-middle class Egyptian family led a comfortable life in the 1950s and 1960s, due to the socialist policies of the ruling regime at the time. It also shows how women of Zat’s generation gained access to free education and were guaranteed employment by the government upon graduation, in contrast to the generation of Zat’s mother, in which most women dropped out of school at young age and for them, engaging in paid employment was out of the question.

When Zat eventually gets married and starts a family of her own, the soap opera illustrates how she – just like almost all women of her generation – were expected to continue to take full childrearing responsibilities and do all of the housework themselves, while simultaneously working full-time and contributing to the household budget. Zat’s husband does not help her out at all or even appreciate all of her undertakings and sacrifices, and Zat is clearly depicted as being exhausted and overwhelmed the whole time. Thus, the soap opera brings to life one of the main reasons why many women from the following generation, chose not to work.

The soap opera then goes on to depict the effect of the shift from a socialist to a capitalist economy on lower-middle income families. This shift was coupled with an economic crisis and consequently, Zat’s husband did what most men from his generation did; he moved to an oil-rich Arab country for a much better paying job, leaving Zat and their children behind. This part of the soap opera shows how materialistic Egyptian society became thereafter and it also depicts what it was like for an entire generation of Egyptians to grow up without a father, through the lives of Zat’s children.

Finally, the soap opera illustrates the blatant corruption of politicians during the Mubarak era, through Zat’s neighbor who, like many other opportunists, joins the ruling party, becomes an MP and embezzles large amounts of money. In response, one of Zat’s daughters – like many other young Egyptians – takes part in the 25th of January Revolution. This comes as a complete and utter shock to Zat, who did not participate in any on campus demonstrations during the interwar period, while she was an undergraduate student, because she deemed it as inappropriate for a woman to do so.

Therefore, I think this topic will interest an interdisciplinary group of scholars because it is about a soap opera that was widely viewed in Egypt and the Arab world at large. In addition, it touches upon many pivotal moments in Middle Eastern history and politics, and it also provides some contextual explanations for the disturbing status of Egyptian women.

 


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