Debunking age-old stereotypes one theatrical move at a time.
The irony in my previous sentence will not be lost on those who have been following the plethora of reforms taking place at large, primarily in Saudi Arabia but also in the MENA region as a whole.
In December, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and Information announced that cinema theatres would be allowed to re-open in the country after over 35 years of ban. Cinemas were, for the longest time, viewed as culturally inappropriate for social encounters according to Saudi Arabian societal ethics.
In recent news, after having finally lifted the ban on women driving effective in June of this year, women in Saudi Arabia have also been allowed into sports stadiums in the country for the first time ever.
Moreover, after Saudi’s first Comic Con a few months ago, where all genders were allowed to mingle in a single public space, the country has been seeing reform after reform take place. A domino effect of sorts.
These changes have mainly been as a result of Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s determination to propel Saudi Arabia into modern society, a long overdue arrival.
For many, the successor to the thrown – after reigning King Salman - has been generating an almost unsettling amount of buzz and showing no signs of slowing down in his full-blown reformation plan.
As someone who grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia there were a lot of stressful situations that occurred as a result of stern laws and close-minded societal principles prior to any signs of reform. The simplest example was that cross gender mingling, even at high school age, was always a challenging feat. Only taking place in the confines of private estates, compounds or of course at school.
The reality of the matter is that for a country like Saudi Arabia, so far behind the rest of the world in terms of societal rules and regulations, a little change goes a very long way. Although many of these reforms have yet to be put to the test or actively practiced, what the Crown Prince is in fact succeeding in doing is sending a firm and obvious message to his public and to the world.
The idea is to prepare people for progression. In many cases this psychological or even metaphorical affirmation that change is on its way, is more than enough to cultivate a generation of youth that are consciously open to experiencing and practicing new ideals.
Currently, I reside in Cairo, Egypt. A few months ago in September of 2017, a film festival took place in the Red Sea costal town of El Gouna. The festival marked a monumental and significant comeback for Egypt’s once notorious Film and Theatre scene. Egyptian cinema was once one of the most widely respected industries in the region, creating black and white movies that are referred to as Arab cinematic classics to this day. Egypt had dropped its role temporarily as an arts and culture hub in the MENA region, however the El Gouna Film Festival brought back an age of glamour and opulence through a week of celebrating our heritage. Reviving an industry that this country was once celebrated for.
Yet another example of progression and revolutionary change in the region is Dubai’s role in growing and shedding light on the fashion industry in the MENA. The city has recently been referred to as the fashion capital of the MENA region, creating the Dubai Design District, hosting prominent shows such as Fashion Forward Dubai and lifestyle events such as Sole DXB; Dubai is viewed as the Paris, London or New York of the MENA.
Saudi Arabia, having been stagnant for years, is attracting a lot of attention for these evidently controversial changes to the social and cultural norms of the country. However, it is arguable for those paying close attention, to note that the MENA as a whole is strapping in and driving straight and fast into a brighter and more modernized future.
As a region, setbacks such as poor women’s rights and false cultural stereotypes have for many decades, stifled growth and development in cities that have so much potential.
Whether it be Jeddah, Cairo, Dubai or wherever else, reform is never a bad thing and instigating change undoubtedly creates debate, but it also allows for the cultivation of hope and optimism.
In the case of Saudi Arabia in specific, lasting change and evident differences will take time to truly appear. However, in order to prepare a society that has been living a certain way since its inception, a ripple effect needs to be activated.
One tiny reform at a time.
Written for The Independent UK.
Monday 12 February 2018 12:30 GMT