TV series about the lives of high school girls are commonplace in the U.S., yet when Tima Shomali set out to create such a program in her native Jordan, it was such a shocking endeavor that a member of parliament requested it be blocked.
The series is called “AlRawabi School for Girls” and is available on Netflix in the U.S. now, after becoming a hit not only across the Middle East but topping the most-watched top 10 lists for Netflix in France, Latin America and more. Shomali, who has been called the “Tina Fey of the Arab World,” is just happy that the lives of teenage Jordanian girls are getting the airtime they deserve.
“AlRawabi has been an accumulation of years of stories that I wanted to tell, honestly,” Shomali says, over Zoom from her home in Jordan. “And the girls’ school was the perfect umbrella to tell these stories of these young girls.”
Shomali has had a long relationship with Netflix, ever since they launched in the Middle East, and had continuously pitched different ideas over the years but nothing ever quite took off.
“Sometimes you work a lot on pitching stuff and then it happens,” she says. “With the right project, I think it just happens.”
One day, finally, she was in Dubai having coffee with an executive who asked her what she was working on, and she told her about “AlRawabi.” By the time she got back to Jordan, the executive had written to her saying they wanted the show.
“And we had two pages, literally two pages,” Shomali says. “But the story was strong and I felt that she connected with this story as well.”
Since the show premiered in the Middle East, Shomali says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, although some have objected to the idea that young women experience sexual harassment, bullying or depression in Jordan, all things that the show’s characters face.
“We had a little bit of controversy with some people thinking, ‘oh, this doesn’t happen here, this doesn’t represent us,’ because honestly, the stories that we tackled in the show, it’s not been tackled before. Not in this way. We live in denial here,” Shomali says. “‘No, we don’t have sexual harassment. No, we don’t have mental illness. No, we don’t have bullying.’ And some of the parliament members went and asked for the show to stop airing, in the parliament.”
Shomali takes the backlash as a telling sign that she’s struck a nerve.
“All of this controversy for me is an indicator for the success the show made,” she says. “It shows the impact when women and young women who went out and actually told their stories in public after the show. Honestly, for me, this is what matters the most: opening a conversation, people talking. And parents sending me messages about that actually AlRawabi was a great way to stop after each episode and to have a dialogue with their kids.”
As for the parliament member, their pushback turned into a rallying cry for women to speak out and share stories of experiences they’d had that are akin to ones in the show, of sexual harassment, bullying etc.
“If you see the videos, [women] were like, ‘This represents us. This is us. This is actually us. This is the thing that we most relate to.’ It was like a movement,” Shomali says. “There was a movement of women talking, going online and talking about their own experiences with bullying, with and mental illness. Because in this region, mental illness is taboo. All of these topics could happen to a girl on a normal day in Jordan or in this region. So for me, the reception was great because it actually opened a conversation. And that’s the point of anything we do.”
Shomali has always wanted to be a filmmaker, and has carved out a career for herself despite resistance. She earned a BA in Business Administration and Finance and received an MFA scholarship from The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, an initiative between King Abdullah of Jordan, Steven Spielberg and USC operated in Jordan. She initially garnered attention as the first female comedian from Jordan with a YouTube show — something her family was hesitant about.
“I don’t come from a very conservative family, but when I first started my journey online, it was the beginning of YouTube and I did my own woman show, and I started doing experiments and did sketches about sexual harassment and stuff. And it was new, the internet and YouTube. And then, I had a family intervention, not from my actual [core] members of the family, but from [other] relatives, that they needed me to stop,” she says. “I had to face first the society who were saying I didn’t represent them and that I shouldn’t say this stuff, and secondly, my own circle who was fighting me, saying that I needed to stop.”
Luckily for audiences, she pressed forward, and her show’s success is all the validation she could ever need. Now she hopes viewers in the U.S. will fall in love with her show just as the rest of the world has.
“Any filmmaker’s dream is for stories to be heard and exposed to the most people possible. And to be honest, that wasn’t available before,” she says. “Now, Netflix gave us a platform and the opportunity for us as filmmakers to have their stories travel around the world. Of course, the story needs to be really good and the show needs to be good in order to travel. And after all, regardless of the different lives everyone leads, we are all humans. So we can connect with people on a human level. And for me, that is ‘AlRawabi School for Girls.’”