I am watching Genius (National Geographic) on iTunes. It tails a young Einstein in the years leading to his Nobel Prize. You would think the most startling revelation is that Einstein was a charming, carefree & funny young lad. Or, that I am finally understanding that the Theory of Relativity & the Time-Space Continuum are more than mere phrases uttered by dreamy Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) in Quantum Leap during the early 90’s.
But in fact, what I have found most startling is that the series is very much about male chauvinism & the exploitation of women. And I don’t mean it in a rhetorical or intellectual way; I mean it in the very basic, daily, heedless, surmising way.
It turns out that not unlike the biographies of other great men, including, you know, Jesus & the Prophet Mohammad; the series is a shout-out & hat-tip to all the women who’s shoulders Einstein weighed on. It is his mother’s family who paid for his education, his coming-of-age frolics with a young teacher who helped him pass his university entrance exam; & his first love / colleague / only female classmate / later first wife, who contributed (intellectually if not also practically) to the articles that came to form the foundation of modern Physics.
Her name was Mileva Maric & why we don’t study her as a fallen hero of her time is mind boggling to me. She is an inspirational figure for women’s education as much as she is a cautionary tale for ‘early marriage’ – & more crassly – for unprotected sex! Seriously. If I was building the hypothetical curriculum for Sex Ed, I most certainly would reference the tragic story of Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein’s first child. While it was the cause of some trepidation that slightly swerved Einstein’s early career; it derailed her potential contribution to the study of physics and humanity in general, and had immense consequences on her life.
Sadly, here is where we arrive at current Arabic TV content. Genius transcends time & space, & brings us to the present day Arab region by way of its commentary on gender inequality in turn of the twentieth century Europe.
In the here and now, there are those of us who are lucky to be free & empowered Arab women. But this is normally either because we have been ‘allowed’ or ‘permitted’ by the powers that be, or, because recent sizeable sacrifices have been made for that freedom & empowerment to be gained. Probably the sacrifice was made by some woman be it you, your mother, grandmother or indeed sister. Sacrifices as token as taking the backlash of standing up to a parent, or as monumental as escaping brutality.
Now, there is some TV content (good, great, some quite bad) documenting tragedies & hardships of Arab women (Nelly Karim has made it her job to take on these roles & has been consequently bearing the brunt for it). But complex, aspirational TV with women in great supporting roles, let alone a leading ones, are really hard to come by on our TV screens. Women who pushed men to their success, women who made their own mark of success – these women’s story remaining untold is really a huge disservice to us. Women who inspire and wow us with their strength, courage & wit – where are they on our small screens?
Women like the heroines of May Masri’s film 3000 Nights (played by Maisa Abdel Hadi), of I am Nojoom Aged 10 & Divorced (by Khadija Al Salami), of Amr Salama’s Asmaa (played by Hend Sabri) of Mohammad Diab’s 678, or Yousri Nasrallah’s Scheherazade Tell me a Story, or or or….the list of Arab film heroines is becoming quite extensive & wonderfully so but there is no transferral to dramatic serial storytelling. That is a real travesty since these aspirational role models – or reversibly – these cautionary tales, remain sights for the sore eyes of the few who access Arabic films, especially independent ones. In the mean time, in the confines of watching at home, the majority are constrained to a binary question of femininity, womanhood in the Arab world: do you choose dolled up, way up or drabbed down, to the gutter down?
The lack of visibility & representation of solid, complex & real women’s tales, let alone inspiring ones, on the small screen is problematic on many levels; no less so because it begs the notions of access & class, & suggests the patriarchal lie that gender equality is a topic for the privileged.
The calamity is also that it perpetuates an absence & omission of truths that have occurred or are occurring to half of us in what is still the most mainstream of our media & the most common form of contemporary storytelling. We are being untold, unwritten, unseen. A truly dangerous thing: without being spoken of, written about or watched, we are absent from the narrative that is being consumed & regurgitated to form opinions, shapes ideas & bridges perspectives of young minds & old, men & women, across countries, sects and creeds.
Had I not been able to access or afford iTunes, had I not been an English speaker – I would not have watched Genius & found out that the most popular scientist in the world scored grades in Math & Physics second to a woman that he would later love and leave. Truly, that would have been a real pity because without it I’d have been stripped of the joy of better understanding Einstein, physics & even the Theory of Relativity!