AlRawabi School for Mean Girls

AlRawabi School for Girls (2021) had all the making of a teenaged school drama— bullies, toxic environment for young women, lies, scandals, and rich parents— and yet it steered clear from the obvious stereotypes to tell a story as old as time. Including a refreshing angle of empathy, over 6 episodes, the series sparks debates on violence against women, religion, bullying, honour and tradition, psychological issues, and retribution. With each incident, you’re constantly thinking of the consequences of actions; how far can you go to make a point and where does it all end?

For an outsider, this new miniseries on Netflix could easily confuse you for a ’21 edition of Mean Girls (2004) - three bullies, who rule the school, are taken on by two normies and a new kid, and what follows. Despite the similarities, AlRawabi School for Girls (ARSG) is nothing like the film. For one, ARSG is set in Jordan; a country at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa. The school itself is a blend of conservatism and liberalism; I was reminded of my super-aggressive, conservative convent school through each episode, especially the one where the students are taken on a school trip and how they are blamed for everything, including things they are not responsible for. It’s another story that ARSG does not sugarcoat anything like Mean Girls, and the lack of a narratorial voice allows you to feel differently, each time some character is in deep shit (which happens more often than you’d like).

Layan (Noor Taher), Rania (Joanna Arida), and Ruqayya (Salsabiela A) have personally victimized the students and the staff of AlRawabi School and managed to get out scot-free due to the influence Layan’s dad has on the school and its working. A lot of background was lost on me due to the language (I watched the English-translated show with the subtitles on). It’s unclear whether Layan’s dad is a senior official with the judiciary, government, or if he is some industrialist, or perhaps the makers intended for it to be that way; we know he’s important and he can make or break things, including the prestigious AlRawabi School if his daughter’s misdoings are reported to the family.

In the pilot, Layan and her friends bully their classmates Mariam (Andria Tayeh) and her best friend Dina (Yara Mustafa) in the bus and are reported by Mariam to the headmistress Ms. Faten (Nadera Emran) for skipping school. Layan is summoned to the authorities for questioning and while she manages to absolve herself out, she and her friends beat Mariam brutally and leave her wounded to punish her for ratting out Layan, all of which is witnessed by the new student Noaf (Rakeen Sa'ad). During the investigation on tracking Mariam's mysterious attacker, Layan lies to the school in front of the parents on how Mariam sexually assaulted her and started the physical fight, only to hit back at Mariam in self-defense. The students are all terrified to reveal the real story of Layan's constant bullying and side with her to save themselves, this includes Noaf, who wants to stay out of trouble. Mariam is suspended for two weeks and pushed into therapy for her lying and anger issues where she’s prescribed pills to control her temper and encouraged to write in the journal.

This premise leads to back and forth of the ugliest possible battle between the girls of AlRawabi School, which can scandalize the living daylights out of you. Perhaps it’s been far too long since I attended school or perhaps, I swore to myself to get out of trouble after, or perhaps it's the writing, that the whole series left me unsettled, at the edge of my seat, chewing my nails. Co-creators Tima Shomali and Shirin Kamal have written a worthy contender to Gossip Girls (2007-2012), without the sex, and fit for audiences across all age groups. Throughout the series, I was ridden with anxiety on who’s going to pay for all the actions that have been constantly going down like a ping-pong game between Layan and Mariam.

What stands out in AlRawabi School For Girls is the title itself that points the attention towards it— all the actions and their consequences are borne by the women in the show. The male counterparts, for all their invisibility within the series and the lives of these women, are the ones constantly controlling the dynamics and these equations. In an episode, a girl’s image without her headscarf is released shared by her partner publically, and posted on her Facebook account through a phishing attack. To an ordinary person, including you and I, nothing is wrong with the photograph— a frontal with clothes on—but to the family of the girl, it is big disgrace that she has brought upon the family. She’s likened to a broken vase that serves no purpose to anyone anymore for she let herself out. In another episode, an old man gropes a school kid and gets away only for the kid to be blamed for attracting the attention of the man by wearing provocative clothes in the pool (a swimsuit that covered her). The males in the world of ARSG occupy the centre stage; for all the liberal permissions of keeping a phone or wearing skirts and for singing how high they soar, they are one step away from getting lynched by society for taking a toe out of the line.

This brings me to talk about the last episode of ARSG and the possible endings it could have had, since it didn’t utter a word or show visuals of what actually goes down, past the gunpoint. Revenge is a dish served cold, you’ll still wonder if it counts as revenge since it was an act of honour killing, and not one between the women. While the last laugh is had between one of the two girls, it is entirely possible that the act of bullying has more than one connotation here in the show, and that makes this a powerful retelling of a high school drama. Netflix got something right, after all.

A tip of the hat to the casting agent and the actors in the show for their performance. You are filled with pure rage each time an act of revenge is extracted and then filled with disgust to deal with the consequences; the range of emotions displayed in each episode by the performers is all too real and they have all given their heart and soul to the show. For most part, the screenplay is lucid, except instances where things have gone above my head (Mariam’s mom searching her room? Mariam-Yazan-Dina plotline? The relationship between Layan’s dad and Ms. Faten?) and I best believe it is the case of lost in translation.

If you’re looking for an angsty day’s watch, switch to AlRawabi School for Girls; you’ll be grateful that you’re out of school and yet want to binge watch the hell out of this for it doesn’t leave any consequences for you to deal with.

The series is available for streaming on Netflix in India.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.