Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Traveling Soap Operas, Brazil to Kyrgyzstan: Meaning-Making and Images of the "Muslim Woman"

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Traveling Soap Operas, Brazil to Kyrgyzstan: Meaning-Making and Images of the "Muslim Woman"

Article excerpt


This paper focuses on one soap opera with global resonance, the Brazilian telenovela Clone, and its reception among an unexpected audience in the post-Soviet country of Kyrgyzstan. Set in Morocco and Brazil, the program's attraction stems largely from its appealing platitudes: Clone places classic and heavily gendered images of the Muslim East in stark contrast to those of a free and uninhibited West. Its trans-generational popularity in Kyrgyzstan, a country with a majority Muslim population, raises interesting questions about how ideas and resources flow, take root, and connect. Drawing from long-term fieldwork, this paper presents Clone and its imagery, the current socio-political milieu in Kyrgyzstan, and active processes of interpretation, identity forming, and meaning-making by diverse women viewers. The study contributes to a growing body of literature that explores how research situated in local sites can be profitably placed in a transnational or "global" perspective and provide a powerful tool for exposing multiple modernities and global interconnectedness.

Keywords: transnational flows, Islam, popular culture, Kyrgyzstan


In mid-2005, I sat in a large family home in central Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with a mother, her two daughters, and other young relatives, mesmerized by an odd me1ange of pictures from distinctly Latin American and Middle Eastern locations. We were witness to a barrage of images of camels and water pipes, women wrapped in restrictive veils and belly dancing, enraged men, stolen moments of romance, and emblematic double helixes. These images comprised an advertisement for what had become a sudden craze in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in the world: the Brazilian telenovela, entitled O Clone, or the clone.

Clone's creators, as Julie McBrien has noted (2007a), objectified places, lifestyles, characters, and communities, presenting "modern" Brazil and "traditional" Morocco as two worlds, fundamentally different from, as well as mutually--and tragically--enamored with, one another. Through text and visual imagery, they offered a reductivist portrayal of Muslims and Muslim life, "especially regarding issues of gender and female sequestering" in the other/East (ibid.: 16). In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, diverse audience members did not passively view the show, but engaged actively in unpacking its materials. Their various interpretations of the imagery and narrative of the telenovela undoubtedly departed from those imagined or intended by the program's creators.

This paper builds upon McBrien's thoughtful examination of these processes as well as other work on gender, generational change, and globalization in post-Soviet Central Asia (Kuehnast 1998). My aim is to explore the on-going formulation of multiple ideas about "being Muslim," while bringing into focus gender and its entanglement with other facets of social identity. Dealing with active processes of interpretation, identity formation, and meaning-making by viewers of Clone, my analysis is poised at the intersection of gender and globalization. I show how the telenovela came to serve as an unexpected resource for igniting and enhancing debates concerning the roles and responsibilities of different community members. Audience members in Kyrgyzstan utilized materials from the program as they constructed their own self-identities and made sense of their dynamic environments. By exploring viewers' engagements with the program, we can understand how, despite flamboyantly orientalist portrayals, media like Clone can factor into the widening and layering of perceptions about modernity and identity in contemporary, globalizing societies.

I draw heavily from participatory research in which I engaged in 2005 on women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid in Kyrgyzstan (Simpson 2009). During this period, I encountered many connections--and disconnects--fomented by flows of funding, ideas, and others resources across disparate sites around notions of "women," "women's empowerment," and the "global women's movement. …

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