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Taboo-breaking Syrian soap causes Ramadan stir

A Syrian soap opera that tackles such taboos as homosexuality, corruption and extra-marital sex in the predominantly conservative Muslim country is proving hugely popular during Ramadan.

The TV drama "Ma Malakat Aymanukum," which takes its name from a verse in the Koran that loosely translates as "What your right hand possesses," depicts the lives of young women struggling to cope in a male chauvinist society.

Leila, who wears the Islamic niqab, or full-face veil, is torn between virtue and vice. She eventually gets murdered and her body is found mutilated.

Alia ends up selling herself to help her family, while Gharam's husband encourages his wife to forge ties with men in high places.

The programme is being aired for the first time during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when many families spend the evening watching television after iftar, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast.

But far from avoiding religious subjects, the soap opera confronts them head on, denouncing suicide attacks and satirising the power of Muslim clerics - some of whom give religious classes to women while intruding on their private lives.

Nor is it sparing on violence, with scenes of stabbing and physical abuse.

One episode shows Leila's fundamentalist brother beating his sister and her friend, despite outwardly condemning such behaviour by others.

In another, Leila is whipped on the orders of the Sheikh for having a sexual liaison.

But there are tender moments too, as when she meets her lover in a disused apartment and lifts her veil, revealing long black hair.

The serial has been controversial as much for the subjects it tackles, and the religious and sexual taboos it challenges, as for the relatively startling scenes and explicit dialogue.

"It is a soap opera that damages Islam. It shows that veiled women get punished," said Motassem, a 30-year-old technician.

But many Syrians are delighted by the new programme.

"It is rare to show such daring scenes on Syrian television," said Rouba, 50, a dermatologist.

"The question I asked myself during the first few episodes was, is this really a Syrian programme?" said Najiba, a teacher. She particularly appreciated the way it exposed what she called a society "dominated by money and hypocrisy."

That is exactly what the series aims to do, said its director Najdat Anzur.

He says he wants "to shed light on the negative aspects" of society, like oppressive religious attitudes, corruption and violence.

"My role is to offer a forum for the moderates," Anzur added, rejecting the accusations that he is undermining Islam.

"We are tackling taboos. It's not the clothes we're interested in, but human behaviour," he told AFP.

Fayez, a 50-year-old journalist, agreed. It is a work that "defends moderation" and "denounces the rise of extremism," he said.

The director said religious critics, who include well-known Damascus cleric Sheikh Said Ramadan al-Buti, have even preached sermons urging Muslims to boycott the show and calling for it to be banned on Arabic TV networks.

Sheikh Buti, who added his voice to those calling for it to be suspended, accused Anzur of committing "gross errors" and of choosing the title of his series in order to ridicule the Koran.

The Koranic verse used for the title refers to slaves, or to people under one's guardianship, and lays down rules on men having sex with such people, but its meaning is the subject of much debate among Muslims.

The programme is currently broadcast on the state-owned Syrian satellite channel and Lebanon's Al-Mustaqbal.

In Syria, which has a largely Muslim population but a secular constitution, the authorities encourage a moderate and apolitical form of Islam.

They recently ordered 1,200 teachers wearing the niqab to be transferred to other public sector jobs and banned the full-face veil in universities.