BEIRUT — In a new Syrian soap opera, a beautiful green-eyed young woman named Layla is torn over whether to take off the niqab, the billowing black Islamic garb that hides every part of her except her eyes.
"I cannot take this pressure anymore," she says in one episode. "I want to take off the veil."
Terra Incognita: Veiled nonsense
Unveiling the Islamic sisterhood
But her rebelliousness has unintended consequences: She is shunned by society, her mother refuses to take her calls and her brother plots her death.
The 30-episode drama, aired on state TV during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, has sparked intense debate in this Arab nation of 22 million, which is ruled by a secular, authoritarian regime that has clamped down on Islamic extremism in the past.
The series, titled "Ma Malakat Aymanukum," Arabic for "what your right hand possesses," has drawn furious calls from critics who say it distorts Islam's image and praise from others who say it is a realistic portrayal of a sometimes hypocritical Muslim society. The title is a phrase from the Koran referring to female slaves and concubines.
The controversy illuminates a fundamental discord within Syria, which supports Islamic groups like Hamas and Hizbullah in their fight against Israel but maintains strict secularism at home. In July, the government banned students and teachers from wearing the niqab in order to protect Syria's secular identity.
The show's director, Syria's most renowned film and TV soap opera director Najdat Anzour, defended the new series, which he said is based on a true story.
"The show presents the idea of religion as a double-edged weapon. If religion is not taken correctly, it could be easily exploited by certain groups to separate members of the same community and create hostility and sectarian violence," Anzour told The Associated press.
"It does not aim at reflecting negative aspects of Arab society, but to portray a panoramic drama of an Arab society that is eroding from the inside," he said.
The series also touches on sensitive issues such as prostitution, extramarital sex and terrorism.
Layla's brother, a bearded sheik, pretends to be a devout man while in fact he has an adulterous affair with a school girl. He plots to kill his sister and eventually becomes a jihadist who blows up civilians in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Alia, another main character, loses her virginity, throwing her into fear and guilt until eventually she decides to undergo a surgical procedure that would restore her hymen.
Syria's regime has a strong interest in promoting a secular identity: It wants to dampen sectarian tensions in a country with a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam.
Four decades of secular rule under the Baath Party — a socialist party founded by a Christian politician in the 20th century — have largely muted sectarian differences in Syria. Also, the state is quick to quash any dissent. In the 1980s: Syria's military killed thousands in crushing a bloody campaign by Sunni militants to topple the regime of then-President Hafez Assad.
Syria has long been viewed by the US as a potentially destabilizing force in the Mideast. An ally of Iran and Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.
But the country is now trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The US has reached out to Syria this year in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas.
Anzour's series — which can be seen across the Arab world on Syria's state satellite channel or a Lebanese channel also airing it — has provoked an onslaught of criticism, including on online forums often used by Muslim extremists.
A prominent Syrian Muslim scholar, Sheik Mohammad Saeed al-Bouty, professor of Islamic law at Damascus University, warned of "a firestorm of Godly wrath" if the series continues to be broadcast.
And some in the public have been offended.
"They must halt 'What Your Right Hand Possesses' immediately because it mocks Islam and presents Muslims as terrorists," said Marwan Halabi, who operates a supermarket in Damascus. "I stopped watching it (the series) because I got angry over the way they are portraying our people."
Other viewers praised the show as realistic, saying they were hooked.
"Our society is full of sexual taboos and social and religious
restrictions. Society is full of secret prostitution. We must be aware
of that and drama is the best place to deal with these issues to warn
people," ''said Mohannad Olabi, a 27-year-old computer technician.
Anzour acknowledges that the series scratches at sensitivities but says
it is the reason for its success. He also denied that his work targets
niqab-wearing or veiled women.
"My mother wears a veil ... This is very natural and instinctive, but
the unnatural thing is to exploit this issue to achieve political
projects," he said.
Anzour's projects have sparked controversy in the past. In 2005, he
received death threats and was described as an infidel after TV series
"Al-Hour Al-Ayn," or "Beautiful Maidens," told of Islamists who want to
carry out suicide bombings so they can collect their rewards in heaven —
72 beautiful virgins.