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Why Are Muslim Women Obsessed With K-Dramas

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 30th May, 2024

*The opinions expressed in this piece are not a comprehensive verdict on South Korean society, but the experience and perceptions of those interviewed.

In South Korean culture, rules and social norms fasten the fraying threads of such a quickly developing society. Bow to your elders, follow the beauty standard and you’ll rise above the rest. Writers of the South-Korean dramatic universe have compacted this and the spontaneity of love into recognisable formulas for a committed TV audience: enemies to lovers, rags to rhinoplasty, first loves reuniting or love triangles where the second lead is the obviously better choice. From romantic rooftop confessions to class-defying couples, the Korean flair for story-telling remains unparalleled.

From the early K-drama Death Row Prisoner (1956), to the dozens of Korean shows released this year alone, South Korean rom-coms have become a globally beloved and recognisable genre. Picture this: a female protagonist waits on the side of the road as a car drives by through a puddle. The male love interest – 6 foot+, perfectly styled hair, pristine peacoat – manhandles her out of the way, using his own back to absorb the splash;  a classic image of melodrama and romance. While I could name at least four k-dramas where that scene has played out verbatim, the version that stands out in my memory is a parody of this image in 2016 drama Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo. In the moment we expect first lead Jung Joonhyung (Nam Joohyuk) to pull Bok Joo (Lee Sungkyung) from her heartsick reverie on a busy kerbside and protect her from a car’s backsplash, he pulls her into the line of fire – I mean, fountain – to protect himself. Either the global standard for romantic chivalry is rapidly declining or the genre has aged past classics into parodical self-awareness.

Whether or not Korean TV has quickly ridden hallyu, the ‘Korean culture wave’, through the peak of self-awareness into a state of meta regurgitation (is Strong Girl Nam Soon (2023) a sequel to Strong Girl Do Bong Soon (2017) or a tired remake?), we can be sure that demand has not waned. As much as Western media is convinced that Squid Game (2021) put South Korean TV on the map, I spoke to fans that attested to their long-standing connection with the genre.

Like the unexpected cultural pairing I decided to explore, lab technician Fizzah Qaiser, 25, happened upon her favourite shows stuck between an accidental duo of her own. Cut to 2016 in an east London college chemistry class, the Pakistani girl sat between two classmates: “The one to my right was trying to convince me to watch K-dramas and the classmate on my left was trying to convince me to watch anime.” With no second thought, young Fizzah turned to her right and made the choice to become a casual but consistent viewer.

Libyan Londoner, Sallma Khalifa, has dedicated a lot more time to the hobby since she first got started. The 27-year-old first watched the drama She Was Pretty (2015), starring international heartthrob Park SeoJoon, in one night and never turned back: “I was talking about it with a friend and I thought ‘Oh, let me just watch this and see if I like it.’

“I pulled an all-nighter to finish it and came to uni the next day raving about it to my friends and the rest is history. Now when I find out someone else watches k-dramas, I could talk for hours.”

And Fatima (@bluesformami) took to X, formerly Twitter, to sum up all our thoughts: “I understand why Muslim girls are obsessed with K-dramas, the tender and sweet build up of romance / tension between the mains is very halal core.”

Just as Fatima asserted, one cultural similarity is the innocence found in public intimacy. In a fast-paced world where our attempts at genuine connections are reduced to swipes, the reminder of innocent romance highlights a sore gap for many. Maybe even more so for Muslim women whose God-given rights demand far more from a partner than physical connection, but who have truly slim-pickings (prove me wrong and find me a man I’d marry, I dare you). Despite South Korean culture’s dialogue with global influences and catering more to the new generation’s progressive sensibilities, there are some vulgarities that just won’t fly in the streets of Seoul before sunset.

But K-dramas are not the only source of modest courtships, so the fascination runs deeper than that. In my own withering desire for representation, I wondered why so many Muslim women had flocked to this growing genre and what role they had played in popularising it. Confucianism, the bedrock of Korean tradition, is based on ancestor-worship and filial piety over everything, which directly opposes Islamic tawhid. That being said, the superficial expression of Confucian values does overlap with some Islamic practices. Prioritising family (without compromising Islamic laws), honour in community and certain aspects of modesty are common factors in both belief systems, making this moment of popular culture an appealing alternative to certain obscenities in Hollywood flicks. This has led them to an alternative audience whether they meant to or not.

“I felt like there were a lot of similarities in the culture, [to my own], so I didn’t feel a barrier,” Sallma said.

She added: “I wouldn’t call it completely halal, but it’s definitely not as vulgar. And I 100% relate specifically as a Muslim woman because relationships outside marriage are not a definite thing, not everyone is dating. At least in the dramas I’ve watched, the relationships form at the end of the series, so most of the story is about them not being together yet.

“Marriage is also a big thing in my culture. Like a woman living with a man [before marriage] seems to still be a big thing in Korean culture, so there’s things we can relate to as Muslims.”

Singaporean-Chinese homemaker, Amina Chua, also described her shared watching parties with friends and family of all backgrounds. The 57-year-old mother recounted the “communal experience” of watching amongst Chinese, Indonesian and South Asian friends of hers.

She said: “We had great fun talking about the series we watched and not because they were necessarily an accurate representation of South Korea.

“We learnt some of the Korean way of life through watching K-dramas, although the lifestyle isn’t always the reality. I mostly relate as a Muslim woman, as they have an emphasis on the family unit and keeping family ties, it’s in their culture (or at least in k-dramas) to have an end goal of getting married, and they address elders with respectful titles and revere them.”

The relatability has only been amplified in recent years. As TV casting has diversified in the West, K-dramas are still playing catch up with the ‘foreigner’ side role becoming a common staple. In the slam hit Squid Game (2021), Anupam Tripathi played the sweet and righteous Ali Abdul, a Muslim character who was widely beloved. In Welcome to Samdal-ri (2023), Bangladeshi actor Sazal Mahamud speaks in fluent Jeju dialect as convenience worker Mansu, and Netflix drama So Not Worth It (2021) boasts an international cast, depicting the difficulties of foreign students in South Korea. Last year in 2023, Sabrina Azhar, a Malaysian influencer, starred as the first main cast hijabis in a South Korean web series, Girl in the Mirror.

Yet, like in many other industries, representation beyond tokenism and caricatures has been a gradual achievement.

Not so long ago, in the legal K-drama Miss Hammurabi (2018), the lead character uses a burka in a jesting point against her superior’s sexual assault defence. The scene was punctuated by a worker clutching his pearls at her appearance and apologising profusely for his awkward reaction, adding insult to indignity. Many people rightfully called out the writers for co-opting the religious garb for a comedic point.

On X user @mathiolla wrote: “Wow… I’m not even a Muslim but this is freaking disrespectful… Why is this drama approved?” 

And let’s not forget the disaster that was ‘The Man Who Dies to Live’, where creators publicly apologised for their offensive depiction of Arab culture, including one scene with a woman in an Islamic headscarf and bikini next to a sign that read: “Buy one princess, get two for free.”

The unavoidable political component boosting Korean content on streaming platforms has led to a surge in their popularity. Yet this superficial win for diverse media is unsurprisingly undercut by unethical intentions. Netflix has boosted South Korean shows as a placeholder for streaming content during Hollywood’s writer strikes, instead of meeting union demands. Further still, Netflix has continued the malpractice by allegedly shortchanging South Korean actors too.

Moral business practices, nil. Accurate representation, almost nish. So I returned to the drawing board (my instagram DMs).

One point that has resurfaced among those I spoke to echoed the observation that K-dramas share similarities with non-Western dramatic shows from around the world. Telenovelas, desi serials, Nollywood soap operas, Malaysian dramas and the like are comforting and familiar to us children who grew up watching our mothers glued to the screens, processing their own struggles through these fictional para-social connections.

As normalised as Korean content has become – a regular water cooler topic after a struggle against bias in the big leagues – growing up with the two cultures side-by-side was not always a welcome conversation starter.

Juliana Noor, 25, who grew up with these shows, felt stuck between her British community in Liverpool and her friends back home in Malaysia. She said, “The first K-drama I watched was Boy Over Flowers in 2009 in Malaysia as it was just on TV. At the time Korean dramas were already available in South East Asia.

“So when me and my best friend in the UK were 10 or 11 we were obsessed with Korean pop culture – K-pop, the dramas, we just loved it so much. But the girls around us thought it was really weird that we were hyping these Asians. It was around this time Big Bang was nominated for an MTV award as the first Asian artist and people were just like ‘How did they get this award?’

“People felt alienated from the situation but now that has all changed. Everyone loves Korean dramas, everyone loves Korean food. Society changes, huh?”

As a South East Asian, Juliana also felt that people make assumptions based on her race. “People thought it was weird at the time I started watching them, but now people come up and ask me if I watch Korean dramas. I feel like they ask me because of the way I look,” she added.

As Muslim women, our backgrounds are far and wide, our ideas diverse, so subtitles and cultural differences are not as big a barrier to us than the average Western viewer whose closest cultural hub is Los Angeles. So for the same reason as any person engages in entertainment, news flash: Muslim women enjoy things too. Perhaps the dichotomy of East vs West makes it harder for us multi-hyphenate Muslim women to connect with Hollywood’s girl-next-door type, but the Korean protagonist offers a shared sense of otherness – we are both unlike the typical Western actor or viewer. Like Fizzah, who saw friendship groups like hers depicted in ‘Hospital Playlist’ or ‘Fight for My Way’ or Amina who “laughed, giggled, teared up and shared moments of sadness” with her friends or Juliana who saw people who looked like her, seeing some of our values has made us graduate from one type of content. And although we may not see ourselves completely on either screen, we can often find relatability where there is no representation.

The bottom line? Muslim women are no stranger to being strangers, making their connection to K-dramas seemingly unlikely, but a natural match for them. 

Syraat Al Mustaqeem

Syraat Al Mustaqeem

Syraat Al Mustaqeem is a graduate in English and journalist. Her interests include world literature and cinema, magical realism and Islamic spirituality. You can find her on Twitter here (@syraatAM).