“The Exchange,” Netflix’s first original from Kuwait, is a hard-hitting drama that portrays the discrimination that women have faced since time immemorial. The narrative follows Farida and Munira, and tells us how, in the 1980s, they became the first women to work in the Kuwait Stock Exchange alongside men, which was a pathbreaking achievement for a society where it seemed like all the rules and regulations were intended to stop women from becoming independent.
“The Exchange” is not based on the true events happening in the life of a particular person, but on what women in general had to go through during those times. The writers, Nadia Ahmad and Adam Sobel, created the characters of Farida and Munira by drawing inspiration from their own lives and the kind of struggle women had to go through back in the day. The backdrop, where certain global financial phenomenon like the “crash of 1987” are shown, conforms with reality and has been creatively woven into the narrative to enhance its overall impact. It actually irritates you to see the male-dominated society’s flawed ideologies and beliefs and how conveniently they close all the doors for a woman to become independent and then blame them for not being capable enough to earn a living. What the people did in the name of the culture was nothing less than atrocious. Men considered themselves to be so infallible and superior that it was almost impossible to make them realize their mistakes.
Munira had realized quite early in her career that apart from the determination to go forward, she would also have to wrap herself in resilience because otherwise, she would never be allowed to act according to her will in a patriarchal society. Munira, being the only woman working in the stock exchange before Farida joined, had figured out a middle ground where, though she wasn’t accorded the status enjoyed by her male colleagues, she was able to do the needful and win the trust of her bosses. After her marriage, Farida hadn’t been in any job, so when she found herself amidst condescending males who would go to any extent to see her fail, she had a hard time coping.
One of the most influential brokers of the Kuwait Stock Exchange, named Nabil, gave her nightmares, as not only he was a misogynist but he went a step further and refused to acknowledge the existence of both the ladies. Munira was used to this behavior, but Farida couldn’t understand what she had done to deserve such treatment. It is almost infuriating as a viewer to see that Farida gives him a gift to make him less hostile, and then you realize that it was probably the most sensible thing to do, as having an argument with him wouldn’t have gotten her anywhere. Munira and Farida were not allowed inside his cabin, and they had to stand at his door and wait till he called them in. Nabil was once heard saying to his employees that he didn’t like to trade with women because they had no control over their actions and emotions. He had a habit of inciting the two women, and if they reacted or gave a reply, he would get a chance to blame them for not being professional enough. People were hypocritical, as they didn’t mind ogling at them, but at the same time they didn’t lose a single chance to tell each other how inappropriately the two women were dressed for a workplace. In reality, they were miffed because they couldn’t accept that women could outperform them.
In the 1980s, in Kuwait and many other countries, divorce was not seen as just a legal recourse to end a failed marriage but as a means to judge the morality of a woman. It was always the woman’s fault, and in this case as well, all the blame was put on Farida, who was trying her best to be financially independent and provide for her daughter after getting separated from her husband. Even Farida’s daughter, Jude, was bullied by other girls who made slanderous remarks about her mother’s character who had gotten a divorce, didn’t wear a hijab, and worked alongside men. There was no restroom for the ladies in the stock exchange building, and when the people got to know about it, instead of doing something, they dismissed it as something frivolous.
“The Exchange” makes sure that through the various conversations and arguments between the characters, we get an idea of the gender inequality that existed in the workplace in those times. A woman driving a car was a spectacle for the people, and working after marriage gave moral defenders free rein to assassinate the reputation of the concerned woman. For some reason, even after the divorce, Farida’s husband, Omar, persistently told her to stop working. He couldn’t tolerate that she was no longer dependent on anyone and that he couldn’t use her financial instability for his leverage. He made all kinds of offers, but Farida realized that she would never put herself in a position where she had to depend on others for her survival.
The characters in “The Exchange” are fictional, but the socio-political factors that influence and govern their lives, as well as the experiences that inspired them, are true. I would have liked to say that such discrimination is a thing of the past, but then, I would be lying to myself and disregarding the struggle and plight of every woman today, especially in developing or underdeveloped nations. Inequality and discrimination are so deeply ingrained in society that even without trying, men are kept in positions of power. Society plays an important role in enabling such inequality, and even though the fire was seemingly extinguished a long time ago, patriarchy still burns like lava beneath the surface. “The Exchange” makes your blood boil, and you can’t understand how a society can be so exploitative and how claustrophobic a woman must feel in such an environment. Maybe that is why, when the six-episode series ends, you acknowledge the efforts of women like Munira and Farida and how they paved the way for a better and more equal future.