Netflix’s Egyptian/Swiss/American hit star Yasmina El-Abd has made a major comeback with her new role as Princess Safiya in the newly-aired HBO Max series Theodosia.
El-Abd has been in the entertainment industry since the age of nine; she’s appeared in commercials, music videos, and musicals. She was also a TV presenter for National Geographic Kids Abu Dhabi. She starred in The Shadow of Cairo and made a notable appearance in her first feature, Daughters of Abdel Rahman, a film tackling issues of patriarchy in the Arab world.
With her pivotal role and superb performance in the Netflix show Finding Ola, alongside high-level Egyptian stars, El-Abd has piqued so much interest in major media platforms worldwide, including, but not limited to, Vogue Arabia, Cosmopolitan Middle East, and Arab News.
Theodosia marks a massive shift in representation for young Arab girls fed up with the dark misrepresentation of shows like Aladdin depicting Arab women as submissive and exotic and wished to see the representation that they could be proud of.
Given the incredible research that went into the role and being so impressed with it, we sat with El-Abd to dive deeper into what it feels like to be Theodosia’s Egyptian princess.
Muslim Girl: You’re passionate about representing minorities on screen. Do you think Princess Safiya from the HBO Max series Theodosia falls into that category, given the fact that she has established her superiority when Henry had to bow to her?
Yasmina El-Abd: While Theodosia is a fictional, adventurous, and fun show targeting young audiences, it is about Egyptology, and I am the only Egyptian in the show. To me, this represents a minority. Having Henry bow to Princess Safiya was because of her royal status and the fact that he was impressed with her at first glance. The character of Princess Safiya evolves beautifully throughout the 26 episodes, and we see a wonderful transition towards the end. We see a softer side to her, although she comes off arrogant in the beginning.
Muslim Girl: I know you said that Princess Safiya is not the stereotypical character; as she is “funny, eloquent, and just a real Egyptian.” That being said, do you think the character could have been portrayed any differently (representation-wise) especially when you see it now after it’s aired?
Yasmina El-Abd: I actually wouldn’t have done anything differently. Being a princess, Safiya grew up in an unlimited yet limited world. As in, she was mostly by herself growing up, so she’s put up a barrier subconsciously that can make her less approachable. Once she gets to know herself better and becomes more of a risk-taker, that’s when we see that transition (you’ll have to watch the whole thing to understand what I mean *wink*).
Muslim Girl: Speaking of the Arab representation in TV and Film, how would you describe the ideal character of a modern Arab woman or girl? Like, what are other stereotypes that you would love to deconstruct?
Yasmina El-Abd: Many people write about us in ways that aren’t correct or authentic. We’re just like every other girl or woman out there. We shouldn’t be separated or deemed different just because of our ethnicity or belief system. Not every Arab or Muslim woman is: submissive, exotic, or oppressed, there are many characters portrayed like this which drives me crazy. I hope that throughout my career I’m able to deconstruct these stereotypes one at a time.
Muslim Girl: When do you think was that moment in your life when you moved from telling yourself, “I wish I would see a character that I would relate to,” to telling yourself, “You know what? I want to represent people who are like me?” And was it out of anger, frustration, or hope for a better future?
Yasmina El-Abd: Growing up in Switzerland and being exposed to and influenced by many different cultures, especially American culture, I’ve come to realize that I’ll always be between two extremes. I was never Western enough living in the West and was never Oriental enough living in the East. This is why I felt like it was important to represent people like me. I would say it was a combination of many different feelings. Anger and frustration were definitely part of it. Hope for a better future was the main target.
Muslim Girl: What influenced your self-development? Like, was it your upbringing and your surrounding environment? Was it some kind of microaggression or discrimination that you faced? Or was it just the fact that you wanted to see a better representation in the entertainment industry?
Yasmina El-Abd: I’m a Muslim Arab woman, discrimination will always be a part of my life. I think it was a combination of all three. Once you are given a platform, it is your responsibility to use it for good. Living in places where I felt like a third culture kid, I was definitely exposed to some microaggression. So I always felt like I had to justify my actions, whereas a non-Arab and non-Muslim girl my age wouldn’t have to. This naturally led me to want to see better representation in the entertainment industry.
Muslim Girl: If you could go back in time and change one thing about Princess Safiya, what would it be? Also, what would you want to keep? And why?
Yasmina El-Abd: Princess Safiya was a character I genuinely loved portraying. I honestly wouldn’t change much. This was an experience I was meant to have. I’ll always remember playing her, and getting to know her. I would keep the adventurous side of her, and keep some for me as well *wink* and would keep her loyalty to her friends and that she respects anyone no matter what.
Theodosia is available on HBO MAX in the U.S., OSN in the Middle East, and CBBC and BBC iPlayer in the UK. Finding Ola is available on Netflix worldwide.