Shereen Abou El Naga
is a term that appeared for the first time in the UN's World
Survey on the Role of Women in Development (1986). It referred
to the productivity of agriculture, and was defined as a process
that "entails much more than awareness of alternatives,
women's rights and the nature of requirements. It involves the
breakdown of powerful sex stereotyping, which prevents women
from demanding their rights from positions of authority."
In 1995, Empowerment became part of the mainstream terminology
of the Beijing document where the process of empowering women
entailed 'reforming' the media, i.e., carving space for women
in the media. The document also demanded assigning women the
power of decision-making in the media industry. Both demands,
however, were novel to the cultural scene in the Arab world.
On the governmental and non-governmental levels, huge efforts
were carried out, during the last decade, to increase the number
of women involved in the media industry. All new feminist voices
were struggling to be heard as a corrective of the negative
images of women widespread in the media. Those voices took issue
with the construction of the real by the media, and therefore,
patriarchal authority was highly challenged.
In 2004, the struggle for incorporating women in the media has
become old-fashioned, since women are already everywhere on
Arab satellites and the state-controlled media. Yet, the question
is to be posed again, how do media images construct and constrain,
empower and disempower, feminist objectives in particular and
women's position in general? In this paper, I claim that satellites
in their modern form are catering for globalization. Does that
make sense? Can we really blame globalization for any negativity?
And which part of globalization, capitalist profits, mass culture,
or the resistance has it naturally generated? Probably all of
These are the times of huge masses, where the media has to target
the masses by turning culture into mass culture. The criterion
of success, then, is the increase of viewership. Such an increase
means mere quantity profit increase. In the era of the masses,
as Galal Amin states, the competition depends on satisfying
and catering for all tastes, not only the middle class as it
used to be in the 60's (1). Women are, unfortunately, an essential
part of this competition. To discuss feminist issues on any
satellite is seen to be too academic, too serious, and too dull.
No spectacular fun. However, it should be noted that satellites
derive their disposition from society itself. In reality, feminist
issues do not pass easily. The most problematic issue until
now is how to raise the social awareness in relation to feminism,
how to incorporate gender not only in the media, but also in
the work place, in education, in politics, and in the process
of decision making. So satellites have moved the battle from
reality to the screen, i.e., crude reality is displayed and
exaggerated through generic and cultural verisimilitude.
In the era
of masses, women are caught between two extremities, capitalist
patriarchy and patriarchal fundamentalism. Paradoxically, or
rather ironically, both ideologies take the body as their cult.
The battle ground is the female body, whether to display it
or to hide it. In Shakespearian terms: to be or not to be, that
is the question. This in itself is an oversimplification similar
to the US discourse that followed the invasion of Afghanistan
when the women were shown as victimized by Taliban and rescued
by the American ex machina, just by changing the dress
code. There is more to it.
I. The discourse of displaying the body
According to Foucault, discourses are the bearers of various
historically specific positions of agency and identity for individuals/spectators.
It is these subject-positions that provide the conditions for
individuals to act or know in relation to particular social
practices. This conception of subject positions was used by
Sean Nixon to read the 'new man'; it could as well be used to
read the 'new woman' (2). This will be done through examining
the exhibition of femininity as presented by video clips, the
dress code, the measures of the body, and even the language.
Nancy Agram, Elissa, Haifa' Wahbi, and others are Lebanese women
singers whose appearance has caused radical changes in relation
to women's self-image and social image. They stand for the cult
of femininity where the body takes hold of the consciousness.
Put differently, all efforts to empower women's consciousness
have collapsed by reason of the intensification of the pleasures
of the body, its posture and movements and the solidifying of
certain practices. One of the results is the conspicuous increase
in plastic surgery undertaken by women to reach that level of
'femininity'. The other thing is that Lebanon, where these singers
come from, has come to stand for the place of 'femininity' and
sensual pleasures. Nobody credits or remembers the role of Lebanese
women in resistance anymore. It must be noted here that there
are around twenty channels or so that broadcast only video clips
all day long. They managed to glue all young men and women in
front of the screen by employing all available means of technology.
The most famous thing is the SMS's that run constantly on the
screen carrying messages from boys to girls and vice versa.
In Cairo, cafes compete to provide the biggest screens in order
to attract more people. This has become a phenomenon even in
traditional authentic cafes.
In reality women are expected to imitate the appearance of those
images without being won over in the head. That is to say, they
are expected to be as sexy as those women, yet, as modest as
Virgin Mary. Such an expectation dismembers women's consciousness
strongly and subtly, and thus, any claim to a feminist stand
sounds ludicrous. To say that this discourse disempowers women
is another distortion of the process of assimilation. Those
images of femininity have led to catastrophic results. The press
has become so preoccupied with attacking those images, constantly
confusing images on the screen and women in reality. The images
of video clips are taken to be the representation of women,
a fact that proves the role of the popular media in constructing
derives its legitimacy from the high tone of morality of the
middle class. Consequently, all women's issues are on hold in
the press till this moral crisis is resolved. Reality television,
a recent phenomenon on Arab satellites, has intensified this
crisis. A special channel, named Sawa, was launched just to
display women in the market of marriage. The success of that
program encouraged other satellites to imitate it, this time
under the cover of art, like the Star Academy program
of LBC. In Bahrain, another reality program, an imitation of
the American program Big Brother, was cancelled as a result
of the severe social criticism it received.
two essential remarks that I want to make here. The first is
about the owners of those satellites. The grandson of Gamal
Abdel Nasser, the famous Egyptian national hero who gave Egyptian
women their suffrage rights, owns 'Melody,' for example, which
runs video clips all day long. Rotana, the most popular satellite
network in the Arab world, is owned by Al Waleed bin Talal,
a Saudi Emir whose father established the famous Arab Council
of Motherhood and Childhood. The list could go on: Saudi businessmen
also own MBC and ART. ART has a channel that broadcasts videoclips
and at the same time has another that hosts Amr Khaled who magically
convinced millions of young women to take the veil. The second
remark is related to the damage these videoclips cause by the
distorted vision it propagates, if there is a vision at all.
To see women displayed as sexual objects on these channels is
already understood, but to witness how women could be used in
the political context of banning the veil in the schools of
France is really frightening. A Kuwaiti singer produced a song
about that issue where an extremely beautiful woman is expelled
from her job because she is veiled. So we see the woman unveiled
sexily and then we see her veiled on the street like an innocent
angel. This is the easiest way, I guess, to turn real issues
into superficial ones and to antagonize the other. Apparently,
images of women as victims appeal to the patriarchal mentality.
This is a universal fact as we always hear in the news of war--any
war--the number of injured women and children. Hence, condemnation.
I have to mention here the funny thing I noticed lately in commercials
of soap, milk, softeners, etc., where there two versions--on
one satellite the woman is veiled, on the other unveiled.
This exaggerated display of and obsession with the female body
has generated the extreme opposite, namely, the exaggerated
fundamentalist discourse of other satellites. That came as a
natural result, since any power yields its own resistance. That
fundamentalist discourse is not without its legitimacy as well.
Basically, it attacks those images from within an Islamic religious
framework; yet, it has many allies who do not adopt an Islamic
framework of thinking. This fundamental attack meets with all
other attackers in the point of challenging the conception of
women as commodity. In other words, the Islamic discourse vis-à-vis
those images derives its credibility from the anger of the Arab
viewer who is already crammed with so many images of oppression
and injustice where sexuality cannot be accommodated by any
means. Even the principle of the popular aesthetic advanced
by Bordieu cannot be a tool of analysis here. It is a luxury
that Arab men and women cannot afford right now.
II. The discourse of denying agency
Hiding the female body, denying any free female agency, and
elevating the political are the areas propagated by other satellites.
Those satellites depend on debates, talk shows, and the news.
Al Jazeera's fame increased recently due to the American attack
on it, such attacks being even the criteria which led the politician
M.H. Heikal to speak on it. Al Arabiya is trying to compete
by adopting a more balanced discourse; this did not help the
channel to gain the same huge popularity as that of Al Jazeera.
Let's look at Al Jazeera, however, as a case study since it
enjoys high viewership in the Arab world. Al Jazeera cannot
be described as fanatic or Islamic or fundamental. So, what
is it? To understand that channel one should look at the main
subjects being discussed which could fall under two broad categories
of politics and sexuality.
Only (Lil Nisa' Faqat) is a famous weekly program
that usually hosts three guests and also receives phone calls
from viewers. It usually takes the form of a debate--a heated
one sometimes--where binary oppositions are consolidated; for
example, women's position in Islam as opposed to women's position
in human rights charters, veiled women as opposed to unveiled
women, Islamic women activists as opposed to feminist activists,
feminist creativity as opposed to universal human creativity,
Islam as opposed to gender, commercial and popular media as
opposed to committed media, and so on. Banning the veil in France
was also an issue. Such binary oppositions formulated in the
form of either/or formulas not only exclude any other epistemology
but also block the way socially for any feminist voice.
Also on Al Jazeera, women's suffering is shown with a relentless
focus on individual incidents (Palestinian and Iraqi women)
and a total marginalization of the overall context of patriarchy,
male domination, systems of racialized inequality, and above
all, capitalism. That shows clearly in the program Al Sharia
wal-Hayat (Sharia and Life), where the tone of Sheikh Al-Qaradawi
is highly patronizing towards women, lenient towards men, and
accusative of the West. In one episode, referring ironically
to the Moroccan plan of incorporating women in development,
he stated, "We are not the ones who discriminated against
women, it's God who did that. Women are different from men in
body and mind. This does not mean that there is equality. There
is indeed, but only in some areas. Men and women are not enemies,
they complement each other. Anyway, they are equal in reward
and punishment" (Dec. 7, 2000). Obviously, the discourse
is extremely masculine and patriarchal; it does not take issue
with reality or power relations. In another episode, where the
topic was 'liberating women in the Arab world,' Al-Qaradawi
accused all women's NGO's of being westernized and of propagating
American globalization (Dec. 8, 2000).
As I see it, any attempt at establishing a free female agency
in the programs of Al Jazeera is aborted by a severe high-pitched
discourse of patriarchal fundamentalism. Women are elevated
and acknowledged only when they participate in the national
struggle. To explain, the political completely marginalizes
the social and excludes any other factor. Women's position in
the public sphere is discussed at length in relation to development,
politics, and education, whereas the problems of the private
sphere are rarely talked about . "In a society such as
our own we all know the rules of exclusion," says Foucault.
He continues, "In appearance, speech may well be of little
account, but the prohibitions surrounding it soon reveal its
links with desire and power... Speech is no more verbalization
of conflicts and systems of domination ... it is the very object
of man's conflicts" (3). The conflict lies also in who
controls, selects, and organizes the information and the construction
of images, who claims authority and who wants to cast doubt
on the other different voice.
concern is to look at the discourse of some initiatives of reform
where the media industry is an essential component. However,
in those initiatives critiquing the media is never linked to
reforming women's status. For example, in the initiative of
the Muslim Brothers there is a direct demand to reform the media
according to "the principles of Islam." In the initiative
of Egypt's left-wing Tagammu' Party, reform of the media is
mentioned in relation to achieving freedom of expression. In
the Alexandria Document, freeing the media from the hegemony
of the government is an explicit political demand. Only in the
document of Second Independence, compiled by Arab NGO's, is
there a direct link between women and the media. The demand
is strongly phrased, reading "real equality between men
and women is more than legal equality, and it is to be achieved
through changing the stereotypical images of women in the media...."
The ironic paradox is obvious here: All political voices call
urgently for the reform of the media, yet, women's right to
their images does not surface at all in such initiatives. In
spite of the constant serious attempts at incorporating women's
rights into human rights, the significance of the media in relation
to constructing the reality of women remains unnoticed.
Having said all that I can now answer the questions posed by
Khaled Hroub in the process of our correspondence to brainstorm
the topic. Hroub asked, "What is the present 'woman-landscape'
in Arab media, with particular references to satellite channels?
What do these channels do for women issues, advancing them,
distorting them or diverting real issues into superficial ones,
etc.? How does the current women's mediascape differ from, say,
ten years ago? Given the dominance of religious discourses on
serious TV channel such as Al Jazeera, etc., as opposed to the
dominance of body discourse and politics on entertainment channels,
are we witnessing a deepening of the gulf between various 'camps'
within Arab women's communities, etc.?" I believe my paper
has given answers to most of those questions; I believe that
there must be an answer to the interrogative title of the paper,
"Arab women and the new media: empowerment or disempowerment?"
Neither is the case. Islamic activists might believe that a
program like Al-Sharia wal-Hayat is empowering; however,
it is not. It only empowers the exclusion of the other, ready-made
judgments, and the return to the binary of 'we' and 'they.'
The discourse that tends to display the female body is also
highly disempowering since it turns women into mere capitalist
Certainly, I cannot speak on behalf of Arab women. However,
one of the few things I am sure of is that both discourses do
not represent me and naturally they do not empower me by any
means. I am not to be hidden or marginalized or set for selling.
(1) Amin, Galal The Age of Huge Masses. Cairo: Dar Al
Shorouk, 2004, p. 56.
(2) Hall, Stuart (ed.) Representations. Open University,
(3) Foucault, Michel The Archeology of Knowledge, trans.
Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972, p.216.
Abou El Naga teaches in the English Department of the Faculty
of Arts, Cairo University.