No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
Issue 6 home page
Return to current issue
Archives main page

Arab Women and Satellite Broadcasting

By TBS Senior Editor Hussein Amin

In the Arab world, satellite use is growing rapidly after a slow start. Despite the fact that many of the Middle Eastern countries share a common language, culture, religion, and geography, there are many social differences and diverse political ideologies; however, today almost all Arab countries allow the public to access satellite broadcasting. Satellite broadcasting has the potential to do a great many things, from leveraging scarce educational resources to providing models of global broadcast entertainment standards to local audiences. Additionally, satellite broadcasting has the potential to empower Arab women in the exercise of their right to seek and receive information and ideas.

Satellite television, with its multi-channel environment, is a suitable medium for Arab culture, which is family-oriented and tends to concentrate much of its entertainment around the home. However, for much of the population of Arab countries, satellite broadcast viewing is very much restricted to the upper class and the elite. A television set is a priority for any young couple getting married in the Arab world, but obtaining a satellite dish is their dream. Most middle-class Arab couples, especially in oil-rich Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, consider buying a satellite dish as a necessity and not a luxury (El Sherif, 2001).

Satellite broadcasting has begun to play an effective role in conveying news and information of general and specific interest, commenting on events as well as providing opinion and perspectives, reinforcing social norms and cultural awareness through the dissemination of information about the culture and the society, providing specialized data for commercial promotion and services, and, finally, entertaining (Rugh, 2001). In addition, satellite broadcasting has reintroduced and strengthened the concept of Arabism to the Arab world after a decline of some decades (Alterman, 1998). Satellite broadcasting through the diverse Arab multi-channel environment has helped bring Arab women together, deepened the dialogue between Arab women regarding issues of concern, and strengthened their traditions and customs. It has also provided a forum for Arab women to discuss the challenges of the new millennium (Amin, 2000).

Arab satellite services have responded to the demand of Arab women to portray their true image and role in society to balance the common stereotype in the West of the downtrodden Arab woman, without rights and without a role to play other than daughter, wife, and mother. Female presenters of talk shows and cultural and news programs on Arab satellite television channels are very popular. Talk shows and news programs feature interviews with female leaders in business, government, politics and diplomacy, and art and culture. Many satellite services, in contrast to national systems, portray Arab women as involved in economic, educational, and industrial activities. Rural women are shown as being responsible for the most labor-intensive agricultural tasks, rather than covering only their role in the household of food preparation and as sex symbols in television commercials and video clips (Labib, 2001).

Satellite broadcasting has made it possible for Arab women from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to witness developments and the impact of women's movements in different parts of the world as well as the many transformations that have taken place in Arab region (Killini, 2001). The multi-channel environment via satellite is expanding the Arab viewer's choices of content without interference of governments (Marghalani and Boyd, 1998). The Middle East has many platforms competing for Arab viewers: ERTU/ Nile Channels, ART/1st NET, Orbit, Star Select, and Gulf DTH/Showtime. All offer potential benefits to Arab women since they provide a lifeline to rural areas that terrestrial broadcast services do not reach and link the Arab household to the rest of the world. In addition, these services advance formal and informal education through the general and specialized satellite networks for education; they broadcast news and information; and they broadcast variety programs for Arab children as well as programs tailored to traditional female audiences, such as the Family channel in the Nilesat package, home shopping services such as Morico and Tamima on Nilesat, programming for cooking and fashion channel, and health care (Al Sherif, 2001).

In the last decade, the effects of satellite broadcasting in the Middle East have become more apparent as it has gained in popularity. Satellite broadcasting bypasses the two most important communication barriers in the region: illiteracy and government control of content. General illiteracy is a long-time problem that has affected the development of print media in the Arab world. Most Arab countries have a high illiteracy rate, which is especially high among women. Since a high percentage of Arab women are illiterate, satellite broadcasting, especially Arabic programming, is of a greater appeal to them than foreign programs, print media and the Internet. As for government control of content, governments cannot censor satellite broadcasts originating outside their countries and cannot control what their people are watching, except through prohibiting satellite viewing. This has been tried and has failed. As a result of access to uncensored programming that adheres in most cases to global production standards, audiences are becoming more discerning. It was only after the introduction of satellite broadcasting that a potential link between American culture and technology/media values is gaining recognition on an important level in the region. Satellite news broadcasters, namely MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Centre), ANN (Arab News Network), and Al-Jazeera, have helped introduce the region to the concepts of freedom of expression (Amin, 1999). Many studies have indicated that satellite broadcast programming is of a better quality than the content offered by national television (Fahmy, 1997).

There are certain factors that deeply affect the success of satellite services in terms of reach and impact. Most Arab women, especially those of the lower-middle class and lower class, are struggling against poverty, illiteracy, and isolation, all of which restrict the availability and the accessibility of satellite viewing. More and more Arab women are working to support their households. There is a general complaint, especially from the middle classes, of the high cost of acquiring a satellite dish and the difficulty in affording pay television channels (El Fawal, 2001). Although much of the middle class would like to have access to satellite channels because of the variety of content and the 24-hour-a-day programming, they cannot afford it and instead use a VCR to provide similar entertainment at an affordable price (Amin and Boyd, 1996). Some women prefer the VCR medium to the satellite since there is some control over content (El Fawal, 2001). continued

Next page: Is modern technology incompatible with traditional values?

Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo