Satellite, the Prince, and Scheherazade : The Rise of Women
as Communicators in Digital Islam
By Fatema Mernissi
Ruth V. Ward
at Mohamed V University in Rabat (Morocco), Fatema Mernissi
is currently a full-time researcher at the IURS (Institut Universitaire
de Recherche Scientifique) where she splits her time between
animating writing workshops for civic actors seeking to influence
public opinion through publications and conducting her own field-work
based analysis of Moroccan society. When MBC, the first satellite-TV,
hit the Moroccan sky in 1991, she switched from the study of
the Harem (a world view where space is sexualized-the private
is confused with femininity and the public with masculinity-which
is the theme of her early publications such as 'Beyond the Veil,',
'The Veil and the Male Elite' and 'Forgotten Queens of Islam'),
to the study of the 'digital umma,' where she focuses on the
new sexual and political game produced by the new communication
technologies demolition of frontiers. Her latest book, "Les
Sindbads Marocains:Voyage dans le Maroc Civique"(Editions
Marsam, Rabat, March 2004), describes how the previously isolated
desert youth in the South of Morocco are transforming themselves
into skilled navigators on the internet in cyber-cafés.
Ramadan 2002, I realized that I was becoming a stranger in my
own land and that the old Arab world I was born in and could
decode and understand has vanished forever. Women managed to
shock the digital Umma (the new satellite-connected Muslim community)
not only by belly-dancing in the most popular television series,
but also as producers of films and as talk show anchors. "In
spite of the great variety of their topics, the Ramadan television
series have one thing in common, regardless of whether their
subject is social, historical or religious: the unavoidable
belly-dancer who has become a pivotal creature in the events
unfolding in these shows," explains Mohammad Mahmud, the
columnist who reports on talk shows in the prestigious weekly
Al-Ahram Al-Arabi. What surprised him most was her versatile
dimension: "The belly-dancer is the key figure who helps
businessmen rise to the top or pulls them down to the abyss.
In one television drama, the belly-dancer plays the heroine
of the popular struggle for liberation, in another, she backs
a Zionist movement supporter.... Does this extraordinary presence
of the belly-dancer in the Ramadan television shows reflect
reality or is it simply a seductive maneuver on the part of
the producers to attract audiences?" (1) One has to sympathize
with the Al-Ahram columnist, because it is not belly-dancing
he is complaining about per se; as everyone knows, unlike some
puritanical Christian Scandinavians or Americans, Arab men in
general, and Egyptians in particular, are thrilled by such a
sight. What he is worrying about is that the ever present-belly
dancer interferes seriously in the spiritually-inclined believer's
capacity to transcend the voluptuousness of the senses and concentrate
on more esoteric blessings. To help man reach harmony (wasat),
that, is to develop a balanced set of defense mechanisms which
allows him to resist temptations without drifting into ascetic
extremisms, is after all the key ideal Islam has been promoting
for the fifteen centuries of its existence (the year 2002 corresponds
to the year 1423 of the Muslim calendar). But Arab satellite-television
somehow seems to capture the intoxicating pre-Islamic spell
of women and fuels it with an alarming glow.
Women's Aggressive Invasion of The New Public Space of the Satellite-Wired
asking the questions, Mohammad Mahmoud reminds everyone that
Ramadan is indeed a fantastic opportunity for film producers
because during that month hungry believers rush to their homes
to break the fast and are therefore easy prey for television
programmers. He proceeds to quote Taha Hussein, one of the twentieth
century's most remarkable Arab thinkers, to make his point clearer:
"Is not Ramadan the month of spirituality and the occasion
to get nearer to Allah? Should we not expect the television
drama during this sacred month to nurture our pious cravings?"
belly-dancers were not the only aggressive women who managed
to invade the political space created by satellite television.
One of this Ramadan's highly polemical and most challenging,
as well as popular, television series was not the controversial
"Rider without a Horse" (Faris Bila Jawad),
which was identified as anti-Zionist and condemned by many American
and Israeli media organizations. Instead, it was a film by a
female movie director, In'am Mohammad Ali, about a highly controversial
Egyptian male feminist, who wrote "The Liberation of Women"
(Tahrir al-Mar'a), a vitriolic pamphlet on sexual equality
which was perceived as scandalous by Arab rulers in the 1930s.
The man's name, Qasim Amin, is also the title of the television
series which competed for stardom with "Rider without a
Horse" on many of the fifty or so Arab satellite channels
during Ramadan. Both films are set during the 1930s British
occupation of Egypt and both take their viewers into politically
entangled romantic tales set in the harems of the corrupt Turkish
Sultan who then ruled. But while the hero of "Rider without
a Horse" mingled with the British upper class and tried
to profit from it in an opportunistic way, "Qasim Amin"
forces the viewer to reject that ruling class as inhuman, because
he identifies "with his humiliated mother and with one
of her co-spouses who were suffering from the arrogance of the
harem master." What made male viewers very attentive to
Qasim Amin was that its female movie-maker, one of Egypt's most
talented professionals, "showed, through her film, that
when a competent artist decides to take us to navigate in the
past, it is not so much to seek an escape from reality as to
enlighten it".(2) The film's key message was that in 1930s
Egypt just as today, to liberate women is the best chance to
empower the country and release Arabs' energies. While "Rider
without a Horse" identified a Zionist plot, that is, an
external force, as the reason for Arab weaknesses, the Qasim
Amin serial focuses on the internal mechanisms of powerlessness,
on the psychological dimensions of Arab weakness, and is, according
to many media commentators, a much more corrosive invitation
to an exacting self-introspection.
the aggressive invasion of Arab media by women as actresses
and producers of films and shows as well as directors of television
channels did not start with this Ramadan. "The Empire of
Women" was the scary magazine cover story which revealed
to male Egyptian citizens that "of the 80,000 persons working
in the radio and television, 50,000 are women." (3) The
article went on to explain in detail "how clever women
were strategizing to obtain (istiyad) top positions in
management hierarchies as well as radio and channel leaderships."
3/ The fact that women were visibly present in Arab media was
not really the breaking news. What rang strange bells in that
sacred month was that the extraordinary appeal of the female
hostesses of Al Jazeera was due to their breaking of sexual
The Big Satellite Scare: Al Jazeera Women Probe Sexual Inadequacy.
I became terribly jealous of Muntaha al-Rimhy, one of Al Jazeera's
most intellectually sharp anchor women: men were talking non-stop
about her all along the sandy Atlantic beaches around Casablanca
I visit regularly. The reason was the talk show she devoted
to probing "the reasons for the lack of sexual desire among
spouses." And since the talk show's name is "For Women
Only," what scared the male viewers was that only she and
her three female guests were voicing opinions on this troubling
phenomenon which they described as widespread and statistically
alarming. "Muntaha al-Rimhi," comments Ali Aziz, a
male television columnist "decided to break a taboo on
her Al Jazeera show, by inviting her all-female guests to probe
the lack of sexual appetite (futur) between spouses.
The three guests went into detail with their hostess, diagnosing
the problem which is growing in prodigious proportions, according
to them, and identifying its superficial and deeper reasons.
The women dived into psychological explanations, unearthing
the emotional as well as the educational dimensions of the problem."
The word chosen by the show's hostess was a tricky one. She
deliberately avoided talking about sexual impotence ('ajz)
and used the wicked futur," which literally means
"a loss of energy level, a sudden weakness." This
left male viewers wondering. As one of my university colleagues
remarked, "I wish Muntaha had chosen to speak about straightforward
sexual impotence, because when a woman speaks about futur,
the man immediately feels guilty and inadequate." My Moroccan
colleague was right, because what made the Egyptian columnist
feel uneasy was simply that women were talking publicly about
sexuality in the absence of an important actor-the man. "Although
the non-expert male viewer did not get enough information from
the show to make up his mind," explains Ali Aziz,"
it was nonetheless quite an impressive display of acute analysis
and perspicacity. You really need to see only three women sitting
together, even if silent, to make you realize the gravity of
such an impediment as the lack of sexual appetite." (4)
the new information technology is definitely producing cataclysmic
psychological changes in Arab self-perception, but what is more
astonishing is that the invasion of women as aggressive participants
in the new satellite TV is only a mirror of what is happening
everywhere, in a less visible way, such as the more intimate
surfing on the net in the dark corners of the mushrooming cyber-cafés.
"Is Internet Chat Licit (Halal) During Ramadan?" Teenage
Girls Ask Azhar Sheikhs.
This Ramadan was definitely very different, considering the
request for a fatwa from Egyptian sheikhs on the following issue:
"Is chatting on the Internet forbidden during Ramadan?"(5)
Unlike what we think today, fatwa in early Islam had no power
connotation. Fatwa meant simply that "you ask a question"
to inform yourself, explains Ibn Manzur in his 13th century
Lisan al-Arab ("The Tongue of the Arabs"),
which is still used today.(6) If there is to be fear, it should
be on the part of the religious authority whose duty is to put
its expertise at your disposal to help you solve your problem.
The fatwa is a test for the authority, not for the questioner.
Thus Egyptian youth's inquiry about chat rooms supposes that
the sheikhs at al-Azhar University are digitally competent.
Indeed, the internet is reviving the oral tradition of Islam
begun by the Prophet in Medina. Asking for a fatwa was part
of the constant interactive dialogue technically known as jadal,
which helped the prophet build a formidable Muslim community
in less than a decade (between 622 and 632). (7)
Ramadan question about internet chat was accompanied by a huge
picture of two adolescent girls surfing on computers and a discreet
caption which makes us realize the gravity of the inquiry: "Many
youths are forced, because of their jobs, to surf the internet
... How is their fasting affected, for instance, if they happen
to encounter, by chance, a pornographic website?" (8) This
is one of the delicate questions which Jamal al-Kashki, editor
of the Ramadan issue of the widely circulated Egyptian magazine
Al-Ahram Al-'Arabi, identified as significant for al-Azhar sheikhs
to answer, if they wanted to stay credible in the eyes of the
blushing teenagers. And don't make the mistake of thinking that
those who claim to speak in the name of Islam are technologically
backward and that they are internet and satellite illiterates.
Believe it or not, it is the most conservative of all, the Iranian
Ayatollah of the Center for Islamic Jurisprudence of the city
of Qum, one of Shi'a Islam's capitals, who first rushed to the
web with the strategic intention of outdoing their fifteen-century-old
Arab Sunni rivals. "Several thousand texts, both Sunni
and Shi'a, have been converted to electronic form," explained
one of the contributors to a 1999 retrospective on Digital Islam.
"While Sunni institutions tended to ignore Shi'a texts,
the Shi'a centers are digitalizing large numbers of Sunni texts
in order to produce databases which appeal to the Muslim mainstream,
and hence capture a large share of the market for digital Islam."
(9) However, here, I want to focus on the impact on one single
dimension of the new information technologies which seems to
me particularly exciting, namely satellite broadcasting, because
it creates the highly political public space where the entire
community is gathered to debate vital issues. By contrast, the
internet, which is basically more of an individual experience,
does not have that theatrical public dimension, so central to
Islam, where the sexes are not supposed to have the same access
and the same behavior. Let's not forget that the Umma, the very
concept of the community in Islam, does not refer so much to
a static entity as to a dynamic communication-fueled group.
The Umma-the Muslim Community-Refers to a Communication Synergy,
Not to a Static Entity
not forget that the Umma, the very concept of the community
in Islam, "means a group moving towards the same goal."
(10) Constant communication within the community is what enhances
its dynamism, which is why satellite broadcasting transforms
the Muslim dream of a debate-linked planetary community into
a virtual reality. But by so doing, satellite broadcasting challenges
the behavioral code which sets different rules not only for
the sexes but also for religious and political minorities. It
is this challenge which explains both why Muslims have become
so intoxicated with the new technologies and why focusing on
the satellite's impact is the best angle from which to decode
the digital Islam puzzle. Yet, as enigmatic as the future of
this digital Islam might look to us today, one thing is certain:
most key players, from orthodox (Sunni) Saudi oil princes to
Shi'a Iranian ayatollahs, have grasped that power will belong
to satellite-equipped communication wizards. And this explains
the discreet but nevertheless ferocious race for digital power
among Muslim countries where even elementary notions such as
"center-periphery," which should give a geographical
advantage to the Middle East, are challenged. "A country
such as Malaysia, usually considered to be on the margins of
Islam both in terms of geography and religious influence, has
invested heavily in information and networking technologies."
(11) The Iranian ayatollahs rushed to invest in the new technologies
in the early 1990s but Saudi oil princes were more cunning in
that they realized early on that they had a fantastic advantage
over Iranians and Indonesians. Since the Arabic language happens
to be the sacred and common medium, investing in satellite communication
was the shortcut to global supremacy. Saudi Arabian propagandists
were the first to create planetary media lobbies; in the l980s,
they armed themselves with digitally printed transnational newspapers
Advocates of Islam from Saudi Princes to Hezbollah are Armed
most widely circulated Arab newspapers are the London-based
and digitally printed Al-Hayat ("Life") and Asharq
al-Awsat ("The Middle East"). Both are controlled
by Saudi princes: Al-Hayat by prince Khaled Ibn Sultan, the
son of the Saudi defense minister who led his country's troops
during the Gulf War, and Asharq al-Awsat, which has a staff
of 150, sells 80,000 printed copies, and is accessible to 100
million readers on the Internet; the latter belongs to another
Saudi prince, Salman Ibn Abdelaziz, the governor of Riyadh and
the brother of the King of Saudi Arabia. But you only get an
idea of the scope of the Saudi princes' investment in the new
information technologies if you remember that MBC (Middle East
Broadcasting Center), the first satellite channel to hit Arab
skies, in 1991, belongs to "Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law
of King Fahd Ibn Abdel Aziz al-Saud" and that the next
to follow two years later, ART (Arab Radio and Television),
is "owned jointly by the Saudi entrepreneur Sheikh Saleh
Kamel and Prince Al Walid bin Talal Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, a nephew
of King Fahd." (12) It is not therefore surprising to discover
that the Iranian Ayatollahs made the same calculation when Iran
backed Hezbollah and helped it launch the Arabic-speaking Al
Manar channel. This channel "belongs, via the Lebanese
Information Group headed by Nayef Krayyem, to Hezbollah, the
Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi'a Muslim group founded to resist
the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982. Hezbollah started
terrestrial broadcasting in 1991 and eventually gained official
broadcasting licenses for the al-Manar television channel and
the al-Nur radio station." (13)
this merely to caution the reader to avoid the stereotype which
links Islam with archaism. This is a fatal strategic mistake,
not only because the new technologies are being used as instruments
by its advocates, but also because the competition in the market
for digital media products is forcing the producers to shift
to free speech and interactive dialogue. Since the September
11 attack, all media lobbies, be they Saudi or Iranian-owned,
who used to scorn Arab citizens and club them with one-sided
propaganda, are now shifting to interactive programming to please
viewers who can surf freely and zap between channels because
satellite broadcasting has destroyed state boundaries and empowered
illiterates. Satellite broadcasting "by passes the two
most important communication barriers-illiteracy and government
control of content." stresses Hussein Amin. This revolution
is radically changing roles: citizens have shifted from being
manipulated pieces on the chessboard to becoming its major players.
among channels has become an Arab national sport. Empowered
by cheap satellite household dishes which allow them to surf
between fifty-plus Arab satellite channels, previously passive
Arab viewers, of whom half are women, have become ferocious
"zappers" and choosy audiences difficult to please.
Consequently, you can no longer have access to Arab oil by manipulating
only Arab heads of state, diplomats and army generals. The new
information technology is forcing all Middle East chessboard
players, local and foreign, including Americans, to create Arabic
channels. The decision of both Iran and the United States to
launch Arab satellite channels to communicate with the masses,
illustrates this digital technology-induced shift of power from
the states' bureaucratic elites and private oil lobbies to citizens.
Hussein Amin has predicted in his "Arab Women and Satellite
Broadcasting" that this new technology "has the potential
to empower Arab women in the exercise of their right to seek
and receive information and ideas." (14) His prophecy seems
to be starting to materialize and change reality.
The Planetary Race to Create Arab Satellite Channels: Iran and
the U.S. Search for Skilled Male and Female Journalists
the booming businesses in the Middle East region since the September11
attack has been the recruitment of intellectually powerful men
and women with adequate training in both writing and communication
skills. They are needed because Arab audiences have deserted
entertainment channels for the "24-hour news" channels,
such as Al Jazeera and more recently Al-Arabiya. One of the
reasons which explain the Saudi MBC's catastrophic loss of audience,
and its consequent financial troubles, was the fact that Arab
audiences were fed up with its mix of entertainment and religious
propaganda and deserted it as soon as Al Jazeera started its
100% news channel in 1996.
the Moroccan elections in the fall of 2002, the gripping headlines
were not about who lost seats in the parliament but the fact
that Iranian ayatollahs had sent their agents scouting our country
looking for the best of the local television journalists, offering
them huge salaries. "Iran is launching an all news satellite
channel which will be broadcasting in Arabic from Teheran ...
Many of the Moroccan journalists approached by its recruiters
were hesitant at first...but succumbed when Iranian investors
offered salaries as high as 3,000 dollars a month." (15)
The other gripping event heavily commented on in the entire
Middle East press, was the decision of the Bush administration
to invest $500 million in Arab satellite TV and the subsequent
rumors of its "buying" brainy Arab journalists from
the prestigious London-based newspaper Al Hayat and training
them in TV broadcasting in the Beirut-based channel LBC (Lebanese
Broadcasting Center). (16)
The Lebanese are Helping Americans to "Buy" Eloquent
Arabs from Al-Hayat to Staff their Washington Channel
the most "shocking" rumors after September 11 was
that of the sudden merger between the Saudi-owned newspaper
Al Hayat and LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation), "which
started as a Maronite militia channel in the civil war,"
(17) according to some analysts and is "controlled by a
board dominated by ministers and officials close to the Syrian
government" (18) according to others. It was formed to
help Washington recruit competent communicators for its new
Arabic channel-hence the suspicions raised by this business
deal, which is considered by many a conspiracy that ought "to
be evaluated in the light of the latest media wars in the region
... starting with the American decision to launch an Arab channel
as part of its post-September 11 communication strategy."
(19) It is true that one of America's main problems since the
September attack is how to communicate with Arabs. How to sell
America to the Arabs has become a strategic concern: "The
Bush administration has been looking at new ways of combating
anti-Americanism." (20) David Chambers explains in his
article, "Will Hollywood Go to War?" that "a
new consideration starting in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
is a bill called the '9/11 Initiative' to invest $500 million
in a pan-Arab satellite TV channel to combat the media influence
of the increasingly successful Al Jazeera and to target Muslim
youth." (21) But to communicate with Arabs, buying the
hardware and access to satellite platforms is not enough. It
is rather more difficult to find convincing communicators like
Al Jazeera's who win audiences by transforming talk shows into
Ghada Fakhri or How Scheherazade Got on the "Wanted"
Americans and Saudi Emirs look for very specific types of journalists
to recruit: intellectuals who are trained in writing techniques
and also have television experience. Ghada Fakhri is such a
person: "Ghada Fakhri used to work with Asharq al-Awsat,
then she worked for Al Jazeera as a correspondent in New York,
followed by being a correspondent for Abu Dhabi Television before
we succeeded in tempting her to join our project." The
man talking with so much enthusiasm about the talents of Ghada
Fakhri is Salamah Nemett, a Jordanian with experience in both
printed and visual media. LBC recruited him as managing editor
for the newly-created "SuperNews Center" whose objective
is "to train print journalists in TV journalism."
(22) However, the Lebanese are not admitting that they are serving
as middlemen for the Americans. If you asked LBC's chairman,
Sheikh Pierre Daher, what was the objective of his merging with
Al Hayat and locating the "Super News Center" in London,
he would answer that he was recruiting journalists like Ghada
Fakhri solely to improve his channel's own political coverage
and its news product. But "according to analysts ...there
is a Saudi-Lebanese-American concentration" (23) which
is trying to lobby in the United States to profit from market
openings in this new communication war.
case, what I want to stress here is that the rising demand for
articulate intellectuals who combine writing and television
experience in the new communication wars in the Arab world is
giving women a golden opportunity to enter the power game in
the Middle East. Although in a country like Egypt which has
a powerful movie industry (ranking third after the US and India)
women have managed to compete for higher positions, their influence
has remained local. With the satellite media industry, Arab
women are competing for pan-Arab influence and, beyond it, for
global sway. But to understand better the empowerment dynamics
of satellite broadcasting, one has to keep in mind the intense
competition not only among channels but also among satellite
operators which is forcing everyone to switch as fast as possible
from manufacturing propaganda to responding attentively to the
The Explosion of Satellites Has Turned Arab Citizens-Women Included-into
of satellite broadcasting has transformed the passive Umma everyone
was abusing into a precious audience for advertisers-an audience
including 36% illiterates, of which 64% are women. (24) The
proliferation of satellites launched in the Mediterranean region,
by both Arab and non-Arabs, has heightened the competition for
audiences among all sectors, public and private, legitimate
and terrorist: "Between 1998 and 2000, several satellites
equipped for digital compression were launched to serve areas
that included Arab states. Besides Egypt's Nilesat 101 and 102
and the new generation of Arabsat craft, starting with Arabsat
3A, the HotBird satellites of Europe's operator, Eutelsat, also
transmit to viewers in the Mediterranean Basin and parts of
the Gulf." (25) This proliferation of satellites has made
it possible for smaller operators to compete with the propaganda-manufacturing
oil lobbies and it has reduced the latter's revenues by fragmenting
the audiences. Because of the oil reserves, all major players-be
they private investors, like Saudi princes, heads of state,
or ayatollahs-have to listen carefully to what the viewers want,
both to gain political power by influencing public opinion and
to attract advertising. "With a population of over 300
million people, all speaking the same language in a highly strategic
region of the world," remarks Sheikh Pierre Daher, LBC's
chairman, "we have all the potential we need to compete
with the rest of the world, and attract billions of dollars
in advertising budgets. If we don't do it, someone else will."
are among the winners in this power shift because "the
new information technologies are basically anti-hierarchical
and detrimental to power concentration," explains Nabil
Ali, an Arab linguistics and digital technology expert. "Destroying
space and time frontiers ... these technologies blur the familiar
distinctions our civilization has operated on up to now, such
as the separation between student and teacher, learning and
teaching, production and consumption...." (27) It is precisely
the collapse of this latter distinction which is radically transforming
the Arab World.
is that the camp of pluralism and democracy is rapidly winning
in the Arab World since September 11, not because the left has
won the battle, but because the conservative heads of state
and oil princes who have invested their assets in extremist
propaganda, are now shifting to courting audiences in general
and promoting women in particular. In her assessment of the
"New Order of Information in the Arab Broadcasting System,"
Tourya Guaaybess makes the ironic comment that we are witnessing
an unexpected "growing market of political liberalism."
(28) In any case, it is startling to realize that the much longed-for
democratic revolution is happening in the Arab world not because
the left has subverted the system but because authoritarian
regimes and oil-lobbies are rapidly realizing that in a cyber-Islam
galaxy, you can only remain in power if you share it with citizens
of both sexes.
MBC'S Money-losing Singing Girls versus Al Jazeera's Female
to the latest news, MBC 's emergency move from London to Dubai
was " to get closer to its viewers so as to arrest its
financial decline due to a catastrophic shrinking of audiences."
We want to be closer to our audience," (29) said Ali Al-Hedeithy,
MBC Director General, when asked to justify his hurried move
to Dubai and his decision to launch a new MBC all-news channel
like Al Jazeera. One of MBC's problems is that Arab female audiences
seem to stick with al- Jazeera because of its rebellious images
extremely popular when it started in 1991. It used Arabsat to
target the Middle East and North Africa, Eutelsat to reach Europe's
20 millions viewers and ANA (The Arab Network Agency) to recruit
an American audience. MBC was then the only satellite channel,
but soon its "12.5% religious programs, 75.5% entertainment,
and only 9.5% information" (30) got on the Arab viewers'
nerves. Consequently, they deserted it in 1996 when Al Jazeera
gave them the opportunity to see uncensored news twenty-four
hours a day. But the other reason was that MBC's systematic
censorship was projected through the superficiality of its entertainment
programs, alienating viewers, especially women. "These
channels' activities were reduced to a frantic parade of male
and female singers" explained Walid Najm, one of the experts
invited to diagnose the viewers' desertion. "One could
say that such channels programmed citizens to hope to achieve
one single objective: to become male or female singers."
(31) Other stations like it, who also violated citizens' right
to information and reduced talk shows with intellectuals to
pitiful masquerades, were deserted as soon as Al Jazeera offered
a different image of both informer and informed.
set out originally to be the CNN of the Arab world," explains
Ian Ritchie, its former CEO. Once the channel started losing
money, "my mandate was to change it into a more commercial
channel and therefore the news played less importantly perhaps
than entertainment and sport, because that was what advertisers
want to see. That's why I did the deal to bring the US Champion
League to MBC and a deal for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"
(32) Entertainment meant promoting singing and dancing men and
women and it proved to be fatal business-wise, because Middle
Eastern women were interested in al Jazeera's more energetic
femininity: "One of Al Jazeera's programs, "Sports
News" (Akhbar Riyadiyyah), has devoted several episodes
to the role of Arab women in sports and has highlighted the
championships that have been won by various female sports figures."
(33) Besides sports, it is the forceful female news anchors
who fascinate both men and women. A news channel such as Al
Jazeera, funded by the Emir of Qatar with the objective of strengthening
civil society and free speech, offered the possibility of becoming
stars to intelligent, articulate speakers and program hosts
of both sexes. Therefore, it is no wonder that MBC shifted assets
from its money-losing entertainment channel to launching a new
channel devoted to information only. To catch up with Al Jazeera,
MBC started looking for smart professional men and women rather
than its usual singers, but it has to compete for such talent
with Iran and the U.S.
The Fascination of Arab Audiences with Strong Female Hosts and
strong female stars has proven to be a fantastic asset for the
Saudis' most threatening TV rival. Al Jazeera is winning crowds
every night through the eloquence of its news anchors Jumana
Nammour and Khaduja Bin Guna, and economics expert Farah al-Baraqawi.
While state-owned televisions and oil-funded channels traditionally
censored their staff and denied them the right to decide freely
about their programs' content and their guests, Al Jazeera's
success is due precisely to the freedom its programmers and
speakers enjoy, which allow them to become credible communicators.
"Channels that want to be viable are required to rely much
more heavily on high-impact 'brands' and product lines. Al Jazeera
demonstrated the value of such assets when it developed a range
of programs whose titles and presenters have become household
names inside and outside the Arab world," explains Naomi
Sakr, the author of "Satellite Realism: Transnational Television,
Globalization and the Middle East." (34) The most famous
reporters in the Middle East today are probably the Palestine-based
Al Jazeera reporters Shirin Abu 'Aqla and Jivara al-Badri, who
are admired for their courage and professionalism. "History
will remember that day when there was no one to speak up in
the entire Arab nation, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf,
but women such as Shirin Abu 'Aqla and Jivara al Badri and Leila
Aouda," comments Ali Aziz, the columnist of the Egyptian
magazine Al-Nuqqad ("The Critics"), "while
male leaders and gallon-hat wearing generals have disappeared
from our sight and hearing." (35)
explain this sudden passion of the supposedly macho Arabs for
Al Jazeera's powerful women. While Amin Hussein, a mass communication
expert, gives a technological answer to the question (the satellites'
empowerment of women), the artist Hisham Ghanem offers a more
sophisticated psychoanalytical explanation-the Arab male's identification
with the woman as the victim who is taking revenge on her aggressors.
For Amin Hussein, "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." According
to his analysis, "Talk shows, news, and programs feature
interviews with female leaders in business, government, politics,
and diplomacy ... rather than covering only their role in the
household of food preparation and as sex symbols in television
commercials and video-clips." (36) But for Ahmed Ghanem,
an artist who is more interested in esthetics and hidden emotions,
technology does not explain it all.
Ahmed Ghanem was one among the dozen intellectuals whom the
Kuwaiti magazine Al Funun ("The Arts") invited
to contribute to their summer 2002 issue on decoding the mystery
of the Fada'iyyat. Unlike our much more publicized extremists,
Ghanem feels empowered by a woman's strength. As both an artist
and a designer, he goes into detail in his study on "The
Esthetics of the Private Satellite Channels." He argues:
"If we consider the laws and psychological mechanisms which
in each satellite channel define for the female speaker the
code for dressing and expressing oneself, as well as the way
she uses the screen's space to unfold her personality, then
we cannot escape noticing that the aggressive (hujumi) style
of the Al Jazeera female speakers is a very distinctive kind
of beauty which is very specific to them and makes them stand
out when compared to other channels, especially if we remember
that Al Jazeera is a news (as opposed to entertainment) channel,
and that these women's job is to inform the viewer. The fact
that the majority of this channel's female speakers are far
from being young and insecure and display on the contrary maturity
in both age and emotional equilibrium gives them a cerebral
charisma and audacity which exercises a particular enchantment
on the viewer. The Al Jazeera female speakers exude a spell-binding
fascination which transcends physical attraction." (37)
it be that Al Jazeera's powerful women have such an attraction
for Arab men because they trigger childhood fantasies when they
enjoyed their mothers' story-telling and improvisations on the
"1001 Nights"? Could it be that the satellite is reviving
Arab men's childhood universe where Scheherazade, the powerful
female inventor of adventures, empowered them as children? What
is certain, according to Ghanem, is that by contrast to Al Jazeera
where women's strength reflects the freedom of speech they enjoy
as journalists on that channel, the superficial beauty of the
fragile female speakers in entertainment channels reflects a
passivity which does not excite him as a man, if only because,
as he says, passivity "mirrors the rules of the game on
those televisions. Rules which reveal that only the masters
are players." (38) What is extraordinary about Ahmed Ghanem's
analysis of digital Islam's new game, is that, as a male, he
does not identify with the masters, the princes or ayatollahs
who can afford to buy satellites, but on the contrary, he feels
his own fate to be linked to that of the women. In my view,
it is this rejection of the archaic role of the dominant male,
whose masculinity increases with women's passivity, which is
the news in digital Islam.
in this digital Islam galaxy is that many Arab men craving their
own emancipation from authoritarian censorship have become alert
enough to disconnect power from sex. Many of the male viewers
of satellite broadcasting do not seem to think that their masculinity
is threatened if women show their power. The problem now is
how to interpret this new phenomenon.
only a transient phase or are we witnessing a civilizational
shift in the perception of the difference? Are the satellite-connected
Muslims growing to perceive the sexual difference as enriching?
Are they even preparing themselves to embark on a less threatening
global universality? Is the satellite reviving the cosmic vision
of the Sufis, the mystics of Islam who perceive the difference
Sufi, the stranger (the different other), be it the woman or
the foreigner, is not a threatening enemy. On the contrary,
Sufis celebrate diversity as an enchanting display of human
complexity in their concept of the cosmic mirror. "The
mirror is like a single eye, while the forms (it reveals) are
various in the eye of the observer" is how Ibn 'Arabi,
born in Murcia (Spain) in 560 of the Hijra (1165 of the Christian
calendar), encouraged his contemporaries to enjoy foreigners
as fabulous reflections of the same divine being. "The
essence of primordial substance is single, but it is multiple
in respect to the outer forms it bears with its essence."
(39) It is not only femininity alone which emerged in satellite
broadcasting as a challenge, it is also the question of minorities,
be they religious, or ethnic, such as the Kurds and the Berbers,
which are claimed as positive enrichment. Morocco has declared
Berber to be a national language and established an institute
to enhance it as a vital dimension of a dynamic society. (40)
The satellite has changed the frame in which the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict is addressed in such a way that exclusion of either
party is ruled out: "Palestine-Israel: Peace or a Racist
System?" (41) This how the influential Palestinian journalist
Marwan Bishara frames the question, ruling out any extremist
alternative which is a negation of peace. It is no more "does
the state of Israel have the right to exist or not" which
is at stake, but how can harmony be engineered from the difference
that is the challenge everyone is facing.
the Sufis and women, it is no wonder that male Sufis celebrate
femininity as energy, an opportunity for men to blossom and
thrive. For Ibn 'Arabi, the female lover is "tayyar"
or, literally, endowed with wings, an idea that the Muslim miniature
painters often tried to capture. Sufi men seem to explore the
subconscious of the Muslim psyche where myths and legends, sacred
and profane, endow women with extraordinary powers. From the
dazzling Queen of Sheba to the irresistible Zuleikha in the
sacred Koran, to horse-riding Shirin in the Persian legends
and the subversive Scheherazade in Arabic tales, to modern women
artists today, the feminine stands as a challenge in Islamic
art. This brings us to understand better why intellectually
dazzling female Al Jazeera hosts enchant male viewers.
is one final emotional nuance I would like to add which seems
to me pertinent if we are to grasp the nascent trends of the
digital Islam galaxy: Sufis were very popular in a medieval
Islam which had to face the constant attacks of Christian crusaders
because they addressed the question of fear. Sufis helped people
in medieval Islam to face fear of the unknown by diving into
knowledge." The human being can master his anxieties by
channeling his energies into learning ... The issue is confusion.
Confusion creates anxiety (hayra), and anxiety creates movement
and movement is life." (42)
is OK, says the Sufis, because it triggers in you the desire
to know what frightens you. In so doing, it produces a positive
movement within. The worst is to be petrified by one's fears
to the point of being paralyzed and forced to shrink inward.
And anxiety is indeed the daily share of many of us, Muslims
or not, who witness the apocalyptic vanishing of our familiar
abridged version of THE SATELLITE, THE PRINCE AND SCHEHERAZADE:
The Rise of Women in Digital Islam by Fatema Mernissi, Copyright
(C) 2003 by Fatema Mernissi, is reprinted by permission of the
Edite Kroll Literary Agency Inc. All rights reserved.
1. Mohammad Mahmud "Darura am ighra? Dirama Ramadan"
("Necessity or Seduction? Ramadan Films") in the TV
Programs insert of Al-Ahram Al-'Arabi, Issue 299, December
2002, p. 18. Al-Ahram Al-'Arabi is a Cairo-based avant-garde
magazine. Website: www.ahram.org.eg/arabi.
Muntashir "Qasim Amin wa-Faris Bila Jawad:
bayna harim as-sultan wal-sultan nafsih" ("Qasim Amin
and Rider Without a Horse: Between the Sultan's Harem and the
Sultan Himself") in the Television column of the magazine
Rose El Youssef, Issue 3885, November 23-29, 2002.
'Abd al-Hadi "The Empire of Women: of 80,000 Employed in
Radio and Television, 50,000 are Women," a survey published
in the Ramadan issue of the Egyptian magazine Rose El Youssef,
Issue 3886, November 30-December 6, 2002, pp. 43-45.
Ali in his Suhun Fada'iyya ("Satellite Dishes") column
in Al-Nuqqad, June 17, 2002. Al-Nuqqad is a Pan-Arab
political and cultural weekly magazine with offices in London
and Lebanon. Website: www.annouqad.com
al-Kashki "The Halal-Haram Fatwas" (Fatawi al-Halal
wal-Haram) in the special Ramadan Issue of Al-Ahram Al-Arabi,
Issue 295, November 16, 2002, p. 73.
fi-l amri, abana lahu .... and the verse of the Quran yastaftunaka
qul Allahu yuftikum [Sura 4 Al-Nisa' ("Women"),
Verse 176] ay yas'alunaka su'ala ta'allumin ...."
Ibn Manzur Lisan al-'Arab, Dar al Maarif, Cairo 1979
edition, volume 5, page 3348. Ibn Manzur was born in Cairo in
1232 and died in 1311.
7. Jadal, the art of interactive debate central to the spread
of Islam as an oral communication strategy (before the introduction
of paper by the Persian Wazir Ja'far al-Barmaki strengthened
the despotic bureaucracy of the Abbasid dynasty). It was the
object of a whole school of dialogue training manuals such as
the 13th-century Ibn 'Uqayl's The Book of Jadal According
to the Way of the Theologians (Kitab al-jadal 'ala tariqat
al-fuqaha). Maktabat al-Thaqafa al-Diniyya, Port Said, Egypt,
n.d. The author died in 510 A.H. (13th century). Today, we witness
a renaissance of jadal, and books teaching dialogues are becoming
best-sellers again. Such is the case with my Moroccan contemporary
Taha Abderrahman's book On the Tradition of Dialogue
(Fi usul al-hiwar), Al Markaz al-Thaqafi al-'Arabi, Casablanca,
second edition, 2002), which has been reprinted in response
to the great demand..
9. Peter Mandaville "Digital Islam: Changing the Boundaries
of Religious Knowledge" in the International Institute
of the Study of Islam in the Modern World Newsletter, March
1999, pp. 1 and 23. This newsletter is a tri-annual publication
of Leiden University, Netherlands. Website:http://isim.leidenuniv.nl
maqsidun wahid" Lisan al-'Arab, Volume 1, p. 134.
Mandaville "Digital Islam" op.cit. To get a quick
glimpse of the speedy digital Arab galaxy build-up, the following
two books are quite useful: René Naba: Guerre des Ondes
des Religions: La Bataille Hertzienne dans le Ciel Méditerrannéan,
L'Harmatan, Paris 1998 and Mohamed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar
Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World
and Changed The Middle East. Westview, Perseus Books Group,
Sakr "Arab Satellite Channels Between State and Private
Ownership: Current and Future Implications" in Transnational
Broadcasting Studies Issue 9 (TBS 9), Winter-Fall 2002,
p 3. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.
Amin "Arab Women and Satellite Broadcasting" in Transnational
Broadcasting Studies Issue 6 (TBS 6), Spring/Summer 2001.
Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com. Amin Hussein is chairman of the
Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American
University in Cairo and has produced impressive work on the
topic of new technologies.
Bennani: "L'Iran Drague Nos Journalistes" in the Moroccan
Tel Quel, Issue 46, October 5-11, 2002.
Controls LBC?" According to Mohamed El-Nawawy and Adel
Iskandar, LBC will be controlled by a board nominated by ministers
and officials close to the Syrian government and not by Rafik
Al Hariri, as many think. According to them, Rafik Al Hariri
partially owns another Lebanese TV channel, Future TV (op.
Y. Ahmed "The Closing of Murr TV: Challenge or Corrective
for Satellite Broadcasting in Lebanon" in Transnational
Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS 9), Winter-Fall 2002. Website:
18. Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar, op.cit., p.
safaqa Sa'udiyya-Lubnaniyya li-damj at-tilifizyun bis-suhuf"
("The Biggest Deal between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to
Merge Audiovisual with Printed Media") in Al-Nuqqad,
March 2002, p. 16 (cover story).
Campbell "US Plans TV Station to Rival Al Jazeera"
in The Guardian, Friday November 23, 2001.
Chambers "Will Hollywood Go to War?" in Transnational
Broadcasting Studies 8 (TBS 8), Spring-Summer 2002. Website:
Schleifer "Super News Center Setting Up in London for Al-Hayat
and LBC: An Interview with Jihad Khazen and Salah Nemett"
in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS 9), Winter-Fall
2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.
source for the statistics on illiteracy rates is the UNESCO
Statistical Yearbook for 1999, Table II.5.1.: "Estimated
number of adult illiterates and distribution by gender and by
region.1980, 1999 and 2000."
Sakr "Arab Satellite Channels between State and Private
Forrester "Middle East TV Continues to Baffle and Bewilder"
in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS 9), Fall-Winter
2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com. Chris Forrester is a broadcast
journalist and the author of Digital Television Broadcasting
published in June 1998 by Philips Business Information.
27. Nabil Ali "Thuna'iyyat al-asr: al-sifr wal-wahid"
("The Century's Duality: the Zero and the One") in
Wijhaat Nazar ("Points of View, an Egyptian monthly
review), Volume 4, Number 44, September 2002, pp. 34-40. Website:
Guaaybess "A New Order of Information in The Arab Broadcasting
System" inTransnational Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS
9), Fall-Winter 2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.
Schleifer "An Interview with Ali Al-Hedeithy, the Director
General of MBC" inTransnational Broadcasting Studies
9 (TBS 9), Fall-Winter 2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.
5% de son programme à des émissions religieuses,
contre 75, 5 pour les variétés et 9, 5 pour cent
." René Naba op. cit. p.
Najm "Cultural Programs: The frequency is ridiculously
low and the content is totally divorced from reality" in
Al-Funun (a Kuwaiti magazine), Issue 6, June 2001. p.39.
The issue is devoted to a survey of Arab satellite channels.
Schleifer "Interview with Ian Ritchie, Former CEO of MBC"
in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 7 (TBS 7), Fall-Winter
2001. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.
El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar op cit., p. 59
Amin, op. cit.
Ghanem Shakl al Fada'iyyat al Khassa Yataqqadam ("The
Aesthetics of Private Satellite Channels Are Improving")
in Al-Funun 6, June 2001, p. 38. Website: www.kuwaitculture.org
Ghanem, op. cit.
'Arabi Fusus al-Hikam ("The Bezels of Wisdom").
The English translation used here is that of R. W. Austin: "The
Bezels of Wisdom," Paulist Press, New Jersey, USA, 1980.
The quote is on page 233. The original text of the first quote
reads fal-mir'atu 'aynun wahidatun, was-suwaru kathiratun
fi 'ayn al-ra'i. Dar al-Kitab al-'Arabi, Beirut, Lebanon,
date not indicated, p. 184.
Berber was declared a national language, you notice regularly
in the news stands magazines with its unfamiliar alphabet challenging
you to learn its mysterious code, such as Le Monde Amazight
and Tasafut ("Candlelight").
Bishara Falastin-Isra'il: salam am nizam 'unsuri? ("Palestine-Israel:
Peace or Racist Regime?"). Cairo, Markaz al-Qahira li-Dirasat
Huquq al-Insan, 2001.
translation of the following quote: Fal-Huda huwa an yahtadi
al insan ila l-hayrati fa ya'lam. Inna l-amra hayratun wal-hayratu
qalaq wa harakah, wal-harakatu hayat. Fala sukuna fala mawt,
wa wujud, fala 'adam in Fusus al-Hikam (p. 200). TBS