Mediating Women's Voice in the Arab Spring: From a Lullaby Whispering to Wailing for National Freedom

Mediating Women's Voice in the Arab Spring: From a Lullaby Whispering to Wailing for National Freedom

Introduction

Besides their supposedly entertaining and informative purposes, Mass media are meant to constructively educate and contribute in the establishment of gendered-free spaces, and thus, leading to democratic nations. In a number of modern democracies, media play, and have played, pivotal roles in the construction of the democratization process of those nations. By the same token, in other part of the world, namely the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), local media have been instrumentalized to vindicate spirits of patriarchy, endocentrism, and fundamentalism, causing more damages then benefits to the aspirations, identities, and roles of the Arab woman. During the few decades in which media, (in all forms: press, radio, audio-visual, and electronic) have infiltrated the Arab world, the woman’s voices, images, and identities have been subject to all forms of stereotyping, objectifications, and marginalization from the State’s sovereign institutions, especially those of politics, economy, and mass-communications.

With the uprising events of the Arab Spring, however, new realities have started to take shape, shaping with them new hopes over the debate of gender equality. Thus, the publicitization of both female’s demands of the political share of power is very significant not only for those women who have made the news, but in the history of the Arab women for the yet to come generations as well. Discussed in this paper is the sweeping change in the Arab Media strategies in their representations of the Arab women, following the unprecedented revolutions in the region. For so doing, the paper will trace back the trajectory followed by the Arab mediocre media vis-à-vis gender’s coverage during the last decade, and spotting more lights on the present political uprising in the region. The paper will conclude by raising a question mark against the future of the Arab women’s political roles within the region after the tide of this political dynamism is evened.

  1. I.   The Era of Lullaby Singing

Regardless of all the timid political reforms taking place each now and then in the MENA region, and regardless of all the regional and transnational conventions signed with discernible cautiousness, and sometimes with recorded reservations, in matters of women human rights, it does not take much time for a foreign visitor to an Arab country to realize how far the existing distance between the lethargic reality the Arab woman lives and the one she deserves to have. In a region where vertebral social and economic disparities, handicaps of illiteracy, poverty, limited access to the health care system, and unreliable justice institution prevail, it is no surprise that talking about women’s rights is going to be the last concern in the local media agenda. Thus, the unjust shocking socio-political, socio-economic and socio-cultural discriminatory mediated representations of women become the norm for both the subject of these constructed realities (women) as well as the general public/audiences.

The Arab audiences have been raised to watch programs picturing the woman as a hopeless individual, a victim of crimes or social injustice, a protagonist of the rural life, an icon of illiteracy, and/or at best, trying to make her way through historically male-dominated sectors. Often time, the modern Arab woman is mostly seen as a famous singer, actress; but rarely a politician, an investor, or a leader of a decision making position. Her presence in the media has been subordinated to the males‘ assertive power. Her voice has been mostly heard through males‘ debates. In short, the female prototype in the Arab media has more likely been the problem and very rarely part of the solution. She is usually the object of debate. Her participatory contributions in solving nationally crucial issues are seldom heard of or seen on a regular basis, except in certain occasions such as „Woman’s International Day“.

In 2000, the special plenary committee’s report of the 23rd extraordinary session of the United Nations general assembly stated „that women in the Maghrebi countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya) were under-represented among parliamentarians, ministers, vice-ministers and managers of social and economic companies and institutions, that the public was not sensitized enough about the importance of men/women balanced representation in the decision making process, and that media continue to disseminate prejudices against women.“ The report also noted that there is a growing women’s adherence to political parties – both in terms of quality and quantity – with varying degree from one country to another, if we consider their level of instruction and their professional affiliations. Yet, women rarely hold managerial positions in political parties where they are much more solicited as voters rather than as candidates, and much less as leaders of their parties‘ list of candidates; and the diversity of women’s profiles already actively present in the political sphere is still poorly reflected in the media which are globally punctual and selective. That is, the coverage is selective as it favors profiles of some politically active women – such as MPs, members of municipal councils, or senators – and neglects others profiles that can actually reflect the diversity of women’s political actions.

In 2010, in its fourth international Global Media Monitoring Project’s (GMMP) report, the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) found out that the Middle Eastern women are still significantly underrepresented in the news, despite the geopolitical and economic dynamism the world has been witnessing since the tragic event of septmber/11. For instance, the study showed that out of all the people who are interviewed, or whom the news is about in the media, only 16% of them are female. Although, mediated stories related to politics make up the majority of the news agenda, only 10% of these stories represent women’s voice.

Even when women do make the news, they are generally represented in stories related to entertainment. Furthermore, the majority of news reinforces gender stereotypes, for 81% of stories were found to support stereotypes, 14% neither challenge nor support stereotypes and only 4% challenge them.  Major news topics found to reinforce gender stereotypes happen to be topics about economy (83%) and politics (81%).

Professionally, while females are significantly underrepresented as news subjects, female news professionals are somewhat gaining more space at workforce. For instance, women primarily appear in personal capacity- as eyewitnesses (49%), giving personal views (31%) or as representatives of popular opinion (30%); but 57% of news announcers are women compared to 43% men. Still, as reporters, the number of women tends to lag far behind the number of males.  Only 33% of all news reporters in the Middle East are female (see table .3). Very little news- just 9% of all stories- specifically focus on women. As authority or experts, women barely feature in news stories, since only 19% of the portrayed women are experts and 12% are spokespersons. News informational sources are also overwhelmingly male: only 16% of national news is quoted a female source and even less for international news (13%). As to newsmakers, women are underrepresented in professional categories such as politics (12%) and law (11%).  When women do make the news it is primarily as students (66%), homemaker/parents (47%) or celebrities (41%).

Two main conclusions could be drawn from these statistics. On the one hand, there is an international consensus that the Arab woman is being discriminated against in the local media, particularly in the government owned media. Put differently, these indicators unveil the high correlation between women’s invisibility in mediated leading roles and their invisibility in the actual political decision-making ranks. On the other hand, since the 2000’s UN 23rd general assembly until the GMMP in 2010, nothing substantial has positively changed in women’s share of political or mediated power, at least as it has been reported by the two studies.

The reasons are various and complex. Some of them are attributed to the absence of a serious and responsible political will; others go back to the lobbying power of corrupt politicians who represent the breathing lungs of totalitarianism and dictatorships, which is another form of patriarchy, adding to that the deeply rooted cultural norms that still locate women on Derrida’s lower scale of binary oppositions. But more importantly, the fact that a considerable portion of females population in the region are illiterate and economically dependent represents a barrier in face of the aspirations of each and every woman, and also gives an excuse to those on power to keep oppressing women with the excuse that the latter can not represent themselves since they are not educated and not professionally qualified.

Nadia Hijab (1989) summarizes the slow process of women’s empowerment in the Arab world into two major reasons. First, she believes that the debate on women’s role in these societies is taking place within the framework of „Arab-Islamic Heritage,“ which has resulted in a somewhat schizophrenic approach that both encourages women to take equal part in the developmental process; and yet, holds them back in their place as secondary actors within the family context. The other reason, the author attributes it to the poor design and execution of the development process in the Arab word. The region has been unsuccessful in constructing a robust health and education system and uneven wealth distribution because of „inexperience and apathy, since the majority of the people, not to speak about women, have been excluded from decision-making.“ P.7.

During the past few months, the Arab region -Starting from Morocco passing by Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen – has been witnessing an unprecedented political transition, which means that now more than ever all forms of contradictions are at their zenith in the sense that the previous political regime with all its heritage is no more operating and a new one is yet to see light. However, unlike many of the historically recorded transitional phases of which women had to suffer the most, this time women have been major actors whether in triggering and/or surviving the transition; and for the first time, the Arab media, in all forms, have been airing voices and images of militant females invading the emblematic streets of the region’s capital cities, hand in hand with their male partners. The next section sheds light on the shifting media strategy of representations of the Arab woman along with the role she has acted during this period of national transition.

  1. II.  Women in the „Arab Spring“: Heard & Seen 

While the „Arab spring“ is neither about women’s liberation and gender equality nor was it motivated by this cause, it benchmarks a historical moment in the futuristic livelihood of the Arab women who have been so omnipresent in these streets‘ revolutions. Women’s visibility in the local and international news channels and social media has reached its peak. Al-Jazeera channels –both Arabic and English- for instance, laid the groundwork by providing skeptical coverage of women’s rights, that traditional government-dominated media had long avoided. Many other international media have unstoppably aired featured stories of young girls leading the Tunisian demonstrations that catalyzed the Arab Spring. We have seen them marching up the capitals‘ main streets, with their husbands and children; or forming distinct frontline protests. Then, the outbreak of the 25th January demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, motivated by a young woman via a video posted on Face-book of Egyptian uprising, forced the president Hosni Mubarak out of office.

By the same token, In Bahrain, mobilized by a huge wave of women sitting in Pearl Square in the capital, demanding change, Zainab al-Khawaja, was the figurehead of those women. She went on a hunger strike in protest at the beating and arrest of her father, husband and brother-in-law. In Yemen, it was Tawakul Karman, a 32 female journalist, who first led demonstrations on a university campus against the long rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman emerged as one of the leaders of the revolution. Thousands of veiled women, following Karman, have come out in Sana’a and Taiz to force that country’s autocrat from office. Women in Syria defied armed secret police; blockading roads to demonstrate for the freedom of their imprisoned loved ones. In Libya, women’s protest against the regime was initiated by Iman al-Obeidi, a recent law-school graduate from a middle-class family, at the city of Tobruk. Imane broke into a government press conference in Tripoli, and debunk the Gaddafi’s troops who detained her at a checkpoint and then raped her. Her case provoked women’s demonstrations against the regime in the rebel-held city of Benghazi. The city of Benghazi also witnessed the creation of a new opposition newspaper by a group of young men and women. “The role of the female in Libya,“ reads one headline, “She is the Muslim, the mother, the soldier, the protester, the journalist, the volunteer, the citizen.“

In fact, one of the factors that made the prominent roles of the Arab women in these revolutions effectively shocking for the general public in and outside the region was the outstanding level of discipline and efficacy maintained all along the protests. Since it has been a mass movement, women came from different geographical, social and educational backgrounds with different ideological, religious and political affiliations. Labor movements in the Maghrebi countries went out at the public rallies, focusing their political energies on issues of political representation and on laws affecting women’s equality, underlining how much more of a public role they now have than is usually acknowledged.

There is also the undeniable fact that a great number of the female participants engender new generations of women who earned quality education abroad, have a high awareness of the legitimacy of what they are fighting for, and an effective mastery of social media components. Even though, Arab media have been propagating the idea that women’s public sittings were spontaneous and not as structured as that of men’s, the real story was rarely talked about, except in some international channels, such as the BBC, that hosted prominent Arab female bloggers and social media users who took the charge of organizing and uniting the females‘ lines in the streets. Recent studies, led by international media experts, revealed that personal and community access for young Arabs in cafés, schools, and other public spots rose 62%. According to the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report, the total number of Face-book users in the Arab world skyrocketed 30% from January to April of 2011. Arabic-language Face-book users doubled since 2010. Across the Arab world, social media have become cornerstone sources of information about demonstrations around the region. Politically active Arab women of a new generation have adopted social media as an indispensible tool, and they will not be surrendering it anytime soon. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has also resulted in a more sprawling and vibrant network of local and national news organizations many of which led by female figures.

Among the many pioneer users of social media as a site of national mobility during the up-rise is Leena Ben Mhenni, often called a „cyber activist.“ She created her blog under her own name, writing about women’s rights and freedom of press, daring to report what the official media in Tunisia ignored or fabricated, and to encourage others not to be afraid. During the peak of the revolt, she traveled around the country to document government crackdowns on protesters and ran photos of those injured or killed by police. There is also Israa Abdel Fattah in Egypt. Israa was one of the founders of the 6th of April youth movement on Face-book. Asmaa Mahfouz is another Egyptian activist, and now a symbol of heroism, as she was a key organizer of the 18-day uprising that forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. In recognition to her heroism, Mahfouz had been nominated for the 2011 Nobel Prize, which was recently given to three women one of whom is the Yemeni Tawakul Karman. Karaman is a-32 journalist and women human rights activist who stood still in front of Saleh’s tyranny. Now, besides her being the first Arab woman to win the Peace Prize, she is also the everlasting Arab figure who rebelled not only against dictatorship but also against a traditional, conservative mindset that fears women as agents of change.

III. Will the Arab Revolution Reward Women?

This is the question that the Arab women along with many local and transnational women human rights activists raise with a great deal of fear and uncertainty. The roots of this uncertainty date back in the early 1960s when Algeria won its independence from France. During the fight for independence, the Algerian woman was a team player aside the Algerian man in their fierce resistance to the colonial power. Ironically enough, once the country got its independence, women once again were pushed back to their private space, and all they gained from the new regime was full civil rights (voting and elections), but debate over their actual personal rights remained an uncharted landscape. With the Arab Spring, and despite the prominent roles played by women, women stare at the future with worry eyes rather than optimistic looks, because they worry that on the road to new democratic parliamentary regimes, their rights will be discarded in favor of male constituencies, whether patriarchal liberals or Muslim fundamentalists. Activists on women’s issues and progressives are wondering how to ensure that women’s gains this spring not be rolled back.

It was, for example, striking that women were without representation on the commission appointed to revise the Egyptian constitution in preparation for September elections, and that only one woman was appointed to the 29-person interim cabinet. Buthayna Kamel, a prominent newscaster and critic of the Mubarak regime, is running for president. Even if her run gets little traction, her candidacy, she believes, is nevertheless deeply symbolic and historic – and another strikingly brave act by a woman in this new era in the Arab world. Other Egyptian women are hoping that the constitution can be rewritten to strengthen women’s rights, and that the 64 seats set aside for women in the previous parliament will be retained. In Tunisia, the leader of fundamentalist group, al-Nahda or the Renaissance Party, politicians in the transitional government are determined to protect the public role of women by making sure they are well represented in the new legislature. Rashid Ghannouchi, leader of the party, has been speaking of institutionalizing a „Turkish model“ and says that, he supports the right of a woman to become the country’s president. With all these inquiries in mind, it becomes lucid that the fight for women’s rights in the region is going to be more difficult than the throwing away of the old regime, because it is not simply a fight against individuals, but against deeply rooted ideologies of endocentrism and male supremacy that the majority of the laymen embrace for granted.

Conclusion

In short, the Arab Spring has been and will stay a turning point in the modern history of the Arab world, as it has pushed the West to reconsider their perception and conceptions of the Arab as an incarnation of the „other“. In the same vain, the Arab woman, through the Arab Spring, has been successful in shaking her family’s, her society’s as well as the rest of the world’s stereotyping convictions toward her, by proving that she is not a second-class citizen as has historically been promoted. Aided by advances in education, by the prominence of articulate female anchors on satellite television networks like Al-Jazeera, and by the rise of the Internet and social media, she asserted leadership roles both in the public sphere as in the cyberspace that young men’s dominance of the public sphere might have hampered in city squares.

Of course, there is still countless number of stories, untold by the media for a reason or another about women who have forged the making of the uprising events in the MENA regions. From Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and Libya, Bahrain and Syria, women were organizers, marchers, rabble-rousers, bloggers, hunger strikers, and, life-losers, nurses in makeshift hospitals and in ambulances, cooks, speakers and freedom songs singers at the demonstrations. They have not escaped the human cost of this uprising. They were beaten to death by the Tunisian police, raped by the pro-Gaddafi militia, detained by the Syrian regime’s Army, and seized by the Bahraini forces. But above all, this not what scares the Arab women as much as the idea that all these efforts will soon fade away once things get back to normal, and once again that same patriarchal mentality floats on the surface. Many are alarmed that their efforts risk going unrewarded and that men who were keen to have them on the streets crying freedom may not be so happy to have them in parliament, government and business boardrooms. Women have helped the Arab Spring, and it remains to be seen if the Arab Spring will help women. One thing is sure is that the Arab woman learned how to make her way to the city emblematic square to ask for her national freedom; so now she knows how to get back there to ask for her own freedom.

References

1. Hamida ElBouri, (2009). Media Coverage of Women’s Political Participation in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia: Media Exercise Synthesis Report. Tunisia: Centre for Arab Women Training and Research (CAWTAR

2. Global Media Monitoring Project, (2010). Regional Report: Middle East. (Consulted on September 27th, 2011).

3. Nadia Hijab, (1989). Womanpower: The Arab Debate on Women at Work. Cambridge: (Cambridge Middle East Library). P.

4. Report of the special plenary committee of the 23rd extraordinary session of the U.N General Assembly  – New York

5. Shahin Cole and Juan Cloe, An Arab Spring for Women: The Missing Story from the Middle East. (April 26, 2011

6. Xan Rice‘, The Arab Spring, (May 13, 2011.) 

7. – March 8th of every year is designated by a number of countries and the international community as a day in which homage is paid to women around the globe.

8 – (7) Report of the special plenary committee of the 23rd extraordinary session of the U.N General Assembly  – New York 2000

9. – The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) is the world’s longest-running and most extensive research on gender in the news media. It began in 1995 with volunteers in 71 countries around the world monitoring women’s presence in their regional radio, television and print news. The project takes place every 5 years, and the latest one took place in 2009 with over 100 participating countries.

10. – WACC is an international ecumenical professional organization that promotes communication rights for social change. Its global office is in London where it is a registered charity. WACC currently has about 1,000 personal and corporate members in 100 countries. http://www.waccglobal.org/

11. – Global Media Monitoring Project 2010 Regional Report: Middle East. Available at:

http://www.whomakesthenews.org/images/stories/restricted/regional/Middle_ East.pdf. (Consulted on September 27th, 2011).

12.  – 7 Arab countries are included in the 2010 GMMP’s project, namely: Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, the United Emirates, and Israel.

13.  – Nadia Hijab, (1989). Womanpower: The Arab Debate on Women at Work. Cambridge, (Cambridge Middle East Library). P.7.



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