I attended the Annual Arab Media Academics Forum (AMAF) at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), organized by the Saudi Journalist Club in UK (SJCUK) on October 29. The fact that the event gathered together media professionals and researchers from different part of the Arab world raised some important questions. How can media professionals utilize the skills and energy of the Arab youth and how can they promote women's rights and their development, especially in the wake of the Arab revolutions?
The AMAF set the stage for young professional media academics to present their theses on a range of topics related to media and a panel discussion composed of media academics and practitioners critiqued their research. The academics were Ali Jaber, Dean of Communication and Information Studies at the American University in Dubai (AUD), Professor Saud Kateb from King Abdulaziz University, and Tarik Sabry, a Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication Theory at the University of Westminster. The practitioners were Jihad El-Khazen, journalist and former editor-in-chief at Dar Al Hayat, Maha Akeel, journalist and editor-in-chief of the OIC Journal and Abdullah Al Gobea, former deputy editor at Al Watan Newspaper.
The AMAF concluded with a panel discussion between the academics and practitioners about the Arab revolutions and new media, chaired by the President of the SJCUK, Prince Badr bin Saud. Throughout the panel discussion and the questions and comments from the students and participants, I realised that Arab countries are not short of skilled and talented individuals, but are in desperate need of a reformed system that will employ the skills of the youth and allow the experts to transfer their knowledge down to the next generation. My concern, as a researcher in media and women's development, is about the future of Arab women in the wake of the Arab revolutions and how the media can aid this development.
I was impressed by all of the presentations and workshops at the AMAF and they all revealed the political and social awareness of the participants, but I will focus here on the women's presentations.
Nahid Bashatah, a Saudi journalist, a PhD researcher in media studies at the University of Salford and SJCUK member, opened the Forum with a presentation on Arab women in the media. Bashatah explained how Arab women have minor roles in the media as they are given limited assignments, they are largely absent from decision-making positions and there is a dearth of women's organizations in the media sector. She also emphasised the dangers of presenting women in media as passive, as such stereotyping becomes reality.
There were five young female researchers who participated in the AMAF sessions and each one of them presented a different topic related to media. Baina Almulhim, a Saudi researcher, presented “Saudi Youth: Dialectic of cultural criticism and political awareness through new media.” She explained how some researchers think that any Saudi who expresses an interest in politics or reform is seen as a “political activist.” She also highlighted the importance of challenging the young people's energy into development instead of involvement in chaotic uprisings.
Marwa Agiza, an Egyptian researcher, presented “The Effect of using Electronic Technologies in Teaching.” The methodology of the study was to collect data by way of questionnaires distributed to faculty staff and students in the Media Department at the American University in Cairo (AUC) that concluded the importance of using e-learning, especially in higher education.
Fahdah Al Onazi, a Saudi researcher, presented “The relationship between the design of Saudi online newspapers and an increase in the number of readers.” Hanan Elgendi, an Egyptian researcher, presented on the role of the “Editor complaints Readers” or the (Ombudsman) in the Western media and highlighted how such a role does not exist in the Arab press. Elgendi conducted interviews with the Ombudsman in the The Washington Post and The Guardian to determine a clear definition of the role and the reasons for its absence in the Arab press. Sawsan Taha, a Palestinian researcher, discussed “Arab Satellite Channels and Internal Political Conflicts.” She highlighted here the role that Al Jazeera has played in the internal Palestinian conflict between Fath and Hamas.
The last female researcher to present was Fatima Bouhani from Algeria and her topic was on “Sports media in Algeria and its role in sustainable social development.”
All of these presentations showed awareness among Arab women and educated youth on the relationship between the Arab political and social situations and the media. The questions raised and the comments made by both the audience and the participants in the last session, focusing on the Arab revolutions and new media showed an interest among Arab youth in seeing Arab media address their concerns. These young men and women, made me realize that there is a real need for programmes on entertainment satellite channels that deal with young people's issues, such as employment and education. Most of the participants and guests agreed that the absence of these topics on television has driven young people to use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. It was also apparent from the discussions that women are keen to leave their mark on the Arab Spring and showing women, particularly young women, in programmes where they are restricted to the ‘private sphere' is out dated. The discussion, revealed an urgency to integrate women, and especially youth, in programmes that discuss issues concerned with the ‘public sphere', that are usually dominated by male opinion.
In light of the political changes in the region, however, I wonder whether the Islamist parties that are currently competing for power, are aware that women have reached this stage of maturity and that patriarchal interpretations of Islam will never be accepted by women. Those Islamist parties are campaigning under the slogan “Islam is the solution.” In fact there is no problem with this as long as there is an explanation of how this slogan is going to be interpreted especially towards women. However, these Islamist parties' pronouncements do not indicate any inclination towards, or sympathy for, Arab women's development.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil, President of the Libyan National Transitional Council, declared in his recent speech that the Sharia would be the country's source of jurisprudence. In his speech he did not find anything more important to say than talk about lifting the ban of polygamy, revealing a patriarchal interpretation of sharia that will be imposed upon Libyan women.
Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, limited the topic of a woman's role to dress, giving assurances that his party would “not force anyone to wear Islamic dress.” At this stage Tunisian women, who have gained the most civil rights among women across the Arab world, are concerned with much more vital issues in post-revolution political and economic development than with Islamic dress. It would have been more useful if Ghannouchi, after his party's victory, explained how the new system would give women more rights than the previous regimes, rather than assure women that dress codes would not be changed. Moreover in the post-election period, the declarations of the Egyptian Islamist parties on women's issues do not show any improvement for Egyptian women. On the contrary, there are indications that things might get worse for women.
If women do not raise these issues at the outset, especially the danger of a patriarchal interpretation of Islam, women's rights might worsen in the wake of the revolutions.
One of the best ways to ensure women's rights is to transform the media into institutions of civil society. The relationship between media and the state must be limited and women's organizations especially in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt where they are preparing for the post-revolution stage, must play a vital role in this transformation. All topics related to women must be scrutinized, especially on satellite channels since these channels reach all demographics, irrespective of education and class. There also must be more religious programmes presented and produced by women. Guests hosted on religious programmes especially, episodes related to women, should not be limited to male clerics but also include female clerics in order to minimize any patriarchal interpretations of Islam. In addition, women-only programmes are not valid in the post-revolution era because, women must be involved in all kinds of programmes, be they political or economic, in order to be part of the development cycle.
Programmes that target the youth on entertainment satellite channels should not be limited to music and video clips, but also address issues that are important to young people, such as employment and education.
It is unrealistic for Arab satellite channels to imitate Western media and to continue to import ready-made programmes from the West because there is an obvious disparity between conditions in the Arab world and those in the West. Western media has the luxury of not presenting issues of national importance and focusing more on entertainment because of the higher standards of living in their own countries, which are entirely different from those in the less developed and politically unstable Arab world, especially during this period of turmoil.
The real dilemma is how to make young women's desire to put their stamp on the Arab Spring a reality. The other predicament is how quickly women can take on vital roles in the media and in the development cycle, in the wake of the revolutions, before it is too late. Delaying the egalitarian demands of women and being silent about the patriarchal interpretations of Islam that are mostly biased against women, can stump the desire for women's developed after the Arab revolutions.
In order to empower women of all levels of education and from all classes, women have a vital role to play, especially on satellite channels, in transforming media into institutions of civil society. In doing so, women will not only ensure their own rights, but also the rights of future generations of women.