Portraying Women in the Western and Arab Media, General Remarks

Ibrahim Nawar

Chief Executive, Arab Press Freedom Watch

At a time when exchanges between the diverse cultures at all levels are progressively intensifying, cultural stereotypes still prevail and are even accentuated in the sensationalist media, generally the most popular. Television channels must put cultural integration policies into practice in their broadcasts and work to transmit more adjusted realities of the “Other”, far from the distortions that impede peaceful coexistence between the different communities.  

In the age of satellite and Internet technology, the media have taken on a global rather than national role. Censorship is more difficult in the global age and freedom of expression means more responsibility than ever. But although the global media can bring people together, they can also separate them if they use the wrong discourse. Family members watching TV in their living room in London may be entertained by programmes coming from India, Pakistan, Iran or Egypt. They may be laughing at jokes produced in their country of origin rather than ones aired by BBC programmes or published in The Sun newspaper. Their values, ideas and emotions may be formed in a way that disagrees or clashes with the set of values and ideas that are well established in their host country.

Here lies the danger of the satellite age. The global media have destroyed the limits of distance and borders. Those who wish to escape what may be described as “cultural exclusion” will find their refuge in satellite TV channels that “include” them or that they feel identified with such as the Al Jazeera channel. The question of cultural inclusion must be high on the agenda of media policymakers in the West as symptoms of failure to include minorities in Europe have become visible. But the policy of cultural inclusion may be used to mobilise forces along lines of confrontation rather than tolerance and inclusion. Those in the Muslim world, for example, who beat the drums of war between the East and the West, contribute to tension and confrontation between Muslims living in the West and their host countries. Healthy race relations fall victim to short sighted media and cultural policies in the West that deny the identity of minorities and tend to marginalise their cultures.

The image of Arabs and Muslims in the Western media has been distorted, as has the image of Westerners in the Arab media because of the long history of colonial and imperial policies of the Western powers in the Arab world

Therefore, an objective policy of cultural inclusion should be built on the basis of tolerance, diversity and respect for differences in race, culture, religion, etc. On both sides, in the West as well as in the Arab world, there are those who are trying to follow constructive media policy and there are those who are not. Some conservative and sensational media outlets on both sides are fond of endangering race relations in Europe and the relations with the Arab world by promoting enmity rather than friendship between the two sides. The Danish cartoon saga that erupted in 2005/2006 was one example. A media policy of inclusion based upon principles of tolerance, diversity and respect for differences is a domestic need as well as a global one. Millions of men and women cross the borders of the Mediterranean every year. Communities of millions of citizens who originated from North Africa reside in Europe.

They should be helped to live in harmony with other communities in their host countries. Media policymakers on both sides of the Mediterranean are responsible for helping them to do so. Millions of tourists and tens of thousands of European expatriates travel every year to and from the Arab world. They should feel safe and enjoy their freedom wherever they go in the South, whether for business or entertainment. Not long ago, the Southern shores of the Mediterranean were examples of hospitality rather than hostility. Alexandria was the greatest and the most cosmopolitan city in the world until the late decades of the 19th century. The city was the symbol of global freedom, with men and women from everywhere in the world living together in harmony. Sadly, no longer in places such as Algiers or Casablanca, as Muslim extremists have ripped apart the real fabric of social life based on tolerance, diversity and respect for differences.

Some European extremists are playing an equal role against Arabs and Muslims in the West. It is well known that attacks on Arabs and Muslims have jumped to unprecedented rates since the 9/11 explosions in the USA. Furthermore, the picture is not complete without adding aspects of military confrontation in Iraq and Palestine. The image of Arabs and Muslims in the Western media has been distorted, as has the image of Westerners in the Arab media because of the long history of colonial and imperial policies of the Western powers in the Arab world. Images of Arabs in the Western media were not objective in the last three decades of the twentieth century. After the first oil shock of the 1970s, the Arab man had been portrayed as the filthy rich oil man with his harem around him living a foolish life. After September 11 the image that has been promoted is that of a terrorist growing a beard and carrying a gun or a bomb.

This image is a dominant one in Western cinema and TV programmes. Although some Arab media have presented a negative image of Western politicians supporting Israeli attacks on the Palestinians or the war against Iraq, very few references have been made to paint a negative image of Western men or women. The last references that contained such a negative image may be found during the decades of liberation and independence after the Second World War. Western men or women were seen as aggressors, occupiers or colonials. Such a negative image was a result of military occupation and long colonial control by European powers in the South and the East of the Mediterranean. Arab women have also fallen victim to this negative portrayal of Arab characters by the Western media. The popular media in particular are responsible for presenting Arab women as silly veiled females.

Lack of knowledge of the history of women in the Arab and Muslim world has resulted in shallow ideas about them by the Western media. A woman wearing a veil has now become the symbol of women in the Arab world, what an insult! Yes, it is true that an increasing number of Muslim women now wear a hejab (veil), but it is wrong to generalise and stereotype. It is not only a Western trend to portray Arab women as females wearing a hejab, but is also a conservative Muslim trend to try to establish the hejab as part of the identity of Muslim women. TV advertisers in Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab Gulf countries have to present Arab women in their commercials as females wearing a hejab. Most recently, it has become fashionable on some screens to introduce women wearing a hejab as TV presenters, as can be seen on the Al Jazeera TV channel and the Saudi Ekhbariya (news) channel. It may be said that wearing a hejab is a personal choice, but behind the scenes we hear about a policy of pressure and reward to promote wearing the hejab among Arab female TV presenters and film actresses.

In some cases, the creation of a stereotype may respond to the need to simplify or to present an easy picture but, in most cases, it results in distorting the truth and manipulating the minds of ordinary people. The most dangerous elements of stereotyping are generalisation, denial of diversity and selectivity. Therefore, stereotyping can lead to judging without looking at details and making poor judgements. In the case of Arab women, elements of the language barrier, lack of knowledge of Arab history and the role of women in Islam and poor selection criteria for who appears on TV screens are producing damaging results in domestic race relations and in the dialogue between cultures.

Khadija Ben Ganna, news anchor in Al Jazeera, decided to wear the hejab on air (María Clemente)

News and programme producers of some TV and radio stations are mostly keen on presenting sensational stories or headline news, even if that comes at the expense of the truth. In some news programmes, extreme views take priority while moderate minds are pushed to the back. I remember once I was interviewed by the Sky news channel and, when I expressed my view, the programme presenter commented by saying that I was a “Westernised liberal” not reflecting the majority in the Arab world! That comment implied stereotyping of Arab intellectuals as anti-West extremists! Stereotyping can be physical as well as mental. As Arab women are seen generally in the West as veiled, they are also seen as extremists and anti-West. In some cases Arab women are portrayed as the oppressed who love their oppressors! Mental stereotyping is very dangerous, especially when it is based on narrow-minded ideas and false data. Mental stereotyping of Arabs in the Western media includes features of anti-Western attitudes, extremism and terrorism.

Such stereotyping can only promote hate talk and conflict rather than tolerance and respect for others within the societies of Europe and may poison the relations across the Mediterranean. Once again, the need to reform the way we look at each other across the Mediterranean is a national as well as an international one. Stereotyping and narrow-minded ideas clash with the need for healthy race relations within Europe and healthy relations across the Mediterranean. One of the first aims of any dialogue between Europe and the Arab world is to stop stereotyping on both sides. The Arab media, especially conservative and ultra religious outlets, are also practising stereotyping of Westerners as enemies of Islam and Muslims across the world.

The Arab media, especially conservative and ultra religious outlets, are also practising stereotyping of Westerners as enemies of Islam and Muslims across the world

But the influence of these media outlets has some limits, for three reasons: first is the impact of Western media programmes imported and aired by Arab TV stations; second, is the impact of pop music and Western songs, especially on the young Arab generation; and third is the spread of the English and French languages in the Arab world. One can ask about the percentage of English and French speaking Arabs compared with the percentage of Arabic speaking Europeans. The answer is self-evident. The dialogue between Mediterranean cultures that has started as a result of the Barcelona Declaration provides a good and solid ground for better understanding that can limit the damage caused by stereotyping. In the last few years members of the Barcelona Club have succeeded in signing many bilateral and multilateral partnership agreements.

This new partnership across the Mediterranean has opened the way for a relationship of cooperation rather than confrontation. Media exchange programmes between media institutions across the Mediterranean should help bring together media employees (journalists, producers, presenters, writers, forward planners, etc.) from the North and the South of the sea to discuss topics of mutual interest. Joint production of news programmes, features and documentaries of importance in reforming public opinion on both sides may also play a constructive role in understanding the history and life of the Mediterranean people.

Key events in the history of the Mediterranean people may be revisited through joint production of documentaries in order to highlight the need for peace and tolerance. Education exchange programmes, twinning of universities and cities, organised cultural events and visits by personalities on both sides can help create a balanced picture on each side. Fighting stereotyping is a mutual responsibility and can produce mutual benefits and help promote peace, tolerance and respect for others. That responsibility should be taken seriously.