Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2005
Issue No. 747
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Academic input

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Single mothers and their children are being taken care of at The Shelter for Young Mothers. Many children of Urfi marriages do not officialy exist

According to Naila Hamdi, Mass Communication lecturer at the American University in Cairo (AUC), while the Hinnawi-Fishawi case is far from unprecedented as social phenomenon, the media attention it has received sets a precedent. In the past, she said, the media "would only hint at such things, never revealing the names of the people involved". When El-Fishawi appeared on Channel 2 of national television to discuss the case, therefore, some people were overjoyed that such taboo subjects should be finally out in the open, others were deeply shocked. Hamdi attributes the change to satellite competition: "To keep up with what's happening on other channels, and to keep its audience, Egyptian TV has had to let go." But this is not the only factor: El-Fishawi, for one thing, is a celebrity -- and a religious one at that; at least such is the image he has developed for himself. "When I first came across the story," Hamdi recalls, "I remember thinking, My God. And he's supposed to be Mr Religious, too." The fact that El-Hinnawi's parents supported her, displaying neither shame nor anger, is equally remarkable. Many would say that, in Egypt, such a story usually results in an abortion -- followed by a hymen-repair surgery. "Hind's family didn't have a problem fighting for their daughter's rights," Inas Abu Youssef, Mass Communication professor at Cairo University, adds. "They didn't feel she'd done anything wrong..."

Abu Youssef believes that, though interesting enough, the story has received more media attention than it actually solicits. And it is social, economic and political instability that explains this. "When a society goes through a crisis phase, the media tends to magnify such cases -- just the way it did with belly dancer Dena's sex tape -- a mass distraction." According to Hamdi, at least, the coverage the case has received does not promote a more open or freer society, either: "An editor doesn't wake up in the morning and say, I'm going to change the world today. Rather, he has a newspaper to sell, and he covers what he thinks will draw an audience." The case was so salable, in fact, it made the cover of Vogue : "The end of the affair: An Egyptian woman bucks the system for the sake of her baby". Inside, it takes El-Hinnawi 3,000 words to tell the story. On 27 January, the story also appeared in The New York Times : "TV star paternity suit scandalises Egyptians". Abu Youssef believes foreign interest in the story derives from "contrast": "Pregnancy out of wedlock is normal for them, so they are wondering why it shook the Egyptian society so much." A few years back, she added, the German reporter who was covering the Queen Boat gay charges was surprised at the public reaction: "When he talked to people on the street he was shocked because they were happy the gay men were charged. It's the contrast in the ethics and core principles that grabs their attention." Besides, she added, the story went head to head with the belief that Muslim societies are closed. For the Western media, it raises several questions about the future of Egyptian society. "If one woman gets pregnant and it goes on air, maybe we're moving towards democracy," she laughs.

Hamdi and Abu Youssef agree that local and foreign coverage can be explained by qualities inherent to the story: that it is gossipy and scandalous; that it is not only religion and sex in it but a celebrity. "It's just like the Michael Jackson molestation case," Hamdi adds. "There are a million cases like El-Hinnawi's in the courts every day; why do you think this particular case has received more attention?"

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