Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

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Women, the media and Serene Assir

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Women are the product and men are the consumers in a continually unrepresentative media

If the world media is about striking a balance between credibility and sensationalism, then it is women who end up at the exploitative end.

More of an image commodity than a decision-maker, woman is still under-represented in the public sphere, despite progress over the last 20 years. According to a Canadian Internet research project, "Media Portrayals of Girls and Women", for example, "female stereotypes continue to thrive in the media we consume every day."

The tendency is perhaps even more evident in Egypt -- on TV, in the print media, across billboards. Consistently, images of women answer to different criteria of representation from those of men. A female singer with the right body and hair colour can make it into the public sphere regardless of vocal ability; yet a man need not worry about shaving or losing the extra pounds so long as his talent and hard work make up for it.

At a conference organised by German technical agency GTZ last month, Inas Abu Youssef, director of the Faculty of Mass Communications' Centre of Gender Studies at Cairo University, summed it up: "females are rarely given voice, unless the subject tackled by a given journalist or media worker relates to issues as specific, and in some cases as stereotypical, as the home, women's rights, fashion or child health. There continues to be a perception among Egyptians that a woman cannot be taken as seriously as her male counterpart on subjects such as politics or economics."

Yet, notwithstanding imbalances in education levels highlighted in the new Egypt Human Development Report (EHDR) -- this is especially true of rural and impoverished urban families -- it is no coincidence that woman editors run the economy pages of four of the country's most widely read newspapers -- Al-Gomhuriya, Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Wafd. Where they are not purposely stopped in their tracks, many women are finding their way to the top -- in universities, law firms and corporations. As Abu Youssef said, however, "the social ill prevails in that women are rarely cited as sources, even, surprisingly enough, on the media pages and programmes run by women editors."

And this is what generates cause for concern: no longer are men alone the perpetrators of the myth of the gentler sex, homebound and child caring or else, in some cases, the spring of all evil. Women in the media, by succumbing to the demands of the job, help perpetrate it; even a veteran singer like Asala will undertake plastic surgery to fit the bill. And though the king of Arab pop Amr Diab, for one, is constantly reinventing his looks, physical beauty remains a far more crucial prerequisite for women in the work place -- judging by the sheer number of female media figures who are over made up.

"A man's power is understood in relation to his levels of masculinity," according to star songwriter Assem Hussein, "while a woman's validity is reinforced by her beauty. It is well nigh impossible for viewers, whether male or female, to believe a woman performer singing about love if she isn't pretty; the industry functions on that basis."

Yet the far more lasting household names of Um Kolthoum and Fairouz -- singing legends of Egypt and Lebanon, respectively -- discredit the validity of any such discourse. Though never perceived as pretty, even as they faced competition from conventionally attractive stars like Shadia and Laila Murad, they remained in leagues of their own.

What with today's music industry smacking of economics more than ever before, with channels like Melody and Rotana practically controlling artist turnover, it is the stereotype-oriented video clip not the song, that catapults a star to fame. Music is less about the listener's ears, in other words, than the consumer's eyes. This is particularly true now that file-sharing has rendered CD sales less significant to profit, which increasingly relies on advertising. And with a beady eye on profit, content is rendered less significant. The media has opted out of the business of challenging social faults, concentrating instead on attracting predominantly male money to survive.

Commenting on the portrayal of women in film at the aforementioned conference, scholar Mohamed Ahmed Hakim noted that to this day, female characters are often linear and secondary, while "real" personalities are portrayed by men. "Women are still too often portrayed as possessors of evil, magic powers, and hardly ever shown as hard-working bread earners," he told conference attendees.

Yet, aside from detergent advertisements on the radio being addressed exclusively to women, women like Nile TV presenter Reham Salem are more and more prevalent in business sphere, particularly in the light of rising male unemployment. "Things have started to change,." Eid declared, ."particularly in the film industry. There is no doubt that the new generation of young actresses, including Hind Sabri and Menna Shalabi, are making great progress in portraying women in a more realistic, down-to-earth, and fair manner."."

Still, the mass media lags behind when it comes to revealing the true face of Egyptian women, whose gifts and endurance are concealed underneath a mask of airbrushed perfection none of them should care to recognise.

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