Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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The word is not enough

By Amina Elbendary

Fifty years ago, the media pictured women as frivolous and silly (cartoon in Al-Izaa'a magazine, 13 September 1958). Has women's image changed in half a century?

There must, after all, be such a thing as "cultural lag." For how else could one explain that, in this age of "political correctness," of international feminism and all its national derivatives, stereotypical images of women -- and men -- and their respective gender roles continue to thrive? How is it that, after all that has been said and written, we still get the images we do today in the media?

There is a time lag between an idea being promoted and accepted and that idea being fully absorbed into a cultural framework. While the discourse on women's rights in Egypt dates back to the early 1920s and while women activists have worked and continue to do so in order to promote those rights and ingrain them in local culture, it often seems that they're talking to themselves. There remains a huge discrepancy between feminist and popular discourses on men and women and their ideal gender roles in society.

This popular -- if you will, "national" -- discourse is perpetuated through different channels, chief among which of course are educational curricula and the media. The pervasive power of the media in contemporary society and its almost total monopoly on shaping mentalities prompted the NGO Woman and Society, with the UNICEF and the Al-Ahram Regional Institute for Journalism, to organise a seminar last Wednesday under the title "Towards Just Media Coverage of Women's Issues." The Woman and Society organisation is part of a coalition of NGOs concerned with following up on the international Convention to Eradicate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The organisers tried to include activists from the different fields involved in the issue. They invited official representatives of institutions in the field of women (namely, Ambassador Moushira Khattab, chair of the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and Jihan Rashti, representing the National Council for Women); activists representing the NGOs involved in CEDAW; academics teaching and researching the media; and finally, voices from the field: women working in the media (Iqbal Baraka, editor-in-chief of the weekly women's magazine Hawaa and Sakina Fouad, Al-Ahram columnist and former editor-in-chief of Al-Idha'a wal-Television).

Research concerning women's images in newspapers and print media gives ambivalent conclusions. On one hand, features directly concerning women's issues and rights have witnessed significant progress in content and quantity. It is, however, in incorporating these attitudes in other writings that the discrepancy appears. Thus several speakers pointed out the healthy media attention to women's political participation that has accompanied the on-going parliamentary elections. Yet turn to the Crimes Section in any newspaper, and you might be shocked. The treatment and representation of women involved in crimes, whether as aggressors or victims, seems to be coming out of the 19th century. Women's credibility and morals are directly and indirectly questioned even in stories where they are the victims of violence and aggression. Laila Abdel-Meguid, professor of journalism at Cairo University, pointed to the biases inherent in such seemingly objective news items as reports on accidents of rape, for example, which often insinuate that the (female) victim must have provoked the attack. She drew attention to the prevailing news values that determine what constitutes "news" and what doesn't, and that give more weight to items and incidents that are deemed unusual or extraordinary to the exclusion of the mundane and ordinary.

Sexism also raised its ugly head during the debates surrounding the new Personal Status Law earlier this year. Reading features on khul' and the proposed article on women's right to travel without their husband's permission, one got the feeling that belief in women's "natural" equality with men was a fancy garment that society had donned simply to keep in fashion -- one it was ready to shed at the slightest perceived threat to its established gender order.

Indeed, there is no such thing as "objective discourse" and hence, no such thing as unbiased news. All news is politicised. And it is up to feminist organisations constantly to point out the underlying biases in all news coverage and to expose these presumptions on gender roles.

There are different subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which women are discriminated against in the media. For example, Abdel-Meguid's study pointed out that journalists rarely resort to women as sources for their story, even when such women are established authorities in their respective fields. Similarly, the stereotypical generic woman is often the subject of ridicule in cartoons and caricatures. Mustafa Hussein and Ahmed Ragab's Al-Hobb Huwa in Al-Akhbar is a poignant case in point.

Indeed, this observation is also confirmed by research. Ahmed Menessi of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies conducted a survey of the three leading newspapers (Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar/Akhbar Al-Yom and Al-Gomhouriya) and four weekly magazines (Rose El-Youssef, Sabah Al-Kheir, Hawaa and Nisf Al-Dunia) during the first nine months of 2000. The study concluded that caricatures and news items were the two main forms in which material discriminating against women is usually presented.

Women in rural areas are for the most part ignored by the media. According to Abdel-Meguid, only three per cent of journalistic reporting deals with rural and Bedouin women and -- strangely enough -- this percentage is even less in publications specifically directed towards women! When they are represented, it is often in a negative and derogatory fashion. Indeed, this is part of a more general urban bias in Egyptian culture and politics and is not just limited to women's issues. The overwhelming majority of newspapers appear from Cairo and do not have professional correspondents in the provinces. Iqbal Baraka, editor-in-chief of the weekly women's magazine Hawaa, admitted that her magazine ignored rural women because they are not part of her readership. "They just do not read and the majority of them are illiterate," she argued. "They prefer to save the LE1.50 the magazine would cost to spend the money on their children, buying them chocolates or paying for their private tuition." This bias is thus propagated not only by men, but by other women as well. Baraka was critical of the self-sacrificial behaviour that many Egyptian women are brought up to adhere to, preferring everybody else in their families over themselves and thus perpetuating the myth that they deserve less than everybody else in the family. Inherent in Baraka's argument as well is a criticism too often voiced by women activists against their non-activist sisters whom they look down upon as suffering from "false consciousness." And while it is "true" that many women are not familiar with their rights, and many others perpetuate traditional stereotypical images of themselves, one cannot help but remain uncomfortable at the arrogance and elitism embedded in such an attitude.

Mohamed Shuman, professor at the women's college at Ain Shams University, relayed another experience of false consciousness. The female interviewer of a television programme asked him before the shooting not to dwell too much on women's rights because, she said, "a woman belongs at home, after all." And this, from a working woman interviewing a man on a programme concerning women's issues. Evidently many women aren't really convinced of their own rights and subconsciously reinforce discriminatory practices and ideas.

In addition, Abdel-Meguid's study showed that more attention was focused on the issues that concern upper- and middle-class women in comparison to women of the urban lower classes. Similarly, all participants brought out the fact that the quintessential generic woman in the media is often the young and middle-aged mother. Teenagers and post-menopausal women are ignored.

Participants unanimously agreed, however, that some progress has been achieved in the print media. Whereas 24.7 per cent of journalists registered in the Press Syndicate are women, the majority of the editors-in-chief and chair(men) of the boards remain men. The few exceptions are usually found in women's and children's magazines like Hawaa and Mickey. This of course affects editorial policy concerning women's issues. It also results in more young women journalists being encouraged to write in the women's and children's sections as opposed to foreign policy, economics, or regional affairs, as activist Hanaa Zaki argued in her presentation.

Yet it's on radio and television that a lot still needs to be done. Both television programmes and drama often reinforce the stereotypical images of women. Drama in particular is very attractive and widespread, cutting across many cultural and economic divides, which makes its effects especially detrimental.

So much criticism has been directed against using women as sex symbols in drama and advertising, and yet the stereotyping continues. How many TV ads do not feature gyrating dancing girls in one way or another, selling their products by selling a woman's allure? Even those that don't usually present women in traditional gender roles. Consider ads for milk, the archetypical "maternal" drink. It is always the mother, in house dress, preparing drinks of milk for the children, while the father, clad in business suit and briefcase, waits to drive them to school as Mom waves encouragingly from the house. Ads for cleaning products, similarly, almost always involve women trying to please men.

In television dramas, women are more often than not portrayed either in traditional roles of wife and mother or as "loose." Women who try to break away from the established gender codes are often ridiculed or presented in derogatory fashion. The typical feminist is always anti-feminine and afflicted with a disturbed social and marital life. Working women are often criticised and shown to be doing a bad job at home. The women on screen are often superficial, simple-minded, interested only in fashion and make-up. The participants did point out the "good women" examples on the small screen including the TV series Hayat El-Gohari in which actress Youssra played an honourable public official who stands up to corruption, including her own husband's, and defeats it. In another popular series, Damir Abla Hikmat, Faten Hamama played the most stereotypical of all roles, the reforming spinster headmistress, while Samira Ahmed played the reforming aunt in Zaman Al-Hobb Al-Gamil. Yet Hayat El-Gohari, as well as the leading ladies in Damir Abla Hikmat and Zaman Al-Hobb Al-Gamil are also stereotypes of ideal(ised) women, a point that seemingly did not catch the participants' attention. These stereotypes enforce the idea that women qua women are the custodians of honour in society: if they uphold good morals and values society will prosper. It is simply the flip side of the prostitute coin.

The seminar obviously concluded that there was still a lot of discrimination against women in Egyptian media. A great deal of work needs to be done to change prevailing media attitudes. Participants disagreed on ways to accomplish that goal, however. Some seemed to argue that the media is itself a reflection of society, and that for images in the media to change that social reality must change too. That is, women need to achieve more in real life. Yet it is also clear that the media -- as any other discourse -- is more than a mirror image of reality; it is also a (re)presentation and (re)construction of reality. It is at once a product of reality and an instrument in creating it. Thus, a change of mindset is also needed. Someone suggested training sessions for journalists and media professionals to familiarise them with gender-sensitive thinking. Perhaps promoting some form of political correctness in Egypt might not be such a bad thing after all!

While that cultural lag drags on, however, it felt good to be back at the office. After all, the Weekly now seems like a pioneer in Egyptian journalism; five of our page editors and our assistant editor are women! The female/male ratio here now seems like something to boast about!

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