Al Jazeera’s Wardrobe Malfunction

The Short version:

Time: A few months ago.

Action: Eight female journalists working for Al Jazeera network signed an official complaint against Deputy Editor Ayman Jaballah, stating that they have been harassed by his comments on their appearance.

Reaction: The network ordered an investigation.

Then:

Time: Last month.

Action: The network reported it was within its legal rights to dictate the appearance of its on-air presenters.

Reaction: Five of the eight presenters quit in protest.

The Long version:

Lina Zahreddine, one of the five Al Jazeera presenters to resign. Image via Al Jazeera.

In an action that was described as first of its kind in the world of Arab satellite channels, last January eight female presenters for the Al Jazeera network filed an official complaint against Ayman Jaballah, a deputy editor known for his conservative views and his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the Lebanese daily Al Safir. Jaballah allegedly harassed them because their clothing and makeup were not modest enough. The result of the network’s investigation into the matter defended Jaballah:

“The on-screen style and general appearance of broadcasters and announcers are the legal right of the network to determine and develop,” it ruled, adding that it had to take into account “the spirit and principles of the channel and the image it wishes to present”. (sic)

“Al Jazeera, in line with its policy of rejecting arm-twisting, has accepted the resignation of the five rebellious presenters,” an official from Al Jazeera told Al Quds Al Arabi. Al Jazeera also appointed Jaballah (whose attitudes were cited in the petition by the presenters as a major cause for their resignation), head of the Al Jazeera Live channel.

Western media has largely focused on the clothing aspect of the story, reflecting Western obsession with clothing in Muslim-majority countries. The Huffington Post pointed to the station’s “style clash,” and New York Daily News got snarky: Apparently pantsuits are too cheeky for Al-Jazeera.” The Daily Mail points out how the presenters “appeared on television wearing make-up and with their hair uncovered,” as if this was something uncommon for Middle Eastern television.

The presenters themselves note that the issue is larger than the dress code. Lina Zahreddine, who is among those who quit, mentioned that the dispute was not just about wardrobe, citing years of “unprofessional” treatment at the hands of management:

“There is something wrong professionally within the newsroom that needs to be fixed, and I don’t mean the editorial policy. There is a history among people in the administration–and I don’t say the administrative board as a whole–of behavior that is unacceptable for a superior towards a subordinate.”

Nawfar Afli, another presenter who quit, agreed, calling the latest incident “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” She said she would announce her real reasons for quitting after she leaves the station.

A member of the editorial team, who requested anonymity, seemed to agree with Zahreddine and Afli:

“This resignation is not driven solely by increasing pressure on the presenters about their dress, mentioned in the media. The conflict is much deeper.”

Arab bloggers have thrown their support behind the women. Blogger Dekhnstan mentioned there was news of resignations of correspondents in Germany, Yemen, and other countries. Blogger Hassan Almustafa said:

According to those who are close to the administration, to whom I talked directly by telephone from Doha, Qatar, they noted that the issue of the dispute went back to a few months ago, when the channel started laying the professional foundations for the “News Room,” At that time, the discussion focused on the all the broadcasters males and females, with special interest to the makeup issue regarding females. Such an issue that was a concern for other similar channels such as BBC-Arabic and CNN-Arabic, which made the chief editor Ahmed Alshaikh-who was assigned to speak on behalf of the investigating committee- issue the decision called “Standards for dress and make up”

The committee also recommended the appointment of a woman in charge of attire who would give advice and consultations pertaining to the attire and general appearance of anchorwomen.

Almustafa continues that that decision didn’t ask the presenters to wear hijab, nor prevented them from wearing only skirts and no pants. But it asked them to give “more attention to details” regarding both makeup and hair and stay away from anything that might look “excessive.” He added that the presenters’ objection was not over the decision, but rather the attitude by which they were informed about it.

Al Jazeera has not made a formal comment on the resignations. Earlier this month, and in an attempt to stay professional, the five presenters announced a statement of clarification about the circumstances of the resignations, asking their colleagues working in the media to be more logical when dealing with the matter and thanking them for their support and interest.

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