I was following with interest media commentaries on the recent experts meeting on women’s media empowerment convened by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia in Beirut (ESCWA). It was clear that independent communication campaigns to promote women’s causes and concerns are gaining a lot of ground in the Arab World. New digital media are making it quite possible for women’s groups to communicate their ideas and views to global publics.
But one issue raised at the meeting that I thought was disturbing relates to media behavior lagging behind social policies on women rights and advancement. The case from Morocco suggested that while the government was able to secure highly progressive civil and constitutional rights amendments relating to women in that country, media institutions were very slow in highlighting such achievements in their publications and broadcast programs.
As an observer of the changing face of media representation of women in the region, I think this development should prod us to re-think our conventional views about media as vanguards of feminist advancement and the state and society at large as the hindrances. It is clear that media’s political and commercial agendas are not always in full alignment with institutionalized aspirations for female development and empowerment.
In media and women scholarship and policy debates in this region, what are termed as “rigid and backward” social, political and cultural traditions have been largely blamed for the dire state of media images in the public sphere. I have come across numerous theories and perspectives that link negative media coverage of women to dismal social and cultural attitudes towards women rights in our communities. There are scores of media commentaries and academic discussions targeting outdated civil rights legislations and social and cultural norms and practices as the real causes of women’s misrepresentation in the media.
One article I thought was quite educational noted that women presence and representation in the Arab media sphere would only be possible through sweeping and genuine reforms in our legal and civil rights systems as well as in our personal attitudes towards women and their role in society. Advocates of this perspective argue that media institutions are no more than mirrors of those painful realities and hence are not expected to break out of this “vicious circle” of negativity and apathy towards women issues.
Until recently, I have been a believer in this point of view. But when I read about cases of women concerns and aspirations being eclipsed by media with specific political and commercial agendas, I thought that was critically alarming for all of us in the region. The constitutional reforms introduced in Morocco for women’s rights pertaining to education, parliamentary representation, children’s acquisition of their mothers’ nationality and work access are all indicative of how far women in Morocco have come in their struggle. But when those achievements failed to find their way into the newspaper pages or the airwaves, it was clear that media agendas were not in total sync with community priorities.
Politics and economics have proven to be the prime obstructions of achieving a genuine media contribution to women empowerment in this region. We all know how politicized our media are turning, especially in the current transitions. Local and global politics has had the lion’s share in our media content mainly because we believe that politics is the ultimate driver of change in our societies. Content about women-related developments is classified in our professional and cultural standards as “soft content” that does not need to be featured on front pages or prime time shows. Aside from the specialized women’s publications or broadcast programs, you would find little content relating women materials competing with political content.
Likewise, while politics may be responsible for keeping women related issues in the dark in our public sphere, economics does also play a negative role. Private media in particular, keen on generating the largest income from advertisements, emphasize women issues only as much as they promote their commercial priorities. Hence, we see a lot of women appearing in advertising content simply because they are used as tools of promoting commercial services and goods. There is plenty of research that reveals how women are “objectified” and “commodified” in media content for the purpose of selling. In a context like this, why would we expect media to play up critical women issues when they see them generating no dollars at the end of the day?
It is time that we rethink our understanding of media misrepresentation in the Arab world—media institutions are not innocent players in a society and state-manipulated game. When the state and society feminist reform bandwagon moves ahead, the media should not be the track saboteurs!