New ways of sharing stories have strengthened Arab women’s voices
The Middle-East, Islam, Arab, Muslim to many these words do not evoke anything but negative thoughts. When you add a word like women into the sentence the stereotypes are intensified so that one sees an image of uttermost repression in their mind’s eye.
The countries that are included in the Arab world are generally paint brushed with one colour rather than showing the diversity of culture, religion, ethnicity they actually have. Images of war, oppression, poverty, backwardness and women’s rights come to mind.
However, women in the Gulf states of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar will tell you a different story.
THE ‘OPPRESSED’ WOMAN
This is something that young Emirati woman Dahlia Kayed knows only too well as she hears it everyday. Working as a guide at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai, Dahlia answers questions from foreigners, mainly tourists and mainly Western. Without fail in every session, people ask about women’s rights.
“Lots of people ask about women’s rights,” she says.“I think men are generally portrayed so negatively so people will always be like: ‘Oh you poor women’.”
Dahlia shares one example of the kinds of stereotypes she helps to break down. “Lots of people think that I can’t drive. Of course I would love not to drive in Dubai’s traffic,” she jokes. “But I have to drive, my dad forced me to drive. So sometimes you’ll find it’s the opposite.”
However, the 21-year-old university student is not blind and says there are issues regarding women’s rights in many Arab countries.
“I also like to explain that you have to look at the dynamic of all of these countries. Any country that suffers from all of the things that these Middle Eastern countries are suffering from have zero to little human rights,” she says.
“That is what people fail to realise: it’s just like any other country that is suffering from poverty or from war or from poor education or poor quality of life.”
In contrast to the rights issues in poorer Arab countries, the opposite is more often the case in more developed nations. Women play important roles within Arab-Muslim societies and if the population is educated and enjoys a good quality of life, she can also hold a powerful position.
According to 2012 statistics, The United Arab Emirates ranks first among Arab nations for women’s empowerment. Emirati women also make up 22 per cent of the Federal National Council, representing the highest proportion of women’s political participation in the Arab world.
However, a Thomas Reuters Foundation women’s rights poll ranked the UAE 10th out of 22 Arab states, citing issues regarding domestic workers. The top rankings were given to five out of the six richer Gulf Cooperative Council countries.
The poll, which surveyed 336 gender experts in the 21 Arab League states and Syria in 2013, suggests while the UAE ranks poorly on some fronts, women still make up 20 per cent of cabinet as well as represent 14 per cent of the total workforce.
To give some perspective, women make up 25 per cent of Australia’s newly minted cabinet and under the previous Abbott government women represented just under 10 per cent of cabinet.
Dahlia certainly feels that as a new country – the modern UAE was formed in 1971 – its leaders take women’s advancement seriously.
“Our rulers are all so behind women empowerment and that I think made a really big difference. That huge push that they gave women here, made anybody [be able to] follow [their] dreams.”
And she’s not afraid to break down the stereotypes to show women may be doing just as well as western women.
“As a newly developed Arab country, a Muslim country, we’re are doing very well, women are doing amazingly here,” she says as she looks with a convincing intensity. “Better than many countries around the world. So I tend to say think about it as a bigger picture instead of that one narrow-minded thing that is seen on TV.”
An example that upset Dahlia and her friends was the treatment of F16 fighter jet pilot Miriam Al Mansouri who flew in the airstrikes against ISIS.
“She was not really known about until there was some derogatory remarks made about her in western media. I think often it has become normal for us; when a woman does something, oh there you go, we’re used to it now.”
And it’s not just Emirati women.
According to Dahlia, Saudi Arabian women – often considered the most oppressed in the world – make up 30 per cent of the many female entrepreneurs in the Gulf region.
For the young, a more globalised world is influencing the culture, society and trends.
“The media, movies, everything that is influencing in different ways. Right now, things like K-Pop are extremely popular.”
A traditional garment of the area is the abaya, a full length robe worn over outfits in public. Young women are aligning themselves with global fashion trends by “modestifying” them, says Dahlia.
“When we talk about women a lot of us are dressing like what we see in the media and taking the abaya and doing different things with it,” she says.
Event like the Abu Dhabi Fashion Days convention showcase different abaya designs including young and upcoming designers.
And fashion is a safe, women-led way for creative expression against religious patriarchs on one side, and Western, often negative stereotyping on the other.
‘One black shadow of victims’
“Sadly, Arab women are portrayed as this one black shadow of victims that are either abused or that their rights are not given. We’re just this picture of victim,” – Jessy El Murr Social Media Reporter for SkyNews Arabia.
Jessy El Murr is a multilingual journalist with more than 10 years journalism experience across worldwide broadcasters such as the BBC and Al Jazeera. Now, the social media reporter for Sky News Arabia, her work has taken her to a variety of countries covering major political, economic and military news.
The Lebanese-American started covering military stories travelling with the US Navy and US Marines in Afghanistan and the Gulf for Sky News Arabia – The first Arab female to do so.
Her expertise in social media combined with a wealth of knowledge about the political and economic situation in the region gives her in depth insight into how and why the young are capitalising on social media.
“What’s changed is the way the youth here use social media in this region. I’ve been quite impressed reading some numbers of activists here in the Arab world,” she says.“What’s happened is that social media and young people discovered that early on social media allows them a space of freedom that they do not have in the traditional media outlets.”
Globally speaking, the Arab world has the fastest growing internet population, but make up a small percentage of the total online citizenry in 2014. But, the Arab world, with high levels of youth, are very active online, politically and socially.
According to Jessy, one of the reasons for this is that there are certain things one can post and share online that simply cannot posted or done in traditional media, like newspapers and TV stations.
“They’ve quickly realised that and the fact that traditional institutions or government have allowed them to do so because they must have their outlet.” Jessy explains. “And since they are unable to give them their outlet in the traditional social and media sense: ‘Well let’s just give them their little freedom in the corner’.”
However, traditional media are now taking note. Journalists know a breaking story will start on Twitter, Daesh – commonly known as ISIS – relating propaganda is just one example.
“There’s at least an hour to an hour and a half gap for a news item that starts on Twitter then we, traditional media pick it up. So, really they’re ahead of us.” Jessy says.
This year’s Dubai Arab Media Forum had a special focus on social media: “For the first time you can see that the traditional sense of the Arab media forum is no longer there.”
It is often the case that many Arab social media users tweet or write in english. Jessy says the reasons are twofold: It’s easier to type and it reaches a wider audience.
“Also because people in their surroundings and in their cultures know what the problem is, so, they want to tweet in a different language to get it outside.”
This is true for a range of people, from Kuwaiti comedians pushing boundaries to a new generation of bloggers managing to not break away completely from tradition but still criticise and analyse issues in society.
Jessy points to the fact that traditionally, though women are very educated, they tended not to be seen as outspoken in the public sphere.
Jessy highlights the fact that due to the more traditional ways of many Arab countries young people and women alike find a happy medium to speak and share their stories. And that medium is social media and blogs.
“Although [in the UAE] females are very educated, you don’t really see them as outspoken. But, this has changed in the past few years. Quite tremendously.”
“They’ve found a way to not break away completely from the traditions, but to accommodate these new tools that technologies have given them in order for them to make their voices heard in a very different non-stereotypical way. It’s quite impressive and smart.”
“This has changed in the past few years quite tremendously. And this is where the emerging voices of Arab and Gulf females have started.”
For example, Heba Al Samt, a well-known UAE blogger who writes on issues concerning social media and is a frequent guest speaker at events. She co-founded the UAE chapter of social media club, a community aimed at bringing together Emiratis to share, engage and exchange ideas.
Eman Al Nafjan who is assistant professor of linguistics at a university in Riyadh, started saudiwoman.me to share life in Saudi Arabia with the external world.
“So many non Arabs and non Saudis out there giving “expert” opinions on life and culture here, hence my blog. Get it straight from the source: Saudi, genetically wahabi [orthodox sect of Sunni Islam] and a woman,” she writes in the about pages.
While we’re here, her most recent blogpost revolved around Saudi women’s ban on driving.
Operating within societal norms and limitations can be difficult: There are certain things one cannot say, people cannot criticise in a very open way. But, according to some bloggers if ‘you’re smart enough, you can say anything you want. What matters is the way you say it’.
“You can no longer say Arab female bloggers or writers are completely blocked from getting their voices out. They’re using those same tools that the West are using but in different ways,” Jessy says.
As with Dahlia, Jessy says a strong example of poor Western coverage on women’s rights issues is the trivialisation of them.
Women in the region remained perceived through exotic trivia such as the veil and the ban on driving which may not be the most crucial of worries for women themselves. One could question the Western focus on such ‘exotic’ issues.
Typical stories relating to women in the region include Saudi women’s lack of rights, highlighted in the long struggle to gain voting rights but often typically trivialised by the ban on driving.
“I met many Saudis who say: ‘I don’t really care about driving, that’s the least of my concerns’.They do talk about it.” Jessy says. “But, what angers them the most is that even though social media has emerged, even though they have more freedom to speak, even though those tools are there, they still see the same news headlines broadcast in the Western world about them and their issues.”
“They’re trying to change that. So, when they have this major headline that Saudi Arabia about banning female drivers. They come on and say well here are the rights we care about right now: Maybe travelling more freely, maybe giving citizenship to our kids if we marry a foreigner, which is the case in Lebanon.”
In Lebanon, as in many places in the Middle East, citizenship for one’s child is only granted through the father. So, if a Lebanese woman marries a foreigner, her child cannot gain Lebanese citizenship.
In Egypt, many women often endure high levels of harassment upon leaving their homes, on the streets, on public transport, or anywhere in public.
In the Maghreb women are campaigning for equal marriage rights. In Jordan women want equal property rights. Indeed, across the Middle East these issues are most relevant for many women.
These are just some of the examples of the issues women may be more concerned with.
So you can see, the veil – often used as a symbol of Islam anyway – might be the last thing on anyone’s mind, if it even is.
“And are there Arab female victims? Of course. Are there rights that they’re calling for? Of course.” Jessy says. “But, that was also the case in the US. I mean, when were women allowed to vote? Not so long ago. So, it’s very far from what you see in the media.”
After living 12 years in the United States before moving to the Gulf, Jessy had some trepidations about working and living in the area.
“Five years ago if you asked me whether I would live in the Gulf and be a reporter, I would’ve said absolutely not, what am I going to do there? They can’t do this, They can’t do that. But here I am…”
Jessy asserts that for reporters who parachute into a region and present all through Western eyes it has terrible consequences for those that are represented.
“If you haven’t lived there, if you haven’t at least been there or know people who live there, just don’t write about it. Because what you’re writing, sounds dumb.”
Adapted from a longer version found here.