Seen and starting to be heard: women and the Arab media in a decade of change
WOMEN’S unequal access to the media is a universal concern, because negative stereotyping of women and lack of promotion for female editorial staff not only reflect wider disadvantages facing women but also help to sustain and reproduce them. This dynamic led to the inclusion of representation in and through the media and new communication technologies as one of 12 “critical areas of concern” in the Beijing Platform for Action, the agenda for women’s empowerment drawn up at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. As the media component of that agenda has been pursued since then, changes in the global media landscape have also proceeded apace. Transnational media corporations from developing countries have deployed satellite and cable networks to turn what was once a one-way traffic of “North-South” communication flows into a multidirectional phenomenon connecting dispersed linguistic communities all over the globe. In both developed and developing countries, some of the novelty of what were once “new” technologies of communication has worn off. What have these developments meant for media representation of women? For example, in cases where discrimination against women is embedded in legal systems and social customs, have tangible benefits resulted from activism aimed at the media at a time when aspects of media production, distribution, and reception are all undergoing perceptible change?
The Arab world suggests itself as a suitable focus of research into this question. Women in this region experience what Deniz Kandiyoti (2000: xiv) has called a “double jeopardy.” They are not only subject to the widespread restrictions on civic and political participation affecting both sexes, but are further denied autonomy by discriminatory “personal status laws.” Under variants of these laws, it is not women but their male guardians who have the authority to decide issues such as whether they may work or travel, or whom they may marry. History shows that structures of patriarchy were not uniform across the region before colonialism. Yet the Western model of the nation-state, complete with its gendered concepts of citizenship, became the compulsory model for Middle Eastern states emerging from colonialism, where it was imposed on already gendered systems of social stratification. The resulting “intersection” of patriarchies (Joseph and Slyomovics, 2001: 9) created a historically specific momentum of increasing control exercised over women by men, families, communities, and the state. It is beyond the scope of this paper to consider whether changes at the local and national level are combining with novel forms of transnational interconnectedness to slow or alter that momentum. Instead, the paper has a more modest but related aim. It examines developments in the Arab media and in the activism of Middle Eastern women as they relate to women’s representation in terms both of media portrayal and access to media decision making.
In general there is nothing intrinsic to “new” or cross-border media that makes them more or less likely to benefit disadvantaged groups. Technology is neutral and its deployment is subject to existing structures of power. Indeed, the history of communications technology suggests that, since new technologies are introduced in response to certain social relations, we should not be surprised if their use reflects the comparative stasis of those relations (Winston, 1989: 71). Digitalization is a case in point. An abundant literature points up the opportunities created for women’s advancement by new information and communication technologies (ICTs). Women at the center of experiments in networking for advocacy purposes report that the Internet can facilitate mobilization in times of crisis, along with active participation in policy debates and articulation of new perspectives. They also point out, however, that there is nothing automatic about such potential being realized. The Internet can equally be used to do the same things in the same way, “perpetuating the inequality, squelching diversity or fostering exclusivity” (Gittler, 1999: 100). Where women have used the Internet to create alternative media–in the form of e-zines, for example–they have been criticized for restricting their activism to an already committed audience (Gallagher, 2001: 9). (1) As with other media, therefore, levels of access to the Internet or satellite television might be expected to reflect, rather than alter, social inequality. Indeed, new technologies may even throw up additional social boundaries, linked not only to gender but also to “lines of expertise, cultures, nations, interest [and] different forms of `public’ and `private'” (Youngs, 2001: 93-4). There is also the possibility that ICTs, like housework technologies, might increase women’s isolation in their homes (Steeves, 1993: 51). The deployment of new media, in other words, involves both opportunities and challenges. This paper thus works from the assumption that the forms and functions of information will in general be subordinate to long-established principles and practices (Webster, 1995: 5). The question it poses is not whether the rise of satellite television and the Internet in Arab countries has led to an increase in the availability of information about women. Instead, the question is whether it has contributed to a qualitative change in media treatment of women’s status. The paper begins with a review of developments in media and women’s organizations in the region since 1990. It goes on to consider whether there were synergies arising from changes in both fields. It then compares the way legal changes affecting Egyptian women were covered by the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera and the Egyptian media.
Satellite TV, the Internet, and Women ‘s Advocacy Groups
The last decade of the twentieth century saw considerable innovation at the organizational level in the Arab region in matters relating both to women and to the media. This innovation can be recounted in different ways. An account of developments in satellite television can be presented as a story of more media outlets, more outlets managed outside the direct control of governments, and more responsiveness to the competition for viewers created by the proliferation of satellite channels. But it can equally be told as a story about how existing material on government-run terrestrial stations was repackaged for satellite transmission, how channels that were nominally run by private entrepreneurs were actually supported by government figures, and how new program formats were adopted under exactly the same censorship constraints as the old ones they were supposed to replace.
Similarly, the burgeoning of women’s groups in the region can be described in numerical terms and with reference to United Nations conferences on women and women’s rights guarantees contained in international law. An account based on numbers would note the rise of NGOs focusing on women’s status, the creation by governments of national commissions for women, and the increase in women entering the workforce in countries where women’s participation in paid labor was previously very low.
Yet an alternative version of the same events would note the legal obstructions governments have placed in the way of NGOs, the vociferous and mounting public rejection of any policy perceived to foster a “Western agenda,” the distance still to go before all governments in the region outlaw discrimination against women, and the high levels of female illiteracy. Moreover, female employees of deregulated privatized business are often working today under worse terms and conditions than applied when those businesses were state owned.
A major catalyst for media change was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Satellite television in Arabic made its debut in December 1990 when the region’s first dedicated Arabic-language satellite channel, the Egyptian Space Channel, was created from within Egypt’s state broadcasting monopoly, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). As the most populous Arab country and historically a prolific media producer and exporter, Egypt was well placed to transmit programming beyond its own borders. From then on the ERTU, which is accountable to the minister of information, retained its monopoly on Egyptian terrestrial and satellite broadcasting by virtue of the exclusivity granted to it under Egyptian law. When Egypt launched its own satellite in 1998, the ERTU started to draw tentatively on a few independent production houses, but mostly relied on increasing its internal output in conjunction with the government ministries of health and education to fill the additional digital channels. A slight easing of the monopoly occurred in 2000 with the designation of a free zone near Cairo from which non-ERTU broadcasters were permitted to transmit programming by satellite. However, it was made clear that the ERTU, as 50 percent owner of the free zone, reserved the right to censor material transmitted from it via satellite into Egyptian homes (Sakr, 2001: 111). These developments took place against a background of limited penetration of satellite access in Egypt (Sakr, 2001: 113-4), combined with strict government control on the ownership and content of Egyptian newspapers and magazines (Article XIX, 1997: 3746). Following the introduction of the country’s amended press law in 1996, the jailing of journalists and banning of publications became more frequent (Amnesty International, 2000). This pattern of continued government control over terrestrial broadcasting accompanied by clampdowns on the print media was replicated across the region, with private Lebanese and Palestinian broadcasters constituting the only exception. (2) Meanwhile, controls over the Internet were generally exercised indirectly through failures to expand or upgrade telephone networks or reduce telephone charges. In some countries they were also imposed directly, through cybercensorship systems designed to block access to certain sites (Human Rights Watch, 1999: 27-29). By 2002 the highest levels of Internet access (around 8 to 9 percent of the population) were to be found in Lebanon and in the small and wealthy Gulf states of Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Internet penetration in the poorer and more populous countries was mostly less than 1 percent of the population (UNDP, 2001: 60-2; Mahmoud, 2002).
If there was a qualitative breakthrough in the sphere of new cross-border Arab media, it came with the creation, in Qatar in 1996, of Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel. Specializing in news and current affairs, Al-Jazeera broke the mould of the satellite channels set up by governments and by private Saudi and Lebanese entrepreneurs. Saudi-owned companies like the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), Orbit, and Arab Radio and Television (ART) avoided broadcasting news, documentaries, or drama that might offend the political sensitivities of those in power in Saudi Arabia or their allies in the rest of the Arab world. The two leading Lebanese satellite channels, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and Future International, were subject to Syrian intervention in editorial decisions when the “need” arose (Kassir, 2000). Al-Jazeera, in contrast, was formally freed from direct censorship and granted a start-up loan that offered it financial and editorial independence. Orbit had experimented to a limited extent with live talk shows, phone-ins, and an Arabic news service supplied by the BBC, but Al-Jazeera was sufficiently free from editorial constraints to carry such experiments forward. By the end of 2001, after five years on the air, Al-Jazeera could claim to have built a large and loyal audience of some 35 million people by showing relevant topical programs and uncensored debates. Although existing stations emulated the lively formats, and new ones were set up to try to dent Al-Jazeera’s dominant position, they lacked the freedom and financial incentives to match the candor and clash of opinion that Al-Jazeera deliberately strove for to attract viewers (Sakr, 2001: 119-24). What Al-Jazeera had still to achieve after five years was the launching of a second channel, devoted to documentaries. It had, however, helped to stimulate the spread of satellite access across Arab countries and beyond. Between 1997 and 1999, after Al-Jazeera, LBC, and Future International arrived on the scene, the level of dish and cable access suddenly soared, even among those who already had terrestrial access to the output of the Lebanese channels (Sakr, 2001: 17-20). By the end of the decade, upward of 70 percent of Gulf households were receiving satellite television (Belchi, 2002). The corresponding level of under 10 percent in Egypt remained exceptionally low by regional standards. Access in Jordan and Lebanon was 44 percent and 66 percent, respectively (Belchi), while in Algeria it reached 80 percent (Sakr, 2001: 114). Given that average Internet access in Arab countries at this time was below 2 percent (Mahmoud, 2002), satellite television was clearly the more relevant and accessible new medium for the mass of people.
We will return later to the significance for women of these disparate levels of access to satellite television and the Internet, and to Al-Jazeera’s handling of programs about women’s status. First, however, it is necessary to review the emergence of Arab women’s organizations during the same period as satellite television in the region was taking off. International interest in the role of NGOs flourished in the early 1990s, fueled by the replacement of communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe. In the Middle East and North Africa, one outcome of this international interest was a boost in moral and material support for NGOs promoting women’s rights. A number of women’s NGOs had been created in the region in the 1980s as outgrowths of political parties or in response to political turmoil arising from the Arab-Israeli conflict (al-Afifi and Abdel-Hadi, 1996; Brand, 1998). In the 1990s, however, various factors, including internal policy differences and the availability of foreign grants, led advocacy groups to multiply in number–but without this multiplication necessarily reflecting corresponding orientations among the more welfare-minded activists working at the grassroots (Kandiyoti, 1995: 25-26). Four events in particular spurred the formation of local bodies concerned with women’s status, often in collaboration with NGOs based in the west. The International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 was followed in 1995 by the Social Summit in Copenhagen and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. November 1995 also saw the launching of the Euro-Med Partnership between member states of the European Union and countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. This gave rise to the MEDA Democracy Program as a source of funds to nonprofit groups promoting democracy and the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and protection of vulnerable groups, notably women and young people, in seven Arab Mediterranean states and the areas under the Palestinian Authority.
Women’s Activism and the Media
Not all governments welcomed nongovernment initiatives and some blocked the autonomous functioning of local NGOs. By the end of the 1990s, civil society groups from several Arab states were so concerned about their vulnerability to state interference, through rules restricting registration, licensing, and the receipt of foreign funds, that the issue of freedom of association and assembly for NGOs dominated the regional Workshop on Civil Society held as part of the World Bank’s Mediterranean Development Forum in March 2000. Government restrictions on organizations involved in human rights advocacy further fragmented the women’s movement. Observation of women’s activism in Egypt in the aftermath of the Beijing conference revealed a tendency for research findings to remain within closed groups, leading to duplication and a failure to focus on common goals (al-Ali, 2000: 172). A particular ploy to undermine media activism by women’s rights advocates was to condemn it as unpatriotic. A representative of the New Woman Research Center in Egypt told a conference organized by Amnesty International: “When we raise issues such as violence against women, we are accused of presenting a false and distorted image of women to the country and the rest of the world” (Darwiche, 2000).
Divisions in the Egyptian women’s movement can be contrasted with the solidarity of Palestinian women, who demonstrated during the same period how much could be achieved through cooperation among ideologically disparate groups. Determined not to forfeit the status they gained as stalwarts of the national liberation struggle, Palestinian women from different political parties joined forces at the start of the 1990s around the single issue of equal rights for women. Using their coalition as a tool, not an end in itself, they gained funding for a director and secretary and quickly learned to make their voices heard in the local and international media on issues such as adequate representation for women on the Palestinian Legislative Council or a woman’s right to apply for a passport without a male guardian’s consent and to take driving lessons without a chaperone (Azzoumi, 2000). The coalition established regular slots in the local audiovisual and print media, with a weekly 55-minute primetime television program called Bisaraha (Frankly), a radio program three times a week, and a fortnightly newspaper supplement called Saut al-Nissa (The Voice of Women) (Anon., 1999: 15). In this way women were able to influence the institution-building initiated in the wake of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords. The media context for this process was unusual by regional standards because it featured a large number of private Palestinian television stations serving small local communities. In this environment Al-Quds Educational TV, an independent channel based in Ramallah, was able to develop a special interest in gender issues. In 1999-2000, with money from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), it organized gender awareness training for media workers and produced a series of documentaries, a talk show, and field reports on women’s rights and representation for distribution to other local broadcasters (WomenAction, 2001: 101-02). Between December 2001 and April 2002 the Israeli Defense Forces damaged, and in some cases completely destroyed, several of the Palestinian stations involved in these projects. (3)
As indicated by the Palestinian example, homegrown activism concerning women and the media in Arab countries has been buttressed in recent years by international financial or logistical help. For instance, the Western Asia Regional Office of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM-WARO) backed a 16-day campaign in 1998 to encourage the Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Yemeni media to break long-standing taboos on reporting about violence against women. The campaign built on breakthroughs already achieved by Jordanian crime reporter Rana Husseini in exposing the phenomenon of so-called honor crimes, which involve the murder or attempted murder of women alleged to have besmirched their family’s reputation by being found in the company of an unrelated male. Husseini’s coverage of this form of family violence provided evidence for a petition aimed at changing the Jordanian law that promises leniency for male perpetrators of such crimes. Parliament rejected the change in November 1999 but the issue of honor killing had been brought into public view. (4) This was the climate in which a veteran woman journalist, Mahassen Imam, founded the Arab Women’s Media Center (AWMC) in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in December 1999. Endorsed by the Jordanian royal family, the center trains, supports, and celebrates media women working in Jordan and other parts of the Arab world. Also in 1999, North African activists, working under the umbrella of the group Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalite, compiled a groundbreaking report in which they drew a direct link between physical and symbolic violence against women. Analyzing in detail the negative stereotyping of women on Moroccan television, and the media’s failure to provide a voice for thousands of women subjected to organized rape during the Algerian civil strife that erupted in 1992, the report’s authors pointed out that the boundary between physical and symbolic violence is highly porous. Since each type of violence feeds on the other, they wrote, neither should be trivialized or downplayed (Collectif 95, 1999: 9).
In comparison with these initiatives, activities directly involving governments tended to pose much less of a challenge to the stares quo. The Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR), based in Tunis with Tunisian government backing, produced a statistical report in 1998 that analyzed coverage of International Women’s Day in the newspapers of Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia, and the UAE. It later offered prizes for journalism related to women’s advancement. In February 2002, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, president of the General Women’s Union of the UAE and wife of the UAE president, hosted the Arab Women’s Media Forum in Abu Dhabi. Although obviously well intentioned, the forum was dominated by the diplomatic protocol dictated by the presence of several wives and sisters of Arab heads of state. (5) Its final declaration called on the media to raise Arab women’s awareness of their civil and political rights, present the “problems” that modern women face due to social changes in the region, and enable women to express their opinions freely (Emirates News Agency, 2002). The declaration called for equal opportunities in employment, promotion, and training for women in the media and it urged the media to pay more attention to rural and bedouin women. Except for references to the plight of Palestinian women, it did not identify rights denied, “problems” encountered, or women who had been prevented from speaking out.
Overall, governments in the region won few plaudits in the report prepared by Arab NGOs for the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on women in 2000 (also known as “Beijing+5”). That the report had few positive comments to make about women and the media was symptomatic of a lack of advancement for women generally. Compiled with help from UNIFEM-WARO, the Arab Regional NGOs’ “Alternative Report” noted “major gaps” in “policies and resource allocations” resulting from a general tendency to ignore gender considerations in drafting and implementing national development plans (NGO Coordinating Committee, 2000: 4-5). As an example it noted the fact that barely 1 percent of aid received by the Palestinian Authority in 1998 had been allocated for women’s projects (7). This was despite the fact that, as was noted earlier, official and nongovernmental mechanisms for the advancement of Palestinian women are relatively sophisticated and well coordinated compared with other countries in the region. As for adherence to the major instrument of international law regarding women’s status, several states in the region had not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 20 years after it came into effect. Of 23 countries worldwide that had neither signed nor ratified CEDAW by 2001, 7 (Bahrain, Iran, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, and the UAE) were in the Middle East (UNDP, 2001: 230-3). The remainder had ratified but with reservations on clauses so basic that to exclude them negates the spirit and purpose of the law. (6) NGOs and the UN committee set up to monitor implementation of CEDAW criticized these reservations. They also criticized the failure of governments to publicize the convention’s provisions, whether among law enforcement agencies or ordinary people (e.g., ADFM, 2001: 115; CEDAW, 2000, 2001). Lack of publicity meant a lack of reference points for media reporting about women.
In this climate of government inertia, literacy among women in Arab states has remained exceptionally low. Although the start of the twenty-first century found higher literacy among adult women than men in the Gulf emirates of Qatar and the UAE, elsewhere in the region this ratio was reversed, with female illiteracy reaching 76 percent in Yemen, 65 percent in Morocco, 57 percent in Egypt, 44 percent in Algeria, and 34 percent in Saudi Arabia (UNDP, 2001: 210-12). It is clear from these statistics, taken in conjunction with the comparative data for satellite television and Internet access already discussed, that the new medium of satellite television is accessible to a far larger number of women in these countries than is the case for the Internet. Empirical evidence also suggests that few women activists in the region were using the Internet for cross-border networking by 1999. When UN agencies organized a six-week online forum at the end of that year to canvass opinions on women and media from across the world, only 2 messages out of a total of 233 came from North Africans (one of whom was in Europe at the time). None at all came from the Middle East (CMF-MENA, 2000: 8). Thus, at one end of the scale, low levels of education mean women in the region are restricted to low-skilled jobs, often in the informal sector. Studies show that, while female labor-force participation has been increasing as part of “household survival strategies” required by declining real wages and rising unemployment for men, the increase has not been accompanied by women-friendly social policies or labor legislation (Moghadam, 1998: 224-26). Media controlled by the same vested interests that benefit from women workers’ lack of bargaining power are unlikely to lead the way in reporting calls to upgrade it. Meanwhile, at the highly educated end of the workforce, the number of women working in the media is no indication of their influence over content. Research on the Lebanese media, where there is an abundance of female reporters, announcers, presenters, technicians, and production assistants but no female executives, suggests that women may have “presence,” but not a “role” (Lotting, 1997: 30; Dabbous-Sensenig, 2000: 15). This phenomenon raises questions regarding the relevance to the Arab world of Western findings about “critical mass” among women in the media and the economy at large. One Western study concluded that it takes a minimum of three women in influential positions in a single media company to create a critical mass of a kind that can begin to influence editorial approaches. Even then, it noted, their ability to focus editorial attention on women’s status depends on the strength of the demands being made by women in the workforce as a whole concerning issues such as childcare and promotion (Mills, 1997: 45). Nevertheless, since the concept of critical mass has a qualitative as well as a quantitative dimension, it may help to shed light on aspects of the representations of women on Al-Jazeera and in the Egyptian media described later.
Al-Jazeera’s Debates about Women’s Status
Media representation of women matters because it is linked to women’s status, which is determined in turn by national laws. In representing debates about these laws the media can exercise the “soft power” that lies in altering perceptions of self-interest and convincing others that they want what you want (Keohane and Nye, 1998: 86). The more media channels are in competition with each other, the more credibility becomes a prerequisite of soft power (89-90). There are three possible media responses to efforts to end legalized discrimination against women: ignore them, trivialize them, or support them by providing platforms for contributions from those who are discriminated against. In an environment of media pluralism all three options might coexist. Since the media everywhere are subject to political or business agendas, the likelihood of all voices being heard is reduced. That is why public service broadcasters in Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands are explicitly required to contribute to sexual equality in their programming (Coppens, 2002).
In the Middle East media environment, where public service broadcasting is lacking and censorship is rife, a further obstacle to detailed coverage of national legal battles has emerged as television viewing has shifted toward satellite channels. This is because transnational channels, by definition, have an interest in attracting a transnational audience, whose members may have little interest in legal questions arising in countries other than their own. Most satellite channels were created by Arab governments and politicians to celebrate Arab and Islamic traditions and to stress internal cohesion, not to expose hardship or dissent (Sakr, 2001: 39-40, 118-19). This explains why Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel tapped into such a large and eager pan-Arab audience when it starting presenting programs that exuded credibility because they explored divisions. However, the station’s viewers extend beyond Arab countries to the Arab communities of Europe and United States. Consequently, as its managing director, Mohammed Jassem Al-Ali, told an international conference in February 2002, Al-Jazeera’s program creators do not “delve into specific local issues.” (7) To some extent, similarities in Arab laws affecting women mean that programs about such laws need not be seen as specific to a particular locality. In fact, local laws on divorce, rape, honor crimes, or a mother’s right to pass her nationality to her children resonate across the region. But Al-Jazeera’s capacity to deal with these issues is not unlimited. It consisted during its first five years of a single 24-hour channel, whose bureaus in Arab capitals were subject to local controls on their correspondents’ accreditation and telecommunication links. Furthermore, obstacles to certain kinds of coverage were built into the channel’s program formats. It is a tenet of Al-Jazeera current affairs programs that they should make compelling viewing by offering controversy and a head-to-head clash of views. (Sakr, 2002: 21). Thus, any attention paid to women’s status on Al-Jazeera does not only have to meet the criteria of being newsworthy and not locally specific–it also has to stand up to full frontal attack from talk show guests and telephone callers who are opposed to any change in the status quo. Al-Jazeera’s policy is to provide a platform for both sides of an argument and leave viewers to make up their own minds. It is precisely because the channel’s live debates are so stormy and inconclusive that they have attracted such a following among people who do not want to be told what to think.
Beyond these basic parameters, it is hard to say that Al-Jazeera has a policy on representing women. Qatar, the emirate in which the station is based, has certainly departed from Gulf customs in raising women’s political profile. When municipal elections took place in Qatar in March 1999, women were allowed to vote and stand for public office, in stark contrast to norms of political participation in other Arab Gulf states at that time. This top-down granting of rights to women may have been urged by Sheikha Moza bin Nasser al-Misnad, wife of the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who ousted his father in a coup in 1995. Executive roles for women were not in evidence when Al-Jazeera started up in 1996; indeed Al-Jazeera, like many other broadcasters worldwide, is said to select female presenters on visual rather than intellectual criteria. (8) Yet the dominance of male anchors on Al-Jazeera’s most popular talk shows did not prevent them from tackling women’s rights on several occasions in 2000. This was a year that saw a significant change in the divorce law in Egypt–a change that needs some explanation here for the significance of the Al-Jazeera programs to be understood.
Whereas men in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world are not required to give a reason if they divorce their wives, women petitioning for divorce in Egypt were traditionally required to take their case to court to prove “just cause,” such as physical or psychological abuse. These cases would drag on unresolved for many years, during which time the laws on polygamy would allow men to remarry while denying this possibility to women. Partly because of the difficulties wives faced in proving injury and partly because of inefficiencies in the court system, there were around 1.5 million divorce cases before the Egyptian courts when parliament finally approved a change in the law in January 2000. Under the new arrangements, the practice of khula was introduced, entitling a woman to divorce her husband unilaterally and without delay, on condition she return her dowry and surrender all financial rights, regardless of the length of her marriage and the reason for her decision to end it. The change in the law faced strong opposition among some sections of public opinion in Egypt. It passed through parliament but another change proposed with it, to allow women to travel abroad without their husbands’ consent, did not. Controversy over the introduction of khula did not occur in a vacuum. It stemmed in part from a long and bitter history of government attempts to reform Egypt’s divorce law. President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamist militants in 1981, had overseen some minor changes in the 1970s. While favorable to women in theory, these changes had managed to antagonize all active political groups. Since they had been passed by presidential decree in order to bypass parliamentary opposition, they had “cast the shadow of authoritarianism” on women’s rights (Hatem, 1992: 24). In practice, a highly conservative judiciary had applied the changes with little regard for women’s interests and finally, in 1985, struck them down.
When the divorce controversy was raised again in 1999-2000, the Egyptian media did not present the issue as one of freeing women from injustice and oppression. With few exceptions, newspapers across the political spectrum presented the new law as a victory for women over men. The pro-government weekly Al-Usbo’ carried a headline declaring: “Men’s era is over.” Al-Wafd, published by the leading opposition party, said of the law: “No one has a good word to say about it.” A new drama serial, screened at prime time on Channel One of Egypt’s government-run television, bore the title 0 Men, Unite! Newspaper cartoons showed men in chains or pushing baby buggies alongside mustachioed women (Eltahawy, 2000). Embarrassment at this coverage was sufficient in government ranks for two media women to be appointed to a newly formed 30-member National Women’s Council, which was to liaise with editors and program creators to work toward more balanced portrayals in future (Mukhtar, 2000). On Al-Jazeera, in contrast, “balance” was already an article of faith, in the sense of giving both sides of any argument an opportunity to speak. This was how the channel approached the khula issue. It tackled it in two regular live phone-in talk shows, Al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis (The Opposite Direction) and Bila Hudud (Without Bounds).
The edition of Al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis in question, moderated by Faisal al-Qassim (a Syrian), brought together two Egyptians: Farida al-Naqqash, female head of the Progressive Women’s Union, and Ibrahim al-Kholy, a male professor from the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo. They were pitted against each other, with Naqqash describing khula as a merciful release for many women. They would still lose out, she said, but at least regain some dignity. Rejecting the notion that women were interested in promiscuity or anything other than justice and equality, values that had existed in the region in a bygone age, Naqqash argued that the idealized picture of Muslim marriage painted by many telephone callers to the program did not represent reality. “Arab houses are closed,” she said, and behind closed doors there is sometimes severe suffering involving “persecution, isolation and enslavement” of women. (9) Kholy, on the other hand, blamed delays in processing divorce cases on inefficiency and corruption in Egyptian courts. His answer to the problem was not to introduce khula, which he said could lead couples to blackmail each other, but to sort out the judicial system. With Naqqash maintaining that “patriarchal and class society” subjugates women to deflect attention from men’s political failures, and that international humanitarian law is not a Western intellectual invasion but an amalgam of positive safeguards from many ancient and sophisticated cultures, Kholy was reduced to deriding her statements as insha (school essay composition). Battle between the two guests was raging fast and furious when Qassim announced that time was up.
A similarly hard fought contest took place in the edition of Bila Hudud entitled “Arab Women’s Rights between Excess and Surrender,” shown after the Egypt’s National Women’s Council was set up by presidential decree. The format of Bila Hudud involves a single guest, with a host, Ahmad Mansour, and questions phoned in live by viewers. The guest for this edition was Mervat Tellawi, former Egyptian ambassador and minister of social affairs who had recently been appointed secretary general of the National Women’s Council. In the absence of any other challenger, Mansour took it upon himself to pour scorn on low literacy levels among Egyptian women, stand up for keeping politics as a male preserve, disparage “Western” ideas about sexual equality, and warn that women would misuse the law on khula. He even suggested that the National Women’s Council was biased against men. Mansour had plenty of help in this attack from callers who were predominantly male and overwhelmingly of the view that “rights” for women would mean teenage pregnancies and the collapse of families. Tellawi was left to right for her corner virtually alone. She argued that child rearing was the responsibility of both mother and father, that states needed to maximize their woman power to withstand the challenges of globalization, that Arab women’s groups had made a crucial contribution to the drafting of international human rights treaties, and that the Prophet Mohammed had given his own daughter the right to divorce. She explained the urgency of a new law to allow Egyptian mothers to pass their nationality to their children, and thanked Mansour for giving her the opportunity to say all this on television.
Al-Jazeera’s hallmark Crossfire style is less in evidence in its weekly program Lil Nissa Faqat (For Women Only), hosted by a woman, Khadija Bin Qina. Here the range of opinions is less polarized, with three or more panel guests invited to discuss subjects that do not lend themselves to an either-or response. Men also watch this program, which is apparent from the number of questions phoned in by male callers. An edition in April 2002 explored the theme of women and the media with input from four women: Al-Jazeera’s own correspondent in the Palestinian town of Ramallah, an Egyptian academic, a presenter from Future TV, and CNN’s senior international editor, who happens to be Lebanese. Much of the program was given over to a firsthand account from the first of these women, Shireen Abu Aqla, of how Al-Jazeera’s Palestinian team, half of it female, was coping in the face of the Israeli military assault on West Bank towns taking place at that time. The debate then turned to the subject of women and appearances. It considered, for example, whether attractive female presenters were being used as a selling point for commercial channels, whether portrayals of women in local television drama were influenced by Western films, and whether the primary duty of media producers was to educate or entertain. It was while the program was being wrapped up that Mona Wahby of Future TV homed in on what she described as the “taboos that we should be talking about,” which in her view included sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence. Others in the satellite television business apparently shared the same view. The next month Abu Dhabi Satellite TV included an item on honor killing in its magazine program Dunia (World). Screened on a Thursday evening, at the start of the Muslim weekend, the piece reported the number of honor crimes in Jordan and Lebanon and carried an interview dealing with attempts to change the relevant articles of the Jordanian penal code. Al-Jazeera itself followed up soon afterward with an edition of Lil Nissa Faqat devoted to the sex trade, including trafficking and forced prostitution. Significantly, Lil Nissa Faqat remained on the air during the Israeli siege of Palestinian towns that started in March 2002. While several Al-Jazeera programs were temporarily shelved to make way for extended daily reports from the West Bank and Gaza, Lil Nissa Faqat retained its weekly slot.
Women’s Status and the Egyptian Media
In contrast to Al-Jazeera, with its predominantly male staff, there is no shortage of women working in the Egyptian media. In broadcasting many women occupy senior posts. A study published in 2001 reported that three-quarters of the heads of the ERTU’s numerous radio networks and just under half of the heads of its television channels were women (Zayed Center, 2001: 60). As mentioned previously, however, seniority and high visibility in the audiovisual sector do not always signify authority over program content. The ERTU operates a strict code of ethics containing 33 prohibitions that severely limit the authority of all its staff. Of particular relevance to programs about women’s status are prohibitions on any material that criticizes religion, traditions, beliefs, or the “state national system”; “threatens” family ties or disparages the sanctity of family values; “favors divorce as a means to solve family problems”; “creates social confusion” or “criticizes other broadcast programs” (Napoli, Amin, and Boylan, 1995: 171-2). These dual-purpose strictures deter public expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo while also shielding viewers from material deemed disturbing or socially divisive. They are so vaguely worded that they encourage the ERTU’s internal censors and heads of department to err very much on the side of caution when choosing what to air. Ideas and storylines for television dramas are notoriously subject to guidance from government, in the person of the minister of information and his acolytes in the ERTU (Khouri, 1996; Baker, 1995). Thus, for example, Fathiyya al-‘Assal, a socialist feminist born in the 1930s and one of few Egyptian women of her generation writing television drama, has been jailed more than once during her career and has had numerous story ideas blocked and scripts cut by state censors (Abu Lughod, 2001: 103).
Women’s seniority in broadcasting does not seem to have given them the freedom to challenge social mores. In the Egyptian print media, women have neither seniority nor editorial freedom. There the mechanisms of government censorship are more diffuse, operating at the level of licensing and enforcement of the press-related penal code amendments that were passed in 1996. Under these arrangements newspapers published by officially approved opposition parties sustain a precarious existence alongside government-owned rifles and a few nominally independent publications that survive by taking a pro-government line. Here senior female editors are rare. A 2001 study by a female professor at Cairo University revealed that, in the Egyptian press, women occupy truly senior positions only in women’s or children’s magazines and in one literary journal (Kamel, 2001: 9). The explanation for this seems to lie in a combination of censorship and personal loyalties. Media professionals in any situation draw on friendship networks to gather news and background information. In Egypt, such networks are largely based on the shilla (friendship clique), consisting of people who probably attended the same school or university and continue to socialize regularly after graduation and throughout their careers. In a country where formal organizations remain subject to tight government controls, the informal shilla provides an essential alternative avenue for participation in public life. Where the media are also subject to a great deal of restrictive legislation, the shilla route is especially vital in obtaining information and knowing how and when to publish it (Kamel, 2001: 5). To date, any shilla whose members have filled important posts in the executive, legislature, and judiciary has been exclusively male. There are, for example, no woman judges in Egypt, rarely more than one or two female ministers in any cabinet, and, since the 2000 general election, only nine female members of parliament in an assembly with 454 seats. Senior appointments on the leading national newspapers are a presidential prerogative. Media practitioners rewarded with such posts are those judged to have had significant information at their disposal and have handled it with discretion.
If women at the production end of the Egyptian media cycle have little room for maneuver, it is also partly because there is little room for critical input from consumers. Media monitoring is recommended by all concerned with representation of women (Gallagher, 2001), but it is an activity that, in Egypt at the start of the twenty-first century, had yet to get off the ground. This was not for want of trying. Nadje al-Ali (2000: 178-82) recounts in some detail the efforts in the mid-1990s of the New Woman Research Center in Cairo to track cliched depictions and negative stereotypes. The center also polled opinions among women of different educational backgrounds to ascertain their reactions to television portrayals of women. Although the results showed that negative stereotyping was rampant, they also showed that few ordinary women were aware that this was the case. Attempts to form a media watch group foundered partly over disagreements about whether it should prioritize research or advocacy, but also because of the lack of any consensus on the criteria for determining whether media portrayals were negative or not. Resistance to foreign support was a further handicap. Setting up a special research operation with a database and means to disseminate its findings would require funds that were more likely to come from abroad than inside Egypt (al-Husseiny, 2000). Yet foreign financial support for promotion of women’s rights is seen by many Egyptians as a form of neo-imperialism (el-Sayed Said, 1994: 74) that undermines their “authentic” national culture (al-Ali, 2001) and Arab-Islamic heritage. This is convenient, since unauthorized receipt of foreign funds is prohibited in Egypt by military decree. The decree, dating from 1992, was aimed at cutting financial ties between militant Islamists and their supporters in other Arab states. Since 1998 it has been used against human rights advocacy groups (Sakr, 2001: 180).
In the resulting absence of standardized media monitoring, individual assessments of Egyptian reporting on laws regarding women’s status nevertheless exist. Embarrassment in establishment circles over media scorn for the law on khula has already been described. Additional evidence can be drawn from media coverage of a change in the law on rape. According to Mariz Tadros, a journalist with Egypt’s Al-Abram Weekly, two alterations in the treatment of rape victims helped to break a taboo on media discussion of rape in Egypt in 1998-1999. In one, the mufti of Al-Azhar issued a ruling permitting hymen repair operations for victims of rape. In another, clause 291 of the Egyptian Penal Code was repealed. Clause 290 states that rape is punishable by death. Clause 291 stated that all criminal charges would be automatically dropped if a rapist offered to marry the victim and she agreed (Tadros, 2000: 25). By repealing the clause, parliament moved to deter rape by closing the loophole that enabled rapists to get away with their crime. As Tadros noted, many commentators welcomed the move as a significant gain for women’s rights. But there was also an obsession in some parts of the media with the social stigma, rather than the physical and psychological trauma, attached to rape. Quoting Dr. Aida Serf al-Dawla, an Egyptian feminist and psychiatrist, Tadros showed how press coverage portrayed rape not as an act of violence but as the result of sexual repression among young men who could not afford to get married because they could not get jobs. Instead of referring to rapists as men, the press coverage characterized them as “wolves,” suggesting that they were clearly and invariably distinguishable from other men. As indicated by the rising level of dissatisfaction with such reporting in the mainstream Egyptian media, Mariz Tadros’s criticisms did not reflect an isolated case. When the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reviewed the Egyptian government’s report on its implementation of CEDAW in January 2001, it specifically mentioned its concern at the “continuing stereotypical portrayal of women in the media” and called on the government to establish a body to monitor media representation of women (CEDAW, 2001).
For women in the Arab world, the struggle for critical mass in terms of a media presence is not a question of statistics. As demonstrated by the contrast between coverage on Al-Jazeera and in the Egyptian media, editorial policy regarding programs about women’s status is determined by levels of censorship rather than the sex of editors and presenters. Instead, critical mass could be observed in the steady flow of articulate, professional, prominent women appearing as guests on Al-Jazeera panel debates and in the size of the audiences watching them. Seen by tens of millions of people of both sexes, women took part in these programs as influential people with something to say on issues of importance to the whole Arab world. They gained airtime because of Al-Jazeera’s approach to maximizing its audience. Critical mass in this case was linked to the further qualitative bonus of credibility, in the sense that discussion of women’s status on Al-Jazeera talk shows deals with arguments that real people in Arab countries raise everyday. Women guests on the Al-Jazeera programs described in this paper were not preaching to the converted. Tough and reactionary questioning forced them to put their case in no-nonsense terms.
In the case of Egypt, public policy and media discourse were at odds. Unbalanced media treatment of change in local laws on rape and divorce belied the progressive aspects of the legal changes themselves. Dissatisfaction at this state of affairs prompted criticism and a promise of action through the National Council of Women. Yet the Egyptian example provides support for the argument that ICTs in themselves do not alter inequalities. Their deployment to this end depends on a wider set of power relations, of which power structures in the media are only part.
(1) The e-zine is an electronic magazine, usually with a small, noncommercial circulation. One Western study remarked: “When comparing the e-zine medium to other media like newspapers or television, what becomes apparent is exactly how few `ordinary’ people, particularly women, are represented in the mainstream media” Cresser et al. (2001: 461).
(2) Constraints on freedom of expression throughout the region are regularly documented by organizations such as Article XIX, Reporters Sans Frontieres, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch, and can be viewed on their websites. For a brief comparison of a few examples, see Sakr (2000).
(3) Destruction by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation premises and transmission equipment was shown by CNN at 13:30 GMT on 15 March 2002 in a CNN World Report item contributed by Benaz Somairi. IDF destruction of the Love and Peace Radio station was reported by The Guardian (MacAskill, 2002: 13). IDF attacks on the premises and equipment of other broadcasters, including Amwaj TV, Watan TV, and Al-Nasr TV, along with Angham FM, Al-Quds, and Manara radio stations, were reported in an email circular by the technical director of Al-Quds University (Abdullah, 2002).
(4) In late 2001, a few months after parliament was dissolved, the government changed Article 340 of the Penal Code so that honor crime perpetrators would no longer be automatically exempt from the death penalty. However, by leaving Articles 97 and 98 of the Penal Code intact, it allowed continued leniency for those convicted of such crimes.
(5) These included: Queen Rania of Jordan; Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak; Princess Laila Hasna, sister of King Mohammed VI of Morocco; Fatima Khaled, wife of the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir; and Suha Arafat, wife of Yasir Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority. In a personal communication to the author, a newspaper correspondent who attended the conference reported that media representatives were given almost no opportunities to put questions to these women.
(6) The CEDAW articles not accepted by state parties such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia include Article 9, giving women the same rights as men with respect to the nationality of their children, and Article 16, dealing with matters of marriage and family relations, including divorce and custody of children. Algeria, Jordan, and Morocco also placed reservations on Article 15, which guarantees women equality with men before the law. Kuwait entered a reservation on Article 7, reflecting the fact that women in Kuwait are not permitted to vote in elections or stand for political office.
(7) Author’s transcript of remarks to the conference on New Media and Change in the Arab World. Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Amman. February 2002.
(8) This is according to information from female job applicants and the head of a company that worked on contract for Al-Jazeera.
(9) Material in this paragraph is based on translation by the author and her husband, Ahmad Sakr, of program transcripts posted on the Al-Jazeera website, .
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Naomi Sakr lectures on the political economy of communication and communication policy and development at the University of Westminster, U.K. She is the author of Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East (2001) and a report on “Women’s Rights and the Arab Media” (2000).
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