I grew up in the tiny country of Lebanon, the daughter, grand-daughter and niece of larger-than-life female figures who fought very hard for Arab women’s rights. My mom never missed a parliamentary election because “the right to vote is the only right we have” she used to say. She was convinced that it’ll all change “soon.” Women in Lebanon could vote as early as the 50’s but they can’t, to this day, give their children the Lebanese nationality. A rule that exists in most of the Arab world, changed only recently in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt.
In Saudi Arabia, women can’t even drive a car and they face tremendous pressure if they appear on TV. In many parts of the Arab world, a woman’s testimony is not accepted in court and a woman can’t travel abroad without the permission of her father, her brother or her husband. So, you might think that things didn’t change much in the last few decades; I don’t blame you if you do. The fact is that Arab women have made great strides in education, societal involvement and civic duty; but there are many things still restricting them, even pulling them back.
On one popular Arabic soap opera, two wives compete for the approval of their husband.
On other channels, other dramas: women being beaten by a husband, a father or a brother to save the family's honor. From a slap on the face in a historic series...to a woman being burned alive in a Gulf-made soap opera...Arab channels are often filled with images of violence directed at women.
Buthaina Nasser is a Saudi women's rights advocate. She hosts a show dedicated to women's issues in the Arab Middle East. She says, "women are always seen as victims.. Although there are professional females and legislators in the Arab world. There is still a glass ceiling for women on Arab media."
Jordan's Queen Rania has produced a video for a You Tube initiative she launched to shatter stereotypes about the Arab world. Her video shows real-life Arab women in a variety of professions...Judge...parliamentarian...bank CEO...pilot...dentist...plumber...police officer. None of these professions figure on Arab soap operas or drama series. Instead you'd find the traditonal role of the submissive wife, the weeping mother, the dependent sister.
Buthaina Nassr thinks women should become media producers, not just media subjects and consumers, to effect change. She says, "Women need to be involved more. They need to produce these shows themselves."
As a kid I was fond of a video clip produced by then Egyptian leading pop star Souad Husni. It was a clip of a children’s song called “El Banat, El Banat.” (The Girls, The Girls). “Girls are equal to boys”... the song went... “They are as capable and as patriotic with the same potential for greatness.”
Fast forward to today...and many of those ideals are now reality. Modern Arab women have moved on, but their governments and media insist on stalling them, even, in some cases, moving them back.
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