Friday, May 16, 2008

Arab women need to have a larger role in the media

Muhammad Ayish

  • Last Updated: May 12. 2008 8:44PM UAE / May 12. 2008 4:44PM GMT

The media’s handling of women’s issues has always generated heated debates in different communities around the world, and the Arab region is no exception. This week, a pan-Arab panel of media practitioners and experts convened in Abu Dhabi under the auspices of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the head of the General Women’s Union and of the Family Development Foundation, as well as chairwoman of the Arab Women’s Organisation, to exchange views on how to enhance women’s representation and professional presence in the media industries.

Clearly, the meeting underscores Sheikha Fatima’s keenness on supporting women’s causes not only in the UAE, but across the Arab region.

In 2002, the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Arab Women and the Media noted the leading contribution of the UAE to women’s advancement as a central component of the country’s development strategies. It also made reference to the growing role of the media in building up public opinion and publicising the remarkable achievement of Arab women in all walks of life, saying that women should be accorded appropriate representation in media content and offered professional opportunities of access to media institutions.

Although the Abu Dhabi meeting represents yet another milestone in the UAE’s endeavours to empower women to be active contributors to their communities’ development, the event carries far more profound significance. Participants discussed a draft Arab Women Media Strategy slated for initiation at the forthcoming conference of the Arab Women’s Organisation in mid November in Abu Dhabi on the role of women in human security.

The new document represents a different approach, with programmes of action to bring about changes in women’s relationships with the media. Over the past two decades, the representation of women in the media has figured high on national and pan-Arab public agendas; however, most of the initiatives to address this problem have been shrouded in political rhetoric, lacking in strategic visions, and failed to adopt a true pan-Arab posture.

This time, the convergence of clear visions about women’s empowerment and the bright achievements of the Arab Women’s Organisation in promoting more active roles for women in their communities, are bound to generate fruitful results.

The renewed interest in bringing about positive transformations in women’s roles — both as objects of media content and as media practitioners — seems to reflect some grim realities in this area. According to reports released by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) and the Tunis-based Centre for Arab Women Training and Research (Cawtar), Arab women still have to make a lot of progress before they are able to leave enduring marks on the public sphere.

One Unifem report noted a considerable increase in the number of women entering the field of media across the region. However, this increase does not seem to have improved the way women are represented. This could be because of institutional media policies, professional values, or advertisers’ demands, the report acknowledges.

In June 2006, Cawtar released its long-awaited Arab Women and Media Report that revealed striking findings about women’s images, especially on the satellite television channels, in advertising and magazines. The report noted that women continue to lack appropriate access to senior media positions involving editorial decisions, staff recruitment, and budget allocations.

It also found that the way women are portrayed seems to be out of line with the huge advances achieved by Arab women in public life as politicians, educators, engineers, lawyers, and medical practitioners.

It seems unfair to blame these problems regarding the role of women in the media solely on long-established industry practices. Social and cultural inhibitions are also important factors to consider as large sections of the community continue to hold serious doubts about women’s entry into the media professions — despite the quite amazing dominance of women enrolling into communications studies programmes in the region.

More than ever, it is time to recognise the contributions to the development and sustainability of the media industry by women. For the next few decades, Arab women, like others in many parts of the globe, are likely to continue to be objectified, commodified and stereotyped in the public sphere. But when we think about the superb endeavours of visionary women leaders in the region such as Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak in supporting women’s empowerment, we can be assured that the true face of the Arabian woman will eventually be visible at the end of this dark tunnel.

Prof Muhammad Ayish is Dean of the College of Communication, University of Sharjah

Zemanta Pixie

No comments: