By Iqbal Tamimi
Women on Arab TV can attract a lot of attention, but this is often focused on their appearance, which would not be the case with male presenters. These female figureheads are often not good role models, because they are not chosen for their journalistic skills, while there are many Arab female journalists who are very professional but do not get the same opportunities or recognition. This attention was noticeable during the 2011 uprisings of the Middle East.
Calls for freedom of expression and advancement of human rights, is still spreading like wild fire in the Arab world. And even though Arab women’s utilization capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms as evidenced by their very low share in parliaments, cabinets, and the work force, the state run Arab media turned to women during the uprisings that took place in early 2011, to put forward their advocacy and build solidarity.
Interesting examples can be seen in Libya and Syria. There have been women fighting on both sides of the conflicts through the media, corresponding with the international media to speak up for the majority- albeit some worked under pseudonyms, such as a woman in Libya nicknamed Perditta, who kept her late husband’s internet portal working after his assassination. Her late husband Mohammed al-Nabbous, a citizen journalist who established news stream from Libya during the uprising.
But Hala Misrati, who once wrote romance tales in her published collection of short stories in 2007 entitled “The moon has another face”, and who only began working in television three years ago, became a star during the Libyan crisis, attracting the attention of international media when she appeared daily on her hour-long call-in show, “Libya on This Day” on the state-run satellite channel, Al-Jamahiriya 2, through which she supported Gaddafi wholeheartedly.
Misrati seemed to think that her duties exceeds journalism, that she issued a Fatwa live on air claiming “The Security Council adoption of the no-fly zone in Libya is not valid, because the adoption (of Children) is prohibited in Islam,” and on another show she blasted former Libyan representative to the UN, Mohamed Shalgham, who defected from the Gaddafi regime, reportedly calling him an “ignorant idiot” and saying that “he is good for nothing but barking like a dog.”. And in another broadcast, Misrati described prominent Qatar-based Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi as a “devil” after he criticized the pro-Gaddafi Libyan media. Misrati reportedly stated that “al-Qaradawi is too ignorant to judge me or the [Libyan] press.”
In response to the Libyan rebel’s advancement into Tripoli, Misrati appeared on the state television brandishing a pistol and declaring “with this weapon, I either kill or die today”
She fought against anyone fuelling the campaign against Gadhafi, including the media and, particularly, the Arab news channel al-Jazeera, which she referred to as “the pig channel” in a rhyming play on words – the Arabic word for pig is “khanzeera.”
Misrati did not spare colleagues by her attacks; she grilled an arrested female journalist for an hour, live on air, almost like a secret police interrogator. “Say the things that you said in your recordings!” she aggressively ordered Rana al-Aqbani, a Syrian-Libyan journalist who the rights group Amnesty International said was snatched from her Tripoli home along with her brother by plainclothes gunmen on March 28. Apparently Misrati was referring to taped recordings of al-Aqbani’s phone calls, as she tried to make her acknowledge that she sought Gadhafi’s ouster. Misrati accused al Aqabbani of helping prompt the international air campaign with her reports. As the defiant al-Aqbani tried to explain herself, Misrati interjected, “Sometimes a person lives in a fantasy … But when you take fantasy outside (your head), without realizing, you pass on rumours and mistakes, and we pay the price of those mistakes under shelling.”. Misrati later reassured her viewers that al-Aqbani won’t be put to death. “She and her friends are not the head of the snake, maybe the tail.”
Misrati also railed against Iman al-Obaidi, a Libyan woman who claimed to western journalists she had been raped by Gaddafi militiamen, calling her a “liar” and suggesting she was a “whore” and accused her of being a traitor. “Iman, in the end, is a liar,” Misrati said in a 10-minute rant, accusing al-Obeidi of pulling a media stunt. She dismissed her claims, saying “no Arab woman would bring shame on her family by publicly admitting to rape”. She told viewers that it was rebels who were raping women in the eastern territories they control. Misrati urged al-Obeidi to come clean with the truth because her claims were fuelling the “bombardment” of Libya.”Even sometimes a whore has nationalism toward her homeland, when she knows her homeland is in danger!” Misrati sneered.
UK based female Libyan blogger Nahla Al-Ageli commented on the western media attention given to Misrati by saying: “Shocking antics get more attention. It is a shame that only Hala Misrati gets the splash. She is just a part of the Gaddafi propaganda machine and his state television; which has for forty two years done nothing but spew his odd, crazy and forever flipping agenda. Misrati is but a product of that regime, just like her male counterpart, Moussa Ibrahim, and many others. They speak the same language as Gaddafi and his sons that treat and address the Libyan people as ignorant. The future Libya and the current NTC will need to deal with them once the country is fully liberated. Gaddafi has, in his unique way, always used women as barter for attention and notoriety. He has recruited them as body guards, mercenaries and executioners, to obtain maximum exposure. This is the work of a grand narcissist, let’s not forget”.
“I honestly don’t see Misrati as a credible representative of the Arab or Muslim woman. The way she argued her point is exactly the same as when Gaddafi hands out copies of the Koran with the Green Book, as if the two were of the same sacred worth. It is their sick irony and I am sure it is not lost on anyone. We’ve had to deal with Gaddafi comparing himself to the messiah before. As to the gun salute, it is just another antic. But I do wonder who gave her that shot gun”. Al-Ageli said.
Another ‘state defending talent’ brought to light by the Middle East revolts is Reem Haddad, Syria’s state TV director and Information Ministry spokeswoman who became one of the most familiar faces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with a talent for insisting on innocent explanations for the brutal government responses to the protests.
Haddad has put a spin on the desperate attempts of hundreds of Syrians who fleed Jisr al-Shaghour when she told the BBC that the refugees were just visiting family members in Turkey, and when she was asked about the protesting crowds by al-Jazeera in late April. “There were no demonstrators”, she said, “on the contrary, many people on the ground were reporting gathering crowds” she claimed, and when she was asked by al-Jazeera why protesters were not allowed to take to the streets peacefully in Daraa. Haddad answered: “Some of them were not actually demonstrators with legitimate rights. They were armed groups, who had a different political agenda, and they caused riot and they burned and they caused fear amongst the inhabitants”
How UK press responded to those Arab women’s roles in the TV networks
It was interesting to notice that UK press were interested in the entertaining part of those Arab women claimed ‘journalists’. Esther Addley of the Guardian saw resemblance between Haddad and actress Isla Fisher that she started her article by describing Reem Haddad as: “She may look like the actor Isla Fisher and speak like a Mayfair lady who lunches…”. While Richard Spencer of the Telegraph saw a resemblance between her and the American film star Julianne Moore, describing her as “she made a striking impression not just for her loyalist arguments but also for her smart English accent and red hair, prompting comparisons with the American film star Julianne Moore”. David Jarvis from the Daily Mail as well described her by the following: “With her cut-glass English accent and resemblance to Hollywood star Isla Fisher, she is an unlikely face for an international crisis.”.
The butter of the matter is, she is gorgeous and she attracted attention because she looks like American movie stars and speaks like English women, but her bad attribute it seems, have nothing to do with the good old civilized ‘west’.
Appearance has been considered as an important element when choosing spokeswomen or PR and media female employees. Unfortunately, some Arab women are still used through their media roles either as scapegoats for the state and men of power, or as an entertainment and ridiculing source of material. One cannot blame the press for highlighting Haddad’s ignorance and naiveté, because Haddad brought it on herself.
“I know, you have this ‘eyewitness phenomenon’ thing, but we have our cameras everywhere and we have seen no gathering at all.” She told al-Jazeera during an interview in late April. The cameras she was talking about must have been fitted inside a brooms cupboard. This might be the only explanation for the fact that ‘her’ cameras did not shoot the same scenes of attacks on innocent civilians, and other atrocities that other citizen journalists’ cameras managed to film.
When I searched for data about how Western media perceived the Arab men in media roles during the revolution, I could not find a single article that describes the looks of any Arab man working as a spokesperson, an anchor or any other media role for that matter. Only comments about women’s looks and lack of knowledge were highlighted. I do not know whether that was due to plain media gender discrimination in general or due to the fact that such stories about Arab women were entertaining enough to attract the readers and boost the traffic to news websites, thus improving the revenues made from such pages.
I can understand why no one can take the comments of Haddad seriously when she explains the reason behind Syrians leaving their homes and fleeing to neighbouring Turkey when she claimed “A lot of them find it easy to move across because their relatives are there. It’s a bit like having a problem in your street, and your mum lives in the next street, so you go and visit your mum for a bit.”.
Haddad’s naivety, or maybe her ‘lies’ won her a title that makes her an equal to a man, but unfortunately, this kind of equity is not something that we, Arab women journalists, can be proud of, since the Guardian journalist drawn comparisons of her to Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, whose exuberant insistence on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s government that the Iraqi army was invincible earned him the nickname Comical Ali before the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq.
Needless to say that little is known about Haddad’s early career to date or how she got the job, except that her father served as Syria’s ambassador to East Germany. It is interesting that the Syrian regime has appointed Haddad as a spokesperson when she has no history of studying media or working as a journalist or even as a campaigner, while there are hundreds of Syrian men and women who are highly educated, skilled and qualified for such prestigious post.
This incident reflects the corruption and lobbying tactics inside Syrian state establishments regarding many things including employment policies and procedures, which happen to be one of the many reasons for the revolt. A beautiful daughter of a high profile personality is more likely to be appointed in a high profile job rather than employing a qualified person of no connections. This is a clear example of the corrupt system which offers employment opportunities for its supporters and loyalists only, aiming at keeping a tight fest control on all sectors.
British media on the other hand seems uninterested in describing the looks of Misrati who was described by US media sources as ‘In her 30s, with long dark hair, heavy makeup and often decked out in gaudy outfits’. It seems her entertaining and amusing performances out shadowed the interest in her appearance, besides the fact that for some reason UK media never took Gaddafi or his associates seriously any way. Besides, not being blond and not being a look alike of any Western movie star spared the British journalists the effort of going through her looks details.
I have to say that describing Misrati as a journalist is an insult to journalists, because of her ignorant, biased, intimidating, immoral, aggressive, abusive and loud behaviour.
Arab television channels have been hiring women anchors since some time, though many women journalists suffered discrimination. I quote my colleague “Najat sharrafeddine” of future TV who was one of the first few Arab women working as war reporters, besides her work at the Lebanese newspaper Annahar. During our annual conference of the Arab Women Media Centre held in Amman in 2004, she told us that she remembers a Lebanese director telling female presenters that “viewers wanted to see them, not listen to them”, and that Gebran Tueni, the former editor and publisher of the mass circulation An-Nahar daily newspaper in Beirut once told one of his reporters that “TV works according to “Star” system, empowering women through their beauty”.
Women’s dilemma of “Beauty before Brains” is not an exclusive matter of the Arab media, still, whatever the motives behind Arab women recruitment in television stations in the past two decades, Arab female journalists proved to be equal to men and sometimes more effective and influential.
During the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006, Arab female journalists faced bombs, bullets and missiles surpassing their male colleagues’ coverage. I was working then at Alarabiya news channel based in Dubai as an interview producer, and coordinating with fellow reporters on both sides of the border was part of my duties. Most of the reporters were women. Najwa Alqasim and Rima Maktabi were transferred from Alarabiya studios in Dubai to the Lebanese borders as well as Nancy al-Sabei from NTV; Katia Nasser, Shirin Abu Aqleh, Jivara al- Budairy and Bushra Abdelsammad from Aljazeera TV based in Qatar. During that conflict, Layal Najeeb, a 23 years old female free lance photographer was killed during one of Israel’s shelling of a Lebanese village.
I have published an article on the International News Safety Institute then about the spontaneity of choosing the female reporters and the lack of safety measures and protection gear or advice offered to them, but all those things did not reduce their enthusiasm.
But even though there are many examples of excellent Arab female journalists, still there are hardly enough examples celebrated or highlighted by western media as much as the caricaturised personalities similar to those of Misrati and Haddad. Arab media on the other hand do not promote the image of dedicated women working in journalism or assign them to managerial or decision making posts; even women’s magazines are run by men in the Arab states.
Over the past 20 years, most Arab mainstream press coverage continues to rely on men as experts in the fields of business, politics, economics and sports. Arab women in the news are more likely to be featured as victims in stories about accidents, natural disasters, or domestic violence than in stories about their professional abilities or expertise.
I have worked on a number of current affairs programmes at MBC and Alarabiya television channels for almost 6 years, during which, the majority of my suggestions regarding inviting women to participate as political analysts or commentators have been rejected by both the producer of the show and the head of the current affairs department, both of whom were men who believed that men have more credibility when it comes to political discussions. Women were invited to participate only when the team was short of time to find a substitute of a male guest who apologized and could not make it on short notice, or as a matter of convenience; such as when the female guest happens to be around the area because she was invited to UAE to participate in another event. After all, catching two birds with one stone is a cost effective policy.
My suggestions to interview women were accepted only when women’s news were expected to attract attention, such as the first interview with Amat Al Aleem Ali Alsoswa when she was appointed as Minister for Human Rights in Yemen because she was the first Yemeni woman to be appointed in a Ministerial post.
Not only women guests were discriminated against, but also women journalists working for the channel as well. I worked for a couple of years on a daily press program with the brilliant journalist, Baha’a el-Haj. And even though she was the producer of the show, she was denied the title, and her title remained an assistant producer, while all our male colleagues who produced the same show on the rota were offered the title of Producer. In the end, she was forced to resign after a long struggle and many debates with the Head of the Current Affairs department who refused her demands of equal treatment. I have to mention that in UAE, where hundreds of television channels are based, there are no trade unions to defend the rights of journalists when they encounter professional disputes.
Needless to say, that the dedicated female journalists are hardly remembered or recognized by the press, while the controversial amateurish personalities get all the attention.
Iqbal Tamimi is the Director of Arab Women Media Watch Centre in UK
She can be reached through (email@example.com)