"Filming every moment"
This year, the 15-episode Egyptian drama Taht Al Wasaya (which translates as Under Guardianship in English) attracted considerable attention for its portrayal of the challenges faced by a widowed mother following the death of her husband. The show's themes – made explicit in the poignant representation of a woman suffering at the hands of a patriarchal society and legal system – are straightforwardly political. Buzz around the series even prompted at least two members of the Egyptian parliament to call for a review of the country's guardianship law.
Clear-cut oppression like that which is experienced by the show's protagonist is widely – and rightly – recognised to have political dimensions, but family life in general – even in the happiest homes – both reflects and conflicts with politics at multiple levels.
A baby is born, a video uploaded
In a YouTube video that has racked up 22 million views since it was uploaded in early 2021, a young father named Anas takes his viewers along for the birth of his second child, a son. As the video begins, the time is around 9 pm, and Anas and his wife, Asala, are preparing to leave for the hospital.
He shares his feelings about the momentous day before Asala, heavily pregnant and clearly exhausted, emerges, telling the couple’s millions of subscribers, "Honestly, I want to film every moment." Anas concurs: "We aren’t going to hide anything from you. . . [it will be] as if you are with us."
Many viewers were with them; one of the pair's only uploads to perform better than the labour and delivery vlog is a video documenting the event during which the gender of that same baby was projected on the Burj Khalifa in 2020.
Arab YouTube stars – including those from countries experiencing conflict or economic crisis – have made names for themselves in the UAE, which has even granted its "Golden Visa" for talented individuals to a number of influencers and YouTube personalities. Indeed, Asala and Anas are just one couple in the family-oriented Dubai YouTube milieu, which also includes Azza Zarour and her husband Nour Yasin, Essam and Nour, Shahad and Siamand, and others who make up the slightly amorphous "lifestyle" category. These creators, whose content centres on day-to-day happenings in their homes and families, are highly popular.
Typical videos include holiday celebrations, shopping trips, vacations and various pranks and challenges. However, regardless of the content in question, the more interesting element in videos of this genre is the on-camera negotiation of cooperation between husband and wife – and often, consequently, the active participation of the husbands in childcare, as well as their openness in displaying the characteristics of a caretaker.
In one recent video posted by Shahad and Siamand titled "A full day routine in our new house with two kids", the couple divide the day's organisational and childcare tasks, even writing the various jobs out on post-it notes and assigning them to one another. Likewise, Essam and Nour, in their yearly Ramadan series, explain how they intend to rotate cooking duties each evening throughout the month.
What Arab YouTube families offer
In an example that further showcases the genre's embrace of engaged fatherhood, Saudi YouTuber Mohamed Moshaya maintains one of the best performing channels in the region, which focuses on his daily activities with his four children. In a 2020 interview, Moshaya highlighted the gratifying feedback he has received from viewers: "People. . .have said that after their husbands started watching our videos, they have been going out more as a family because that’s what we do. . .The fact that our content is making people more loving is really special to me."
Yet, while the portrayal of marital collaboration in family vlogging videos may be considered notable, the roles that creators adopt remain – at least partially – traditional. In fact, some wives in popular husband-wife duos, including Shahad of Shahad and Siamand, and Nour of Essam and Nour, maintain their own successful spin-off channels, which revolve around women’s lifestyle topics such as beauty, fashion, and plenty of cleaning.
Thus, in some ways, these families are monetising traditional roles rather than defying them – a trend also observed in the experiences of Arab women who host prominent cooking channels on YouTube. The choice to create content targeted at women is a strategic one, and this content's focus on homemaking is – perhaps unintentionally – evidence-based.
Politics, at home
Arguably, what Arab vlogging families convey is a more candid model of family life that challenges stereotypical depictions of an authoritarian-inclined husband and households characterised by strictly gendered tasks. While clearly part and parcel of family vlogging content creation, this type of arrangement is not necessarily the standard across the Arab world.
The distribution of household labour in the Arab region is startlingly inequitable. According to a 2020 UN Women report, the region has the highest female-to-male ratio of time spent on unpaid care work, with women spending between 17 and 34 hours a week on these tasks and men spending a mere 1 to 5 hours, on average.
(This, it should be noted, is a gap that persists globally – a fact thrown into sharper relief by the COVID-19 pandemic.) This disparity has a direct relationship to women's participation in economic life outside the home: the female labour force participation rate in the region is estimated to hover around 19 percent.
Furthermore, regarding attitudes on family life, results from the 2022 Arab Barometer survey indicate that views are shifting slowly in favour of women's equality, yet traditional expectations are still prevalent. In half of the Arab countries surveyed in 2021, at least six-in-ten agreed with the idea that a man should have final say in all decisions concerning the family.
Additionally, the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) released in 2017 highlighted that only one-tenth to one-third of men in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, and Morocco (the four surveyed Arab countries) reported having recently carried out a traditionally feminine-coded task, such as cooking, cleaning, or bathing children. Perhaps predictably given this context, according to the same survey, a majority of men and about half of women supported the notion that a woman's most important role is to care for the household.
Politics, beyond the home
The nature of family relationships – and specifically fatherhood – became a hot topic in early 2022 when the Arabic-language version of the film Perfect Strangers aroused controversy across the Middle East, in particular for featuring a gay character and a female character (coincidentally portrayed by Mona Zaki, the star of Taht Al Wasaya) revealed to be unfaithful in her marriage, as well as for depicting a conversation between a father and his daughter about her relationship with her boyfriend.
Georges Khabbaz, the actor who played the father in question, said in an interview that the film "encourages openness and transparency between parents and their children" and added that "in the Arab world, communications are a bit closed off between the two generations". Despite the criticism directed towards the film – which included one member of the Egyptian House of Representatives calling for a ban on Netflix – it topped the streaming company’s charts in the region.
Indeed, entrenched power holders in the Middle East have long been wary of the transmission of purportedly alien cultural values through technology and globalisation. For example, the UAE – the influencer destination itself – banned the 2022 Pixar movie Lightyear, claiming that the same-sex kiss shown in the film violated its media standards. Meeting the same fate as a number of recent releases that allude to LGBTQ+ characters, the film was similarly restricted in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Palestine and Saudi Arabia.
In comparison, and at face value, there is nothing explicitly controversial about the content family vloggers are producing, and no topics depicted are taboo enough to warrant more than some opinionated scolding in the comments section. However, behind the clickbait-style video titles, many of these content creators are exceedingly open, inviting viewers into their private lives and relationships (or at least curated elements of each).
It is not clear what the impact of these vlogging channels will be, but they could lead to attitudinal shifts among subscribers, as it is theorised that views on gender roles in the region are at least partially influenced by perceptions about the beliefs and behaviours of social peers. Perhaps such videos will simply make the gendered dimensions of household labour and the decisions that influence these tasks – made in both the private and public realms – more visible.
Ever since the Arab Spring, regional governments have been all too aware of the subversive potential of social media platforms such as YouTube. Yet, in the long run, family vloggers' urge to "film every moment" might be the most politically significant content of all. One wonders if any government officials, apparently attuned to the possible real-world ramifications of fictional stories, are watching.