Struggling with Gender Roles

Life for women in Europe is generally portrayed as being worlds apart from women in the Arab world. At a German-Arab media conference now held in Rabat, Morocco, participants learned that this is not necessarily so. Martina Sabra reports

Dima Tarhini, photo: DW
Women are popular as telecasters in television. But political talk shows are generally reserved for men: Dima Tarhini of the Arab program DW-TV

​​Only a few decades ago married women in Germany had to ask their husband for permission if they wanted to open a bank account or pursue a career.

When Anna Prinz of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs related this at the beginning of the media conference in Rabat, the Arab participants reacted incredulously.

"In the Arab world women are discriminated against by patriarchal traditions. But women in Islam have always had the right to their own wealth," marveled Sahar Khamis of Egypt, dean of the Department of Information Science in Qatar.

Representatives from the German-speaking world were equally surprised, for example, to learn that since the 1970s Tunisia has had a law permitting unconditional abortion within the first three months of pregnancy. To be sure, the Tunisian law is based not on women's individual right of self-determination but on demographic calculations.

Still, in most European countries unconditional abortion within the first three months of pregnancy is unimaginable even today, and that of all countries it is an Islamic country which leaves the choice to women does not really fit into the image of a rigid Islam seemingly incapable of modernization.

Inadequate coverage of progress

Although not representative, these examples quite vividly illustrate that the mutual stereotyped images of women – on the one side the veiled Muslim woman without rights, on the other side the family-hostile Western career woman – have precious little to do with the real everyday life of girls and women in both cultures.

"In debates in Germany over Muslim or Arab women, women are often not at all what is at issue," analyzed political scientist Jochen Hippler. "Subliminally it is about immigration, and about German fears of the Other."

Irene Schneider, professor of Islamic studies in Göttingen, criticized that important developments that benefit Arab women, such as the radical family law reform in Morocco in 2004, have found little response in the leading German media. "There are still too many clichés in our coverage of Arab women."

Shared problems

This is true in the Arab world as well, countered Khadija Ridouane, foreign affairs editor at Moroccan daily newspaper "Le Matin du Sahara," which is close to the royal palace. Arab girls and women often have an ambivalent relationship to their gender peers in Europe:

"Many see them as the role model they definitely want to emulate. Other believe that too much freedom for women will destroy Arab families and culture." During her working stays in Europe and Germany it became clear to her how stereotypical the thinking was on both sides.

"Women in Europe and the Arab world have a great deal more in common than they are aware of," Khadija Ridouane put out for consideration. Instead of differentiating themselves from each other, they should address the problems they share. "Poverty, the negative consequences of uncontrolled globalization, and lack of democracy affect women in particular, and this is what should engage our attention."

More women in the media

In contrast to a few decades ago an amazing number of women now work in the media. "In Germany roughly half of those working in radio and television are women," reported Dagmar Skopalik, former equal opportunity commissioner who is now in charge of international relations at ZDF German Television.

But too much optimism is not called for: "Most women still get stuck on the career ladder in lower management." A similar development can be seen in the Arab world. At the ISIC, the National Institute of Media in Rabat, more than half of the students are women, reported the director of the institute, Latifa Akherbach. Today more than half of the personnel at the popular Arab satellite television stations are women.

However, Anas Bouslamti, producer at Dubai TV (40% women), criticizes that commercials and music videos still degrade women to housewives or objects of pleasure. At news channels women are more often used as newscasters, while moderated programs and political talk shows are generally handed over to men.

But at the same time the number of female reporters and foreign correspondents has increased, conceded Bouslamti – not to be taken for granted in a culture in which the public sphere has traditionally been reserved for men.

Gender-sensible reporting

Mahasen Al-Emam, chairwoman of the Arab Women Media Center, an NGO with its headquarters in Amman, called on Arab women in the media to join forces and fight together for more freedom of opinion and better working conditions.

Dagmar Skopalik of ZDF exhorted them not to settle for the numerical presence of women in the media.

How women and men are portrayed in television is primarily a question of camera work and interview techniques, and here women are often no more competent – that is, more "gender-sensible" – than their male colleagues. It is therefore essential that gender aspects be an integral part of an education in journalism.

Latifa Akherbach concluded: "We women in Morocco have always had a problem with our self-image. From an early age we have been told that we are less valuable, and that in addition to school or a profession we always had to be the perfect housewife and mother. I believe that women should actively work in the media to change the image of women."

Martina Sabra

© Qantara 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

The living conditions of women in Europe and the Arab world and their portrayal in the media was the topic of the recent "German-Arab Media Dialogue" conference. For several years now the Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) in Stuttgart has promoted the exchange between media experts in Europe and the Arab world.

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