This book reports the first comprehensive survey of Arab women in Arab news – a picture of peaks, valleys, and troughs where the achievements, challenges, and day-to-day realities of Arab women are portrayed. The vast majority of media studies on Arab women thus far undertaken are Western-based. They study the effect of Western stereotypes in Western media depictions of Arab women. A sprawling literature traces Western stereotypes of Arab women from medieval times to the present. From 1800, the dominant Western stereotype of Arab women depicts them as passive and oppressed. Thirty years of social science media research in the West has shown that media images of Arab women reinforce this 200-year-old stereotype. Much of this research has studied silent “image bites” of Arab women, in which women are pictured in veils and their own voices are replaced by Western captions or voice-overs.
Today, the Internet and satellite communications allow the world to share around-the-clock news, and global news services permit one part of the world to read the news produced in other parts of the world. These recent developments make it possible to broach two never before-asked research questions:
• If we could draw a statistically representative sample of Arab women in Arab news, would the sample reinforce or disconfirm Western stereotypes of Arab women as passive?
• If we could take a census of Arab women in our representative sample, and if we could come to know them as human beings, and benchmark their experiences against the experiences of women worldwide, what would our census reveal?
This book sets out to answer both questions, with Part I tackling the first question and Part II the second. Part I, entitled ‘Coding Arab Females in Arab News’, describes our pursuit of question one. To answer the first question, we embarked on a media study of Arab women in Arab news. We contracted with a global news service based in the Middle East to collect and translate a sample of news summaries issued between September 2005 and June 2007 (twenty-two months) by 100 Arab media sources belonging to twenty Arab countries. Filtering for summaries that contained one or more female keywords (e.g., woman, mother, aunt, sister) yielded 2,014 summaries. Using a variety of sampling methods, we arrived at a sample of 178 summaries from four leading pan-Arab media sources where Arab females are mentioned in the highest concentrations. One of the striking findings of our sampling of Arab news is that media sources that are liberal and pro-women are much more likely to mention women in their stories, while media sources that are not advocates of women are likely to deprive women not only of headlines, but even of mentions, in hard news. They don’t disparage women. They simply make references to them that are too sparse and scattered to be noticed. Of all the mentions of women in our twenty-two-month corpus from 100 Arab media sources, 44% were concentrated in just four liberal pan-Arab sources based in London.
The journalism in much of our sample is thus driven by a liberal vision largely unknown to or ignored by the West. Almost a decade after 9/11, one of America’s two most venerable and most widely read news weeklies, Newsweek (Zakaria, February 22, 2010), considered that its American readership still needed to be made aware of the existence of a liberal Arab press and progressive Arab thought-leaders who advocate the rights of women.
After creating a concentrated sample of Arab females in Arab news, we constructed and validated a coding scheme to measure active vs. passive behavior in news. Our coding study found that Arab women in Arab news display a wider range of “active” behaviors than previous studies had found for Arab women in Western media. This finding struck us as being, on the face of it, good news for media representations of Arab women in the Arab press. But Part I left us with many unanswered questions about the detail behind the good news. Our coding study counted the mentions of Arab women in news, but kept their names, identities, and biographical details anonymized in sterile numbers. Furthermore, our coding study left historical and cultural issues underpinning the surface of the news stories unexamined.
Part II, entitled ‘Canvassing Arab Females in Arab News,’ describes our pursuit of question two. We returned to our corpus but we now removed the narrow lens of our coding study to take a more comprehensive and in-depth look at the Arab females in Arab news. We sought richer interpretive readings of the news summaries coded in Part I and these readings were informed by a voluminous scholarship on gender, human rights, and other related literatures. In Part II, we meet the Arab women we coded in Part I as individuals living in distinct countries with distinct biographies. We meet Arab women who are sometimes outstripping men, sometimes keeping pace, and sometimes falling behind. We meet Arab women of achievement who hold titles and set trends. We meet Arab women who are victims of economic blight, ravaged by war, poverty, ineffective leaders, and brutal politics. We meet women who are empowered and women who are detained or imprisoned, and forced to endure everyday insults and indignities within practices of sexism or misogyny. However, unlike the Western stereotype, Arab women in Arab news are not stigmatized as helpless creatures incapable of fending for themselves. Rather, as we have seen, the appearance of Arab women in hard news is concentrated in the liberal media that are transnational. This concentration means that, when an Arab media source mentions Arab women in hard news, the odds are that the source takes a pro-women editorial stance, takes an interest in reporting on Arab women as a way of spotlighting their imagination, ingenuity, suffering, or marginalization, seeks to expose shortcomings in the Arab societies that leave women at the periphery, and operates at a safe distance from the countries it reports on.
The analysis in Part II makes it clear that the active-passive binary so often used to frame Arab women is a Western filter, and a prejudicial one, that does little to actually describe Arab women in Arab news. Part II explodes the concepts of “active” and “passive” into atoms of more operational concepts (e.g. literacy, education, employment, fear, threat, etc.) that are descriptive of both the Arab context and, as we document from the literature on gender and human rights, the global context as well. In Part II, we show that the concepts of active and passive, stripped of their Western biases, are not dichotomous but overlapping categories. Arab women, like women worldwide, are constantly monitoring the passive constraints of their cultures to learn about and test boundaries and to step across them when possible and appropriate. Arab women, like women worldwide, have learned to see passivity less as an insurmountable barrier than as a reality check and a measure against which to mark their own advancement. This book shows that Arab women in Arab news can be identified with significant achievements in the struggle for equality and significant challenges ahead.