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Women and Media in the Middle East

November 1, 2013

Woman at terminal

Does media empower women against hegemony or reinforce hegemonic representations? A new collection of papers looks at this question in many different venues. (BTW I took this photo at an Internet Cafe in Sharm El-Sheykh in 1998)

There’s a great new special issue of Feminist Media Studies just out (Vol 13, No. 5), edited by Nahed Eltantawy, on “Women and Media in the Middle East.”

It features 12 articles ranging from the experiences of women broadcasters in Iran, to how women who have abortions are represented on Turkish television, to an analysis of the Marvel Comics X-Men superheroine Dust (who, for those of you who don’t shop at Kryptonite, is a devout Sunni Muslim from Afghanistan).

In her introduction, “From Veiling to Blogging: Women and Media in the Middle East,” Nahed Eltantawy argues that after decades (or longer!) of women in the Middle East being portrayed as oppressed yet exotic, the Arab uprisings suddenly introduced images of active, politicized women empowered by social media. This moment calls for a greater interrogation of the ways in which women in the Middle East use media, as consumers, as producers, as well as further interrogation of the range of representations of Muslim women.

There are two articles on Egypt: “In Their Own Voice: Technologically mediated empowerment and transformation among young Arab women” by Courtney C. Radsch and Sahar Khamis, and “The First Ladies and the Arab Spring: A textual analysis of the media coverage of the female counterparts of authoritarian oppression in the Middle East” by Elza Ibroscheva.

Taken together, they suggest that while new media technologies empower women, the representational strategies of “old media” continue to extend the Orientalist gaze.

Radsch and Khamis use interviews with women from several Arab countries including Egypt about their social and political uses of new media to argue that these women comprise what Nancy Fraser (1992) called  “subaltern counterpublics,” which actively defy hegemonic power structures by engaging in multiple forms of resistance and, in so doing, may help “restructure the boundaries between public and private spheres, social and political domains, online and offline activism, and citizen and mainstream journalism.”

More to the point–though they may not use academic terminologies–they know they are engaged in such resistant practices:

young women interpreted their communicative potential as empowerment, since it enabled them to act as “agents of change” in their own societies, through enacting political, social and personal transformation

Here’s the abstract:

This feminist, qualitative study sheds light on how young Arab women used cyberactivism to participate in the wave of political and social transformations widely known as the Arab Spring. It argues that these activists leveraged social media to enact new forms of leadership, agency, and empowerment, since these online platforms enabled them to express themselves freely and their voices to be heard by the rest of the world, particularly the global media. This resulted in a multidimensional personal, social, political, and communicative revolution. This study is based on in-depth, personal interviews with more than twenty young Arab women citizen journalists, bloggers, and activists from Arab countries that witnessed political upheaval.

Ibroscheva conducts a textual analysis of media coverage of the Arab Spring to look at how the First Ladies of Tunisia and Egypt were portrayed. She argues that while Suzanne Mubarak and Leila Ben-Ali were portrayed as greedy and corrupt adjuncts to their husbands, most other presidential wives and royalty continued to be portrayed in glamorous ways, and to be presented even as forces for positive, democratic change.

She concludes:

What the textual analysis of the news and popular press revealed is that while portraying these political players as one of two categories—as elegant and progressive “First Ladies” before and as greedy and oppressive “Despot Housewives” immediately after the revolutions—the popular media essentially created a simplistic dichotomy of political choices which obscures the complexities of gender as a legitimate marker of democratic development.

I love the phrase “despot housewives.” I’d buy a book named that for the title alone.

Here’s her abstract:

In textually analyzing the media coverage of the First Ladies of the Arab Spring, this paper argues that the media’s approach to understanding the role of women in the structures of political power in the Middle East is often either too simplistic or too driven by a desire to exoticize the East, making it even harder to visualize and imagine the face of real female political empowerment in the region. While demonizing and condemning the greed of Leila Ben-Ali and Suzanne Mubarak in the immediate aftermath of the protests, prior to the Arab Spring, the Western media also glorified the presidential wives and royalty, such as Asma Al-Assad and Queen Rania, as symbolizing reform and openness to change, and in doing so, revealed an Oriental gaze that dichotomizes the gendered nature of politics and effectively denies the possibility of examining the complexities of women’s political engagement in the Middle East.


Fraser, Nancy. 1992. “Rethinking the public sphere.” In Habermas and the Public Sphere. Craig Calhoun, ed. Pp. 109 –142. The MIT Press.
Ibroscheva, Elza. 2013. The First Ladies and the Arab Spring: A textual analysis of the media coverage of the female counterparts of authoritarian oppression in the Middle East.
Feminist Media Studies 13(5): 871-880.
Radsch, Courtney and Sahar Khamis. 2013. In Their Own Voice: Technologically mediated empowerment and transformation among young Arab women. Feminist Media Studies 13(5): 881-890.
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