Patterns of discrimination against women still exist in the Arab World. Arab media reinforces the patriarchal rule that dominated the region for centuries. This is a frame and content analysis of women in Lebanese newspapers taking the Al-Akhbar as a case study. Al-Akhbar is a Beirut based daily newspaper with local and regional significance. The study was conducted on one complete week on quantitative and qualitative levels. A content analysis of the front and back covers was done. The study showed that males dominate the decision making process and enjoy gatekeeping authority. The findings are furthered connected to a more general scope of women’s rights and participation in politics and journalism. A differentiation in framing both genders is seen in throughout the paper. Women are portrayed as weak, fragile and sensitive. They are further used as “sex sells” merchandise. The paper calls for the freedom of Arab women from all sorts of oppression as a prerequisite for the freedom of the Arab World.
Beirut-based Al-Akhbar was launched In 2006 by Lebanese journalist Joseph Samaha, the brother of former MP and Minister of Information Michel Samaha, and a team of like-minded colleagues. The vision was demonstrating high standards of journalistic integrity while “remaining true to the principles of anti-imperialist struggle, progressive politics, and freedom of expression” the official website of the newspaper declares (Al-Akhbar English, 2006, para 1). Yet, in nowhere does it state empowering women or supporting equal opportunities and rights between genders. For, the latter is as unjust as the evils of imperialism.
It has reporters and correspondents in different capitals of the world and features news, opinions, analysis, and field stories as well as photos of the latest developments across the Middle East.
Al-Akhbar is published daily in 32 pages with its sections of Politics, Religion, Case study, Society, Economy, Culture and People, Media, Sports, Games etc.
The study is conducted on 7 consecutive issues of Al-Akhbar that is from Monday Nov. 19, 2012 to Wednesday Nov. 28, 2012. Only the front and back covers were observed and analyzed. This is why the findings cannot be totally generalized. However, they do represent a model of reality.
A scientific and content analysis of the covers has been undertaken.
B- QUANTITATIVE FINDINGS
At first impression, Al-Akhbar seems very neutral and fair. However, the study showed that Al-Akhbar may not be an exception of the hegemonic discrimination and stereotypes against women. Ideology, in the context of media, is dominant ideas that are designed to maintain status quo of, for example, male superiority over women, and/or western superiority over weaker-developing countries. And by hegemony could be explained by Ideology with added dynamics of social order, common sense, and natural situation, which are constantly contested and reinforced (Gramsci, 1930), even within the same paper. Yet, the stress was on reinforcing the culturally inherited mentality rather than contesting it.
The study portrayed that Al-Akhbar’s Editorial Staff is dominated by males.
According to the official website of Al-Akhbar, the high administrative positions of Founding Editor, Editorial Consultant, Editor-in-Chief, Vice-Editor, Managing Editors, Economy Editor, Local Editor, World Editor, Research Unit and Creative Director are all allocated to males; leaving the positions of Society and Culture/People Editors to females. This means that 83.3% of high administrative decisions are taken by males, leaving a mere 16.7% to the opposite gender.
It is important to mention that Al-Akhbar has both male and female writers and reporters, but how equal is the portion of each in feeding and shaping public opinion is debatable.
“The female voice is not powerful at all. It hardly affects the decision makings of Al-Akhbar” expresses a female Journalist of the above mentioned newspaper, whose name is left private for professional reasons. However, the discrimination may not stop at decision making positions.
The Front cover was studied first, alone.
The findings displayed that:
56.8% of Front Cover headings and articles are that of male journalists.
15.7% by Female Journalists
11.8% by International News agencies such as Reuters, AFP, UPA etc.
15.7% by “Al-Akhbar” with no names mentioned.
A comparison between the number of males and females in pictures portrays that: men are 5 times more likely to appear in photos in the front page, than of women (a ratio of 5 to 1).
The same criteria of study for the back cover show that
42.8% of back cover writers are males
7.2% are females
50% are signed by Al-Akhbar with no mentioning of names (and hence genders).
With a ratio of 3 to 2, females are 1.5 times more likely to appear in pictures at the back of the newspaper.
Even an inconsistency in topic distribution was observed. Males usually wrote and commented about deep political issues faced with a modest approach by women journalists. Women and women issues are less subject to media coverage, have less probability to make head news, and are limited in outlets to be heard. The findings were not uncommon.
The representation of how men and women were portrayed both in content and images will dominate the analysis of this paper.
C-DETAILED QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF FINDINGS
In this section we will try to encompass Al-Akhbar’s analysis and framing, and the de facto status of women in Media and Politics across the Middle East and Lebanon in particular.
1- Overview of the Freedom of Media in the Middle East
Deployment of media (TV, Publications, and Internet) involves both opportunities and challenges. What is meant by opportunities is removing restrictions, enhancing liberal education, conducting a worldview. Yet, the challenges are in the use of the media. As it may be used to “spread freedom”, it may, with the same rationale, be used to reinforce culturally inherited stereotypes and lifestyles.
Abdullahi An-Aim, prominent lawyer and human rights scholar, points out that “media in the Arab World are either co-opted or restricted by the government”. She further argues that the Middle East, dominated by its Arab conservative face, was against the freedom of Media, fearing it will divert people away from domestic norms, cultural beliefs and religious values.
The UN-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women held in China gave birth to the Beijing platform for action. It called to “increase women’s participation in media decision making and promote non-stereotypical media portrayal of women. In the Arab Middle East, responses to the Beijing stimulus came relatively slowly”(Sakr, 2004, p 155). Although most of the Arab channels have changed their initial standpoints and limitations on women in media, several restrictions may still be seen, notably in KSA. The Arab world is still a patriarchal rule, and its media reinforces that culture in one way or another. Al-Akhbar is no exception.
“Generally, women are portrayed in the media as being submissive, passive, dependent, inferior and subservient to men” (Dabbous Sensenig, 2000, p.26). The findings of Al-Akhbar supported the statement of the lecturer of Media Studies in the Arts and Communication department of the Lebanese American University.
The above quoted female journalist of Al-Akhbar elaborated that the “front [cover] is chosen according to top stories and or exclusive reports or controversial events”. The front page is always reserved for the most important news; it is usually a big picture that arouses attention and invites for further reading and interest. It also provides links and images to the inside pages that have other important content.
2-Front Cover: Dominance of the Male Gender
On all 7 consecutive days of the research paper, the cover photo of the first page was of men except one. The Male cover photos included that of President Mursi, A Salafist soldier, a Palestinian victory fighter, a group of Palestinians boys after the “victory”… Interesting as it may seem, the only female photo was that of a Palestinian woman, crying out of fright, feeling vulnerable an insecure. The cover photos will be discussed one by one, with their respective analysis.
To begin with, it so happened that the week of the study was highlighted by the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, a sensitive case to the world in general and the Arabs in particular. “Women and Children are presented as victims of war” writes Adhis Chetty (2004, p. 38) in a study of media images of women during war, a fact often seen in Al-Akhbar.
The front cover photo of day one included a picture where four innocent children were killed by the IDF’s attacks, 2 of which are girls, laid on what appears to be the front of an ambulance. A man, self restrained and able to control his feelings has lifted and organized their bodies as such. The Palestinian male figure has the situation under control and trying to fix the situation. Although war generally causes human vulnerability (male and female, young and old), media’s presentation of it tends to be gendered and aged.
In another one, a Palestinian Freedom fighter, in the traditional wardrobe of such fighters, is holding his hands in a ‘sab3a entisar’ (Peace sign) claiming victory upon the aggressive troops of Israel. The background shows the National flag of Palestine shining proud. Note that no females are evident anywhere in the picture. When it was war, women and children dominated the images of the front cover, and in times of declaring victory, the right is reserved to males. “War has become and still is largely HIStory and not HERstory” (Chetty, 2004, p.32). This was reinforced in another cover photo the next day with a headline: “The Resistance Wins” which is manifested through a group of young Palestinian boys (no girls at all), with victory signs, joy and happiness. These boys, who although did not even participate in the military activities, still get the credit, just because they are boys. War has always been co-notated with male fighters, with girls having no or minimal roles, as if the girls did not endure the same situation as those boys did.
“Women and children’s bodies are presented as battlegrounds on which the theatre of war (composed of predominantly male actors) is played out… for the sale of an ideology that renders them passive products of history without agency” (Chetty, 2004, p.39). Al-Akhbar with its ideology of anti-imperialism, may consider Israel and the USA as key imperialists in the international community. The newspaper uses women and children to point out the agendas of such hegemonic forces in the Middle East. The images of women lack the capacity to rebel, resist and shape their own history. These women are suspended in a historical, social and political vacuum. The presentation of suffering is clearly meant to cause sympathy with war victims and to highlight the evils of the enemy during war.
The caption of the temporary ceasefire was also demonstrated by a crying woman, scared and helpless. It has an emphasis on the pain, suffering and vulnerability of women, as opposed to the typical perception of male invulnerability and insensitivity. Ironically, in times of military action, images of males are often seen, when the time for ceasefire comes, it is portrayed by a weak woman with tears in her eyes. Subliminal messages of the image could be that men are strong and fight war. Ceasefire and putting down arms is a non-male conception where women are not even agents, rather mere tools shaped by the male counterpart.
The male dominated cover photos of Al-Akhbar are that of Muhammad Mursi, prominent Arab figure, Islam Brotherhood president of Egypt, portrayed with a very serious look. His mouth is open, as if shouting for something, demanding action, mobilizing change or even enforcing his own will. He represents the traditional conception of Arab masculinity and populist leader. Another one is titled differentiating between Salafists: a picture that has a clear message about the dominance of gender in the extremist Islam movement. These are the soldiers of Allah- men- that are ready to fight the holy war of Jihad. Notice, that no women Jihadists are portrayed.
3- Women in Journalism and Politics
“Women Journalists are wrongfully accused of being shy and less aggressive. Thus they are given work in the cultural sector while politics is assigned for men” writes May Elian, a journalist at Nahar Al-Shabab (2000, p.32). Her statement is confirmed by the number of women in the high administrative positions of the newspaper stated above. The positions for Society and Culture-People Editors were allocated for women; all the other topics were in the hands of their male counterparts. Men are given much more serious issues in politics; meanwhile women’s entrance to this section is still poor. Women get to write less about major political issues in the country. Even if they get the chance, there is a clear underrepresentation of women, even though tackling important political topics.
Freedom of expression is only a small portion of the civil-political rights. Political mobilization and decision making is a heavy drawback to the region. While women in the Arab world during the last decades were subject to restrictions on civic and political participation, Lebanese women enjoyed a different and better situation. However, Lebanon was no utopia for women.
Democracy in Abraham Lincoln’s words is “the rule of the people, by the people, for the people”. Women were often not part of that category of “The People.” Lebanese women did not enjoy any political rights before 1952 that is, before the removal of all legal obstacles on this matter. Even so, Marguerite Helou, a professor at the Faculty of Law and PSPA at the Lebanese University states that “in public administration generally the number of female employees decreases as one goes up the administrative hierarchy” (Helou, 2001). Women were excluded from positions filled through appointment and not elections, such as those of Muhafez and/or Qaemaqam.
Regarding the electoral phase, it was believed that a woman cannot become a Member of Parliament “unless she is in black”. As confusing as it may seem, it is somehow true. The black refers to the grief of the death of a related male figure. To further explain this point a quick overview of the female MPs that Lebanon has had would be interesting. The presence of women in the Lebanese assembly has only reached a maximum of 4 seats of a 128 seat chamber, which is only 3% of the entire Parliament. What is more interesting is that female voters were slightly more than males.
The first female MP was Mirna Al Bustany, who was elected in 1963 to compete the term of her father who died in a tragic car accident. Note that after her term in office, women entered another 30 year vacuum. Others include Nayla Moawad, wife of assassinated president Rene Moawad; Nayla Tueiny, daughter of assassinated MP Gibran Tueiny. Other female MPs have won due to male figure support, such as Bahiya Al Hariri, sister of former Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri; and Setrida Gaagaa, wife of Lebanese Forces commander Samir Gaagaa. The women won the seats not because the citizens gave them their trust to represent them, but because the electorate voted for the male figures and leaders that they represented. The popular quotation now is reversed to “behind every ‘great’ woman, is a male figure” to meet the Lebanese reality.
4- Back Cover Findings
Returning back to the analysis of the paper, the back cover of Al-Akhbar was as interesting. Debatably, it is said that the last page is the least important. The content is of little significance to the paper. The back cover included more female presence, but what does that really mean?
On one of the back covers a commentary about the “Art Auction for the Victory of Women” is eye catching, which was an auction for the support of the uprising women in the Arab world. A picture of a woman is evident with her head blocked by the poster she holds. The poster reads: “The freedom of women is the gateway to the freedom of the Arab world”. Impressive! But yet it is at the very back of the paper. Ironically, right next to it, another advertisement portrays several women. The most highlighted is an oriental belly dancer, dressed accordingly, with her Mediterranean skin, decorated with shiny cheap jewelry, physically and sexually attractive by all means. Next to her is a western woman, with blond well maintained hair, lady like clothing, expensive jewelry. The European one looks more elegant and diplomatic. Another aspect of the poster includes a female being physically harassed by a male. The man is portrayed as strong and emotionless; while the woman is shouting out of fear with instability in her eyes. It may be advocating male superiority and subjection of women to the desires, be it forceful desires, of their male counterparts. The male representation is far different. He is depicted as angry, powerful, active, holding guns and knives, ready for war.
5- Western vs. Eastern Women
Stereotyping of Western and Arab women may be inferred from a page that covered a naked march in San Francisco, where a protest against the new law that forbids nudity was conducted. The news is portrayed through a naked female holding a poster where it states “Nudity is Normal”. Once again the female is used to portray sexual attractiveness, reinforces a stereotype of women’s liberty and freedom to use their body in the west, as opposed to the more conservative and traditional Middle East, specifically the Arab world. The occurrence of such a protest in this part of the world is neither expectable nor acceptable. Not-to-mention that the women were protesting against the local government and were demanding legal change with “images [of their bodies] that speak louder than words”. Conversely, right besides the prior mentioned ‘nude women’ is portrayed the Middle Eastern woman, in this case singer Hiba Al Qawwas, who is fully dressed and even has a scarf around her neck. Her skin, below the neck, is by no means visible. The male reporter of her concert, highlighted her song “Amman the Song” (including it in the title) celebrating the empire and the sultan. One might draw conclusions that the Arab woman (Al Qawwas), as opposed to the western (nude protester) one is reinforcing the rule and patriarchal regime of the male Sultan. “The American women are seen taking a stand and are sufficiently empowered to formulate opinions of their own and express them” (Chetty, 2004, p.35). The fact that western societies have been sexually revolutionized since the 1960s along with other factors may explain the happenings.
Dr. Dabbous Sensenig, criticizes the Lebanese state by bringing to our attention that “our media cannot promote sexual promiscuity and liberation for women as long as we have laws to punish such behavior” (2000, p.27).
The female body, beauty and sexuality is furthered utilized through Paris Hilton portrayed in a sexually appealing way in the section that talks about her new store in Makah Al Mukkaramma. This is her 4th store in KSA. Commentators have said that it brings shame to the holy land to accept such production from a female who is well known for her sex tapes and appealing clothes.
In another issue, a male reports the selling of minor girls in Egypt. Although a very clear breaching of human rights in several ways, the topic is given far less importance, published at the very back of the page in a small section. In general, females are used as tools for seduction, physical and sexual arousal, and to grab the attention of readers.
6- Women and Change
Sometimes women do get recognized for their abilities and work, but the media has a sensitivity in covering them adequately. In a small report on the back of Al-Akhbar, the readers are informed that a female, Razan Zeituna, is awarded by the Syrian Association for Human Rights, for her outstanding work on liberating prisoners that have been imprisoned because of their ‘liberal thoughts’ and demand of freedom of speech. An important case, in the midst of a sea of political turmoil in Syria is covered, where a female is the main actor who even contested male superiority and rule. Yet, she gets to be on the last page of the newspaper.
However, there is the opposite version of the story too. Egypt and the revolution of the internet and media are portrayed through a picture of a veiled woman, happily taking part in the protest against the Muslim Brotherhood. She has a video camera in her hand and is speaking on the phone. She is clearly involved in the revolution. The picture is also significant in the sense that they chose not only a female activist but also a religious Muslim one; thus, illustrating that even portions of Muslims are not accepting the current regime of extreme Islamists. This paves a big debate on the role of women in the Arab uprising, and thus the new status of them in society. According to journalist Bariaa Ahmar Sreih, “There is no fertile, democratic ground to give a chance to women, nor a political decision to do so. In this same traditional society and a confused political regime, women still have a long way to go” (2001, p.42).
As mentioned previously, articles by male authors and journalists tend to appear more often on the front page with serious topics reserved to them. The female counterpart being more present in the inside pages on topics of less significance. Furthermore, when the back cover is dedicated to a male writer, he dominates the entire page, with no reference to any women. Linguistic analysis shows that the main actors mentioned in the articles are men. Women’s stories, perspectives and views are poorly introduced. And in quoting people, male references are seen first, either followed by (or not) by a female one.
The examples are infinite, but we will be satisfied with the ones provided in this paper.
A.J. Liebling said that “freedom of the press belongs to the one who owns one”. Even Lebanon, the most ‘democratic’ of the Arab countries has an illusion of plurality and freedom of speech. There are many outlets, but in fact one voice. A voice of dominance. A voice of male superiority. A voice where traditional political and confessional leaders take decisions on the people’s behalf. These outlets are owned by a few elite, which have a severe influence on content and representation. Al-Akhbar’s political, ideological and social positions were noticeable in the paper, and may have shaped the framing of events, news and women.
Although the first woman journalist in the Arab world, Afife Karam, was Lebanese, Lebanese media has much ground to cover in terms of stereotypes. It was evident that the paper exploited the vulnerability and helplessness of women who were equated with children in terms of their need of protection and care. However, this does not mean that the newspaper is not professional or scientific. This is not our intention at all. Al-Akhbar is well structured, up to date, respectable and reputable. The study aims to suggest that the framing of women is inferior to males, influenced by the patriarchal culture of the region. This paper provides some backup of the suggestion that the pattern of discrimination against women in media and politics still exists.
“I feel special and yet more stressed as a woman in the workplace…If you’re the type of woman who is afraid someone will break her nail, then sure that will be taken into consideration… But in general if you’re up for ‘MAN WORK’ you get to do it” expressed the anonymous Al-Akhbar female Journalist.
The problem is that hard work should not be equated to ‘man work’. It’s not a matter of gender, rather a matter of risk taking and individual abilities and skills. Discrimination against women on all fields should be eradicated. Men and Women are equal by birth, stratified by culture. The very same culture that empowers males, but subordinates the female counterpart, is worth reviewing. When choosing an article to publish the gatekeeping should be enforced on topics rather than gender. No one is being accused of anything. That is not the aim of the study. Note that this pattern of behavior may be the case in other types of media. Women that apply for visual media are selected based on their physical appearance, used as “merchandise” on TV. “She is seen as a beautiful and well dressed up woman reading some information written by someone else” (Elian, 2000, p.33).
However, with the passage of time, other factors should also be taken into consideration, and adequate changes should be introduced. Change is not necessarily bad. Moderate modernity does not have to be a threat to Arab foundations. Society should become aware of the existing imbalance and find ways to improve it.
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) came into effect, but it cannot be implemented exactly the same in each state. Cultural Relativism must be taken into consideration as well. Sakr (2004) points out that “what appears to be oppression from outside a culture may be found tolerable and even advantageous by women within it. Thus, access to the media to express full diversity of women’s voices is a prerequisite for effective application of the convention”.
No matter how much local NGOs or foreign agencies claim to be lobbying or pressuring the state for women’s benefit (politically, economically and socially) it is questionable how structural improvements regarding women can be achieved without the legal, legislative and executive involvement of the government.
Prominent female MP and ex-first lady Nayla Moawad believes that “our patriarchal society, whose political system is based on family and sect still poses a hindrance for women. I often criticize the system although I am a product of it; however I am trying to impose a change” (2001, p.47).
One thing is for sure the freedom of women is the gateway to the freedom of the Arab world.
(Note that this paper took part in the Annual Mary Turner Paper Award. A complete list of references can be provided upon request)