Interplay between politicized mass media and women’s bodies

While mainstream media outlets have been condemning sexual harassment in the past period, they did not acknowledge how much the media shapes public culture and perception, how much the media actually contributes to this phenomenon.

Sexual harassment has been one of the most pervasive forms of violence against women in Egypt, it is no news. In fact in the past period this phenomenon has been under the spotlight. Well, that urges us to look at an underrated factor in this phenomenon. What about mass media?

A wife’s duty is to clean up after her husband, exclaiming why else a man would get married, says a popular TV host on his talk show!

During his popular talk show “Al Qahera Al Youm” translated as “Cairo Today”, Amr Adeeb, an Egyptian prominent television host, equates women with maids or nannies insisting that wives’ duty is to obviously serve their husbands, pick up his dirty dishes and do his laundry, as it’s neither his nor any man’s duty to clean up after themselves.

Adeeb doesn’t stop there. He adds that this is a coup; calling on men to not allow their wives to ask them to clean up after themselves, otherwise woman would follow this “dangerous” path, demand their so called equality and the whole “global system” falls! Amr Adeeb has one of the highest viewership rates in the Middle East, as reported by the news website Egyptian Streets. [i]

Adeeb’s comments are audacious, reductionist and outrageous, yet, it speaks of how women are often perceived as inferior in the private sphere.

The implied controversial notion he evokes is that such attitude reflects manhood and masculinity; if a man accepts to clean up after himself, his manhood should be questioned. This suggests that masculinity is linked to subordination of women. Such narrative bolsters misogynistic ideas.  In a polarized society where mass media is far reaching in its influence for different sectors of society, evening talk shows are regarded as a vital source of information by the average Egyptians. [ii]

When the infamous case of mob-sexual assault of a female student took place in the Faculty of Law, Cairo University in March 2014, the reaction of Tamer Ameen, another anchor-man, was appalling. He blamed the victim, slut shaming her; describing her outfit looks as that of a dancer’s:  it’s provoking, sexy, and revealing. He tackled the incident as a shameful act, yet, because of her outfit, no wonder sexually suppressed students harassed her. He explicitly denied the victim’s personal freedom, rejecting the University’s statement of that the girl’s dress code is personal freedom, slamming it as inappropriate, and indecent. Even though Ameen admitted that the harassers hold responsibility, they were still excused.  Further, in his commentary on the sexual assault victim, Ameen made a rather interesting note. He linked the way the students stalked her to the bathroom where she locked herself up and gathered there to a scene in the Egyptian movie El Tagroba El Denarmkeya “The Danish Experience”, where a blond Danish student visiting Egypt for the first time was stalked by Egyptian men and followed by their gazes.  Such attitude was regarded by the movie as normal, flattery, and funny; it reflected how good looking the woman was.  It was referred to by the media as “cultural difference in a comedic fashion”. The movie portrayed that the harassment of a foreign beautiful woman is a standard outcome of the culture.

Ameen is no exception.

Most broadcast media outlets would tackle cases of sexual harassment, yet they would more often slut shame and blame the victim. “Blame the victim mentality” is one of the foremost causes of the wide spread of sexual violence. It is always suspected that the woman has aroused or irritated the offender through her dress code or behaviour. This “culture of taboo” and shame prevails in the Egyptian society,  persuading women to view themselves as sex objects, consequently discouraging them to report the crime or bring the perpetrator to justice. This leads the perpetrator to receive impunity without deliberation.

In a television commercial promoting a summer resort released in July 2014, a father and his two sons  are gazing and watching a pretty woman singing in the bathroom, and when she closes the window, one of the sons says “Don’t worry her next shower is at 6”. Supposedly such flagrant harassment would encourage the disgruntled women to purchase at the resort as it would offer more “privacy”. The commercial suggests that harassment is a normal consequence of being in a crowded place. Thus, to avoid harassment, one should move away from crowded places. Such a behavior is not condemned by the commercial, it is normalized.

The patriarchal culture shapes the behaviour and attitudes towards women.  Mass media is a paradoxical element in this context; it reflects the patriarchal culture, consolidating it. Thus, it plays a powerful role in the epidemic of sexual violence. While it can counter the epidemic, it endorses its culture, normalizing it. This is noted in the manner the media addresses sexual violence. For instance, Egyptian television approaches sexual harassment as sign of admiration. If a female character is harassed, this is an indication that she is beautiful or sexy. Sexual harassment is commonly perceived as a manifestation of pleasure by men and flattering by women. Ironically, this perception is rarely criticised and commonly adopted in the media.  Ultimately, it advocates the delusional idea that men have the right to approach the woman they desire; as superiors, as a display of power and at the end of the day the woman should be flattered.

It is no secret that the Egyptian culture is predominantly male dominated where the marginalization of women is the dominant social feature, leading to certain social constructions of women’s bodies. Yet, these constructions of female sexuality do not only reflect social and cultural identities but power struggles as well.

With the politicization of human life in Egypt, sexual harassment has been employed by the mainstream mass media to serve a political agenda, acting as mouthpieces for the government. Since the 25th of January, State media has significantly lost momentum for its government propaganda. The dominant privately owned outlets are owned by businessmen, supporting or aligned with the government.  In her account on the challenges “Third World” women face to defy media structures, Naomi Sakr noted “When the mainstream media are aligned with the State, the experience of women vis-à-vis the media is different too.”[iii] The media then become a tool by the State to assert control, thus making it inherently difficult to provide discursive space for a contentious topic, unless it serves political interests.

The Egyptian media spotlight on sexual assault in the past months was rather positive. Last June, for the first time, Egypt has ratified a law criminalizing sexual harassment as an amendment to the Egyptian legal code.[iv]After the sexual assault video on the president’s inauguration day, the new Egyptian president Abdel Fatah Al Sisi vowed a sterner line against sexual assault; ordering the policemen to adopt a zero tolerance approach to sexual crimes. Since then, there has been a significant increase in reporting sexual harassment. Nonetheless, many cases of sexual abuse of female detainees and protestors were not investigated by the authorities, or addressed by mainstream mass media.  The rhetoric of “these women should not be assaulted” is not extended to the female detainees, the female protesters who were subjected to virginity tests and the girl with the blue bra. In fact, many anchors argue that they caused it to themselves.  Women who break social norms are considered of inappropriate social conduct, and thus they shall not receive protection, or to be more precise shall not be dignified.

A pseudo political will not combat sexual violence. The epidemic will remain rampant as long as the media rhetoric remains the same. Mass media has the capacity to break taboos and trigger national debate. In fact, it is a potentially instrumental tool to make sexual violence of common concern by raising awareness of society’s role and urging the government to act positively. Social media provides an outstanding forum for expression, yet it is not as effective as mass media in reach out campaigns.

In the 2000s, the Egyptian government showcased televised literacy campaigns. It urged illiterate people, especially women, to pursue education, showing how much it affects their lives.  A study titled “Egyptian Rural Women’s Readings of these Televised Literacy Campaigns” reveals that modern mass media, television in particular, are entrenched in shaping women’s traditional oral culture, as all of her respondents have reported watching television with their families and discussing its programmes and ideas. She highlights that this collective pattern of television viewing offers an exceptional medium in shaping women’s views and ideas. Although her study explores the variations of rural women’s reception of the televised literacy campaign according to their social context, it affirmed the role of the television as a crucial forum for outreach.[v]

A similar campaign is central to raising awareness about sexual harassment and its impact on women and society as a whole. The rhetoric of men’s duty to protect women’s honor could be vastly effective in the present, yet it is problematic and short sighted. It implies and enforces the perception that women’s bodies are commodities controlled by men, and should be protected by them. Women should not be portrayed as passive subjects, inferior beings or sex objects but rather as active participants. This context would definitely be helpful to combat sexual violence, if men come to view women as active participant in the public and private spheres, rather than sexual or reproductive objects in the private sphere, or even better for women not to perceive themselves as submissive. But first the realm of sexual violence epidemic should be further highlighted; resisting stereotypes of blaming the victim or excusing the perpetrator, and ultimately reshaping public perception towards violence against women. Only then, we would be on the right track to combat sexual violence.

Nevertheless, the most critical question would remain: will the State be willing to alter this popular culture?

[i] “Popular Egyptian television host says wives are servants for husbands,” Egyptian Streets, October 2, 2014. http://egyptianstreets.com/2014/10/02/popular-egyptian-television-host-says-wives-are-servants-for-husbands/

[ii]Rasha Abdulla, “Egypt’s Media in the Midst of Revolution,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July, 16, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/07/16/egypt-s-media-in-midst-of-revolution/hg1v

[iii] Naomi Sakr, “Women – Media Interaction in the Middle East: An Introductory Overview,” Women and Media in the Middle East, 2nd Ed. (I.B.Tauris& Co Ltd; 2007), pp. 1- 16.

[iv] “Egypt’s Mansour issues law for tougher sexual harassment penalties,” Ahram Online, June 5, 2014, http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/103010.aspx

[v]SaharKhamis, “Chapter 6: Multiple Literacies, Multiples identities: Egyptian Rural Women’s Readings of Televised Literacy Campaigns,” Women and Media in the Middle East, 2nd Ed. (I.B.Tauris& Co Ltd; 2007), pp. 89 – 108.

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