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Arab Women and Satellite Broadcasting

In the Arab world, satellite use is growing rapidly after a slow start. Despite the fact that many of the Middle Eastern countries share a common language, culture, religion, and geography, there are many social differences and diverse political ideologies; however, today almost all Arab countries allow the public to access satellite broadcasting. Satellite broadcasting has the potential to do a great many things, from leveraging scarce educational resources to providing models of global broadcast entertainment standards to local audiences. Additionally, satellite broadcasting has the potential to empower Arab women in the exercise of their right to seek and receive information and ideas.

Satellite television, with its multi-channel environment, is a suitable medium for Arab culture, which is family-oriented and tends to concentrate much of its entertainment around the home. However, for much of the population of Arab countries, satellite broadcast viewing is very much restricted to the upper class and the elite. A television set is a priority for any young couple getting married in the Arab world, but obtaining a satellite dish is their dream. Most middle-class Arab couples, especially in oil-rich Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, consider buying a satellite dish as a necessity and not a luxury (El Sherif, 2001).

Satellite broadcasting has begun to play an effective role in conveying news and information of general and specific interest, commenting on events as well as providing opinion and perspectives, reinforcing social norms and cultural awareness through the dissemination of information about the culture and the society, providing specialized data for commercial promotion and services, and, finally, entertaining (Rugh, 2001). In addition, satellite broadcasting has reintroduced and strengthened the concept of Arabism to the Arab world after a decline of some decades (Alterman, 1998). Satellite broadcasting through the diverse Arab multi-channel environment has helped bring Arab women together, deepened the dialogue between Arab women regarding issues of concern, and strengthened their traditions and customs. It has also provided a forum for Arab women to discuss the challenges of the new millennium (Amin, 2000).

Arab satellite services have responded to the demand of Arab women to portray their true image and role in society to balance the common stereotype in the West of the downtrodden Arab woman, without rights and without a role to play other than daughter, wife, and mother. Female presenters of talk shows and cultural and news programs on Arab satellite television channels are very popular. Talk shows and news programs feature interviews with female leaders in business, government, politics and diplomacy, and art and culture. Many satellite services, in contrast to national systems, portray Arab women as involved in economic, educational, and industrial activities. Rural women are shown as being responsible for the most labor-intensive agricultural tasks, rather than covering only their role in the household of food preparation and as sex symbols in television commercials and video clips (Labib, 2001).

Satellite broadcasting has made it possible for Arab women from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to witness developments and the impact of women's movements in different parts of the world as well as the many transformations that have taken place in Arab region (Killini, 2001). The multi-channel environment via satellite is expanding the Arab viewer's choices of content without interference of governments (Marghalani and Boyd, 1998). The Middle East has many platforms competing for Arab viewers: ERTU/ Nile Channels, ART/1st NET, Orbit, Star Select, and Gulf DTH/Showtime. All offer potential benefits to Arab women since they provide a lifeline to rural areas that terrestrial broadcast services do not reach and link the Arab household to the rest of the world. In addition, these services advance formal and informal education through the general and specialized satellite networks for education; they broadcast news and information; and they broadcast variety programs for Arab children as well as programs tailored to traditional female audiences, such as the Family channel in the Nilesat package, home shopping services such as Morico and Tamima on Nilesat, programming for cooking and fashion channel, and health care (Al Sherif, 2001).

In the last decade, the effects of satellite broadcasting in the Middle East have become more apparent as it has gained in popularity. Satellite broadcasting bypasses the two most important communication barriers in the region: illiteracy and government control of content. General illiteracy is a long-time problem that has affected the development of print media in the Arab world. Most Arab countries have a high illiteracy rate, which is especially high among women. Since a high percentage of Arab women are illiterate, satellite broadcasting, especially Arabic programming, is of a greater appeal to them than foreign programs, print media and the Internet. As for government control of content, governments cannot censor satellite broadcasts originating outside their countries and cannot control what their people are watching, except through prohibiting satellite viewing. This has been tried and has failed. As a result of access to uncensored programming that adheres in most cases to global production standards, audiences are becoming more discerning. It was only after the introduction of satellite broadcasting that a potential link between American culture and technology/media values is gaining recognition on an important level in the region. Satellite news broadcasters, namely MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Centre), ANN (Arab News Network), and Al-Jazeera, have helped introduce the region to the concepts of freedom of expression (Amin, 1999). Many studies have indicated that satellite broadcast programming is of a better quality than the content offered by national television (Fahmy, 1997).

There are certain factors that deeply affect the success of satellite services in terms of reach and impact. Most Arab women, especially those of the lower-middle class and lower class, are struggling against poverty, illiteracy, and isolation, all of which restrict the availability and the accessibility of satellite viewing. More and more Arab women are working to support their households. There is a general complaint, especially from the middle classes, of the high cost of acquiring a satellite dish and the difficulty in affording pay television channels (El Fawal, 2001). Although much of the middle class would like to have access to satellite channels because of the variety of content and the 24-hour-a-day programming, they cannot afford it and instead use a VCR to provide similar entertainment at an affordable price (Amin and Boyd, 1996). Some women prefer the VCR medium to the satellite since there is some control over content (El Fawal, 2001).

The footprint of satellites in the area usually covers the entire Arab region. In the euphoria over the potential of satellite broadcasting for women, there is a tendency to emphasize the many things that become feasible when women have ready access to information sources not available before. However, Arab-Islamic society is highly defensive of its traditions and cultural values (Amin, 1998). Researchers throughout the area have conducted many studies seeking to examine the impact of satellite broadcasting on Arab society and particularly on cultural mores and values. There is a broad perception that satellite broadcasting represents a form of cultural imperialism and is highly corrupting of traditional values. Schleifer (1995) posits that satellite broadcasting that has content that offends Islam or includes negative statements about religions or beliefs will create rejection and antagonism of Arab audiences. Harbi (1996) mentioned that the social impact of satellite viewing creates new and different manners and attitudes in the Arab world.

The thought that satellite broadcasting is carrying alien values also acts as a barrier for women in general and young girls in particular since their parents do not want them to be subject to this content. Some fathers in the Gulf states equate satellite channels with pornography and ask their sons-in-law to promise not to allow their newly wedded daughters to have access to satellite broadcasting. Harbi (1996) argues that high school girls in the Arab world who are exposed to satellite channels, especially to American satellite television programs, look forward to travel in the Western world, especially the United States and Europe. El Fawal (2001) indicates that satellite television affects reading habits and radio listening. Harbi also suggested that there is a positive correlation between satellite exposure and adoption of Western values and that satellite viewing causes superficiality, distortion, and ambiguity. In contrast, Ahmed (1995) did a study examining the impact of American soap operas on teens' perceptions and retention and concluded that there is no effect whatsoever on the teens from watching American soaps. Labib (2001) stated that there is no solid evidence yet to prove this influence, but he does not deny the anecdotal evidence to suggest an influence on women and girls in fields such as fashion and clothing as well as fast food consumption.

Entertainment programs are the most popular with Arab women, and many studies have indicated that movies and soap operas are usually ranked first in terms of satellite use. Popular American movies and entertainment programs have gained a great deal of popularity with Arab women (Abu-Lughod, 1995). Fahmy (1997) says that most of the studies measuring the impact of satellite television have focused on the cultural impact and not the sociological impact, on image and not the trend.

Since it has been expressed at times that satellite broadcasting has a negative, corrupting, and immoral influence on individuals and societies, many calls have been made to restrict satellite viewing (Killini, 2001). Arab society is still fearful of the danger of the cultural impact and worries that satellite broadcasting may have an effect on Arab families. Accordingly, programming that threatens family ties or condemns family values are not acceptable; materials that favor divorce as a means to solve family problems or programming that includes obscenity, nudity, arousal of sexual instincts, or acceptance of premarital sexual relations are forbidden in Arab society (Schleifer, 1995). It is still not acceptable to see these things in the cinema, and films in most countries are censored before being released to theatres. Since satellite television viewing is a social activity that is carried out by the family, fear of the content of satellite programs is widely documented (Labib, 2001).

The traditional reality of Middle East cultural environments in general reduces the capacity of ordinary women to control the decisions that others make about their media viewing. But satellite broadcasting in the Arab world is currently providing Arab women with educational, entertainment, and cultural and artistic services. Fahmy (1997) indicated that a good percentage of Egyptian women have started to play some role in modernizing Arab society and helping Arab women obtain knowledge about each other as well as providing education. It also has also begun to play a part in enhancing the information flow as a comprehensive program provider. In addition, it reaches a good part of the region and does away with the isolation of desert and rural areas. Because of the multi-channel environment it creates, it invites Arab women of the Middle East to take the opportunity for fair and equitable access to local and global resources and facilities for conventional and advanced channels of communication; to receive opinions, information and ideas; to receive a range of cultural products designed for a wide variety of tastes and interests; and to have easy access to information.

In spite of fears, satellite broadcasting is an excellent opportunity to access information and knowledge for Arab women through the different satellite services that provide news and public affairs programs, since these programs are good vehicles for increasing awareness of international issues (Fahmy, 1997). As women access international channels for news and information, they are finding that women are discussing topics that were previously considered taboo. Discussion about female genital mutilation as an international issue first took place when CNN International broadcast a comprehensive report about female circumcision during the UN Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994. The reporter videotaped the circumcision and interviewed the participants. The report shocked and horrified the local community for portraying something that was not publicly discussed. The report was so graphic that it attracted the attention of millions of viewers throughout the world. The CNNI report put this issue on the Egyptian government agenda and sent a signal to the government that it must deal with the issue on a national scale (Amin and Napoli, 1997). Since the time of the report, both governmental and non-governmental organizations have established projects, frequently headed by women, to eradicate the procedure.

In conclusion, satellite broadcasting has begun to affect all walks of public life in the Middle East and to influence Arab women in particular. As with all change, there are those who see the negatives as outweighing the positives and will resist its implementation. Satellite broadcasting has immense potential for Arab women, as a forum for the exchange of thoughts and ideas, as a means to gain a public platform for development and empowerment, as a medium for education that overcomes barriers of distance and time, and as a tool to advance communities, speed progress, and enhance development.

Abu Lughod, Lila (1995). "The Objects of Soap Operas: Egyptian Television and Cultural Politics of Modernity." In D. Miller (ed.) Worlds Apart: Modernity through the Prism of Local. Routlege.

Alterman, Jon B. (1998). New Media, New Politics: From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World. The Washington Institute for Near East Study policy paper No. 48.

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Amin, Hussein.Y. (1997/ 1998) "Satellite Television in Egypt." Journal of INAMO (Informationsprojekt Naher und Mittlerer Osten/Information Project Near and Middle East), Issue 12, Berlin, Germany.

Amin, Hussein Y. (2000). "Satellite Broadcasting in the Middle East: Current Situation." Paper presented to the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris.

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Labib, Sa'ad, Member of the Board of Trustees, Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). Personal interview, Cairo, 2001.

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About Hussein Amin

Hussein Amin is the director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism and Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

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