Home / Culture & Society / The Satellite, the Prince, and Scheherazade : The Rise of Women as Communicators in Digital Islam
Copyright Ruth V. Ward

The Satellite, the Prince, and Scheherazade : The Rise of Women as Communicators in Digital Islam

A professor at Mohamed V University in Rabat (Morocco), Fatema Mernissi is currently a full-time researcher at the IURS (Institut Universitaire de Recherche Scientifique) where she splits her time between animating writing workshops for civic actors seeking to influence public opinion through publications and conducting her own field-work based analysis of Moroccan society. When MBC, the first satellite-TV, hit the Moroccan sky in 1991, she switched from the study of the Harem (a world view where space is sexualized-the private is confused with femininity and the public with masculinity-which is the theme of her early publications such as 'Beyond the Veil,', 'The Veil and the Male Elite' and 'Forgotten Queens of Islam'), to the study of the 'digital umma,' where she focuses on the new sexual and political game produced by the new communication technologies demolition of frontiers. Her latest book, "Les Sindbads Marocains:Voyage dans le Maroc Civique"(Editions Marsam, Rabat, March 2004), describes how the previously isolated desert youth in the South of Morocco are transforming themselves into skilled navigators on the internet in cyber-cafés.

During Ramadan 2002, I realized that I was becoming a stranger in my own land and that the old Arab world I was born in and could decode and understand has vanished forever. Women managed to shock the digital Umma (the new satellite-connected Muslim community) not only by belly-dancing in the most popular television series, but also as producers of films and as talk show anchors. "In spite of the great variety of their topics, the Ramadan television series have one thing in common, regardless of whether their subject is social, historical or religious: the unavoidable belly-dancer who has become a pivotal creature in the events unfolding in these shows," explains Mohammad Mahmud, the columnist who reports on talk shows in the prestigious weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi. What surprised him most was her versatile dimension: "The belly-dancer is the key figure who helps businessmen rise to the top or pulls them down to the abyss. In one television drama, the belly-dancer plays the heroine of the popular struggle for liberation, in another, she backs a Zionist movement supporter.... Does this extraordinary presence of the belly-dancer in the Ramadan television shows reflect reality or is it simply a seductive maneuver on the part of the producers to attract audiences?" (1) One has to sympathize with the Al-Ahram columnist, because it is not belly-dancing he is complaining about per se; as everyone knows, unlike some puritanical Christian Scandinavians or Americans, Arab men in general, and Egyptians in particular, are thrilled by such a sight. What he is worrying about is that the ever present-belly dancer interferes seriously in the spiritually-inclined believer's capacity to transcend the voluptuousness of the senses and concentrate on more esoteric blessings. To help man reach harmony (wasat), that, is to develop a balanced set of defense mechanisms which allows him to resist temptations without drifting into ascetic extremisms, is after all the key ideal Islam has been promoting for the fifteen centuries of its existence (the year 2002 corresponds to the year 1423 of the Muslim calendar). But Arab satellite-television somehow seems to capture the intoxicating pre-Islamic spell of women and fuels it with an alarming glow.

1. Women's Aggressive Invasion of The New Public Space of the Satellite-Wired Umma

After asking the questions, Mohammad Mahmoud reminds everyone that Ramadan is indeed a fantastic opportunity for film producers because during that month hungry believers rush to their homes to break the fast and are therefore easy prey for television programmers. He proceeds to quote Taha Hussein, one of the twentieth century's most remarkable Arab thinkers, to make his point clearer: "Is not Ramadan the month of spirituality and the occasion to get nearer to Allah? Should we not expect the television drama during this sacred month to nurture our pious cravings?"

But the belly-dancers were not the only aggressive women who managed to invade the political space created by satellite television. One of this Ramadan's highly polemical and most challenging, as well as popular, television series was not the controversial "Rider without a Horse" (Faris Bila Jawad), which was identified as anti-Zionist and condemned by many American and Israeli media organizations. Instead, it was a film by a female movie director, In'am Mohammad Ali, about a highly controversial Egyptian male feminist, who wrote "The Liberation of Women" (Tahrir al-Mar'a), a vitriolic pamphlet on sexual equality which was perceived as scandalous by Arab rulers in the 1930s. The man's name, Qasim Amin, is also the title of the television series which competed for stardom with "Rider without a Horse" on many of the fifty or so Arab satellite channels during Ramadan. Both films are set during the 1930s British occupation of Egypt and both take their viewers into politically entangled romantic tales set in the harems of the corrupt Turkish Sultan who then ruled. But while the hero of "Rider without a Horse" mingled with the British upper class and tried to profit from it in an opportunistic way, "Qasim Amin" forces the viewer to reject that ruling class as inhuman, because he identifies "with his humiliated mother and with one of her co-spouses who were suffering from the arrogance of the harem master." What made male viewers very attentive to Qasim Amin was that its female movie-maker, one of Egypt's most talented professionals, "showed, through her film, that when a competent artist decides to take us to navigate in the past, it is not so much to seek an escape from reality as to enlighten it".(2) The film's key message was that in 1930s Egypt just as today, to liberate women is the best chance to empower the country and release Arabs' energies. While "Rider without a Horse" identified a Zionist plot, that is, an external force, as the reason for Arab weaknesses, the Qasim Amin serial focuses on the internal mechanisms of powerlessness, on the psychological dimensions of Arab weakness, and is, according to many media commentators, a much more corrosive invitation to an exacting self-introspection.

However, the aggressive invasion of Arab media by women as actresses and producers of films and shows as well as directors of television channels did not start with this Ramadan. "The Empire of Women" was the scary magazine cover story which revealed to male Egyptian citizens that "of the 80,000 persons working in the radio and television, 50,000 are women." (3) The article went on to explain in detail "how clever women were strategizing to obtain (istiyad) top positions in management hierarchies as well as radio and channel leaderships." 3/ The fact that women were visibly present in Arab media was not really the breaking news. What rang strange bells in that sacred month was that the extraordinary appeal of the female hostesses of Al Jazeera was due to their breaking of sexual taboos.

2. The Big Satellite Scare: Al Jazeera Women Probe Sexual Inadequacy.

This summer, I became terribly jealous of Muntaha al-Rimhy, one of Al Jazeera's most intellectually sharp anchor women: men were talking non-stop about her all along the sandy Atlantic beaches around Casablanca I visit regularly. The reason was the talk show she devoted to probing "the reasons for the lack of sexual desire among spouses." And since the talk show's name is "For Women Only," what scared the male viewers was that only she and her three female guests were voicing opinions on this troubling phenomenon which they described as widespread and statistically alarming. "Muntaha al-Rimhi," comments Ali Aziz, a male television columnist "decided to break a taboo on her Al Jazeera show, by inviting her all-female guests to probe the lack of sexual appetite (futur) between spouses. The three guests went into detail with their hostess, diagnosing the problem which is growing in prodigious proportions, according to them, and identifying its superficial and deeper reasons. The women dived into psychological explanations, unearthing the emotional as well as the educational dimensions of the problem." The word chosen by the show's hostess was a tricky one. She deliberately avoided talking about sexual impotence ('ajz) and used the wicked futur," which literally means "a loss of energy level, a sudden weakness." This left male viewers wondering. As one of my university colleagues remarked, "I wish Muntaha had chosen to speak about straightforward sexual impotence, because when a woman speaks about futur, the man immediately feels guilty and inadequate." My Moroccan colleague was right, because what made the Egyptian columnist feel uneasy was simply that women were talking publicly about sexuality in the absence of an important actor-the man. "Although the non-expert male viewer did not get enough information from the show to make up his mind," explains Ali Aziz," it was nonetheless quite an impressive display of acute analysis and perspicacity. You really need to see only three women sitting together, even if silent, to make you realize the gravity of such an impediment as the lack of sexual appetite." (4)

Yes, the new information technology is definitely producing cataclysmic psychological changes in Arab self-perception, but what is more astonishing is that the invasion of women as aggressive participants in the new satellite TV is only a mirror of what is happening everywhere, in a less visible way, such as the more intimate surfing on the net in the dark corners of the mushrooming cyber-cafés.

3. "Is Internet Chat Licit (Halal) During Ramadan?" Teenage Girls Ask Azhar Sheikhs.

This Ramadan was definitely very different, considering the request for a fatwa from Egyptian sheikhs on the following issue: "Is chatting on the Internet forbidden during Ramadan?"(5) Unlike what we think today, fatwa in early Islam had no power connotation. Fatwa meant simply that "you ask a question" to inform yourself, explains Ibn Manzur in his 13th century Lisan al-Arab ("The Tongue of the Arabs"), which is still used today.(6) If there is to be fear, it should be on the part of the religious authority whose duty is to put its expertise at your disposal to help you solve your problem. The fatwa is a test for the authority, not for the questioner. Thus Egyptian youth's inquiry about chat rooms supposes that the sheikhs at al-Azhar University are digitally competent. Indeed, the internet is reviving the oral tradition of Islam begun by the Prophet in Medina. Asking for a fatwa was part of the constant interactive dialogue technically known as jadal, which helped the prophet build a formidable Muslim community in less than a decade (between 622 and 632). (7)

The challenging Ramadan question about internet chat was accompanied by a huge picture of two adolescent girls surfing on computers and a discreet caption which makes us realize the gravity of the inquiry: "Many youths are forced, because of their jobs, to surf the internet ... How is their fasting affected, for instance, if they happen to encounter, by chance, a pornographic website?" (8) This is one of the delicate questions which Jamal al-Kashki, editor of the Ramadan issue of the widely circulated Egyptian magazine Al-Ahram Al-'Arabi, identified as significant for al-Azhar sheikhs to answer, if they wanted to stay credible in the eyes of the blushing teenagers. And don't make the mistake of thinking that those who claim to speak in the name of Islam are technologically backward and that they are internet and satellite illiterates. Believe it or not, it is the most conservative of all, the Iranian Ayatollah of the Center for Islamic Jurisprudence of the city of Qum, one of Shi'a Islam's capitals, who first rushed to the web with the strategic intention of outdoing their fifteen-century-old Arab Sunni rivals. "Several thousand texts, both Sunni and Shi'a, have been converted to electronic form," explained one of the contributors to a 1999 retrospective on Digital Islam. "While Sunni institutions tended to ignore Shi'a texts, the Shi'a centers are digitalizing large numbers of Sunni texts in order to produce databases which appeal to the Muslim mainstream, and hence capture a large share of the market for digital Islam." (9) However, here, I want to focus on the impact on one single dimension of the new information technologies which seems to me particularly exciting, namely satellite broadcasting, because it creates the highly political public space where the entire community is gathered to debate vital issues. By contrast, the internet, which is basically more of an individual experience, does not have that theatrical public dimension, so central to Islam, where the sexes are not supposed to have the same access and the same behavior. Let's not forget that the Umma, the very concept of the community in Islam, does not refer so much to a static entity as to a dynamic communication-fueled group.

4. The Umma-the Muslim Community-Refers to a Communication Synergy, Not to a Static Entity

Let's not forget that the Umma, the very concept of the community in Islam, "means a group moving towards the same goal." (10) Constant communication within the community is what enhances its dynamism, which is why satellite broadcasting transforms the Muslim dream of a debate-linked planetary community into a virtual reality. But by so doing, satellite broadcasting challenges the behavioral code which sets different rules not only for the sexes but also for religious and political minorities. It is this challenge which explains both why Muslims have become so intoxicated with the new technologies and why focusing on the satellite's impact is the best angle from which to decode the digital Islam puzzle. Yet, as enigmatic as the future of this digital Islam might look to us today, one thing is certain: most key players, from orthodox (Sunni) Saudi oil princes to Shi'a Iranian ayatollahs, have grasped that power will belong to satellite-equipped communication wizards. And this explains the discreet but nevertheless ferocious race for digital power among Muslim countries where even elementary notions such as "center-periphery," which should give a geographical advantage to the Middle East, are challenged. "A country such as Malaysia, usually considered to be on the margins of Islam both in terms of geography and religious influence, has invested heavily in information and networking technologies." (11) The Iranian ayatollahs rushed to invest in the new technologies in the early 1990s but Saudi oil princes were more cunning in that they realized early on that they had a fantastic advantage over Iranians and Indonesians. Since the Arabic language happens to be the sacred and common medium, investing in satellite communication was the shortcut to global supremacy. Saudi Arabian propagandists were the first to create planetary media lobbies; in the l980s, they armed themselves with digitally printed transnational newspapers and satellites.

5. Advocates of Islam from Saudi Princes to Hezbollah are Armed with Satellites

The two most widely circulated Arab newspapers are the London-based and digitally printed Al-Hayat ("Life") and Asharq al-Awsat ("The Middle East"). Both are controlled by Saudi princes: Al-Hayat by prince Khaled Ibn Sultan, the son of the Saudi defense minister who led his country's troops during the Gulf War, and Asharq al-Awsat, which has a staff of 150, sells 80,000 printed copies, and is accessible to 100 million readers on the Internet; the latter belongs to another Saudi prince, Salman Ibn Abdelaziz, the governor of Riyadh and the brother of the King of Saudi Arabia. But you only get an idea of the scope of the Saudi princes' investment in the new information technologies if you remember that MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center), the first satellite channel to hit Arab skies, in 1991, belongs to "Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of King Fahd Ibn Abdel Aziz al-Saud" and that the next to follow two years later, ART (Arab Radio and Television), is "owned jointly by the Saudi entrepreneur Sheikh Saleh Kamel and Prince Al Walid bin Talal Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, a nephew of King Fahd." (12) It is not therefore surprising to discover that the Iranian Ayatollahs made the same calculation when Iran backed Hezbollah and helped it launch the Arabic-speaking Al Manar channel. This channel "belongs, via the Lebanese Information Group headed by Nayef Krayyem, to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi'a Muslim group founded to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982. Hezbollah started terrestrial broadcasting in 1991 and eventually gained official broadcasting licenses for the al-Manar television channel and the al-Nur radio station." (13)

I mention this merely to caution the reader to avoid the stereotype which links Islam with archaism. This is a fatal strategic mistake, not only because the new technologies are being used as instruments by its advocates, but also because the competition in the market for digital media products is forcing the producers to shift to free speech and interactive dialogue. Since the September 11 attack, all media lobbies, be they Saudi or Iranian-owned, who used to scorn Arab citizens and club them with one-sided propaganda, are now shifting to interactive programming to please viewers who can surf freely and zap between channels because satellite broadcasting has destroyed state boundaries and empowered illiterates. Satellite broadcasting "by passes the two most important communication barriers-illiteracy and government control of content." stresses Hussein Amin. This revolution is radically changing roles: citizens have shifted from being manipulated pieces on the chessboard to becoming its major players.

Zapping among channels has become an Arab national sport. Empowered by cheap satellite household dishes which allow them to surf between fifty-plus Arab satellite channels, previously passive Arab viewers, of whom half are women, have become ferocious "zappers" and choosy audiences difficult to please. Consequently, you can no longer have access to Arab oil by manipulating only Arab heads of state, diplomats and army generals. The new information technology is forcing all Middle East chessboard players, local and foreign, including Americans, to create Arabic channels. The decision of both Iran and the United States to launch Arab satellite channels to communicate with the masses, illustrates this digital technology-induced shift of power from the states' bureaucratic elites and private oil lobbies to citizens. Hussein Amin has predicted in his "Arab Women and Satellite Broadcasting" that this new technology "has the potential to empower Arab women in the exercise of their right to seek and receive information and ideas." (14) His prophecy seems to be starting to materialize and change reality.

6. The Planetary Race to Create Arab Satellite Channels: Iran and the U.S. Search for Skilled Male and Female Journalists

One of the booming businesses in the Middle East region since the September11 attack has been the recruitment of intellectually powerful men and women with adequate training in both writing and communication skills. They are needed because Arab audiences have deserted entertainment channels for the "24-hour news" channels, such as Al Jazeera and more recently Al-Arabiya. One of the reasons which explain the Saudi MBC's catastrophic loss of audience, and its consequent financial troubles, was the fact that Arab audiences were fed up with its mix of entertainment and religious propaganda and deserted it as soon as Al Jazeera started its 100% news channel in 1996.

During the Moroccan elections in the fall of 2002, the gripping headlines were not about who lost seats in the parliament but the fact that Iranian ayatollahs had sent their agents scouting our country looking for the best of the local television journalists, offering them huge salaries. "Iran is launching an all news satellite channel which will be broadcasting in Arabic from Teheran ... Many of the Moroccan journalists approached by its recruiters were hesitant at first...but succumbed when Iranian investors offered salaries as high as 3,000 dollars a month." (15) The other gripping event heavily commented on in the entire Middle East press, was the decision of the Bush administration to invest $500 million in Arab satellite TV and the subsequent rumors of its "buying" brainy Arab journalists from the prestigious London-based newspaper Al Hayat and training them in TV broadcasting in the Beirut-based channel LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Center). (16)

7. The Lebanese are Helping Americans to "Buy" Eloquent Arabs from Al-Hayat to Staff their Washington Channel

One of the most "shocking" rumors after September 11 was that of the sudden merger between the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat and LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation), "which started as a Maronite militia channel in the civil war," (17) according to some analysts and is "controlled by a board dominated by ministers and officials close to the Syrian government" (18) according to others. It was formed to help Washington recruit competent communicators for its new Arabic channel-hence the suspicions raised by this business deal, which is considered by many a conspiracy that ought "to be evaluated in the light of the latest media wars in the region ... starting with the American decision to launch an Arab channel as part of its post-September 11 communication strategy." (19) It is true that one of America's main problems since the September attack is how to communicate with Arabs. How to sell America to the Arabs has become a strategic concern: "The Bush administration has been looking at new ways of combating anti-Americanism." (20) David Chambers explains in his article, "Will Hollywood Go to War?" that "a new consideration starting in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a bill called the '9/11 Initiative' to invest $500 million in a pan-Arab satellite TV channel to combat the media influence of the increasingly successful Al Jazeera and to target Muslim youth." (21) But to communicate with Arabs, buying the hardware and access to satellite platforms is not enough. It is rather more difficult to find convincing communicators like Al Jazeera's who win audiences by transforming talk shows into "boxing rings."

8. Ghada Fakhri or How Scheherazade Got on the "Wanted" List

Iranians, Americans and Saudi Emirs look for very specific types of journalists to recruit: intellectuals who are trained in writing techniques and also have television experience. Ghada Fakhri is such a person: "Ghada Fakhri used to work with Asharq al-Awsat, then she worked for Al Jazeera as a correspondent in New York, followed by being a correspondent for Abu Dhabi Television before we succeeded in tempting her to join our project." The man talking with so much enthusiasm about the talents of Ghada Fakhri is Salamah Nemett, a Jordanian with experience in both printed and visual media. LBC recruited him as managing editor for the newly-created "SuperNews Center" whose objective is "to train print journalists in TV journalism." (22) However, the Lebanese are not admitting that they are serving as middlemen for the Americans. If you asked LBC's chairman, Sheikh Pierre Daher, what was the objective of his merging with Al Hayat and locating the "Super News Center" in London, he would answer that he was recruiting journalists like Ghada Fakhri solely to improve his channel's own political coverage and its news product. But "according to analysts ...there is a Saudi-Lebanese-American concentration" (23) which is trying to lobby in the United States to profit from market openings in this new communication war.

In any case, what I want to stress here is that the rising demand for articulate intellectuals who combine writing and television experience in the new communication wars in the Arab world is giving women a golden opportunity to enter the power game in the Middle East. Although in a country like Egypt which has a powerful movie industry (ranking third after the US and India) women have managed to compete for higher positions, their influence has remained local. With the satellite media industry, Arab women are competing for pan-Arab influence and, beyond it, for global sway. But to understand better the empowerment dynamics of satellite broadcasting, one has to keep in mind the intense competition not only among channels but also among satellite operators which is forcing everyone to switch as fast as possible from manufacturing propaganda to responding attentively to the citizens' needs.

9. The Explosion of Satellites Has Turned Arab Citizens-Women Included-into Profitable Audiences.

The explosion of satellite broadcasting has transformed the passive Umma everyone was abusing into a precious audience for advertisers-an audience including 36% illiterates, of which 64% are women. (24) The proliferation of satellites launched in the Mediterranean region, by both Arab and non-Arabs, has heightened the competition for audiences among all sectors, public and private, legitimate and terrorist: "Between 1998 and 2000, several satellites equipped for digital compression were launched to serve areas that included Arab states. Besides Egypt's Nilesat 101 and 102 and the new generation of Arabsat craft, starting with Arabsat 3A, the HotBird satellites of Europe's operator, Eutelsat, also transmit to viewers in the Mediterranean Basin and parts of the Gulf." (25) This proliferation of satellites has made it possible for smaller operators to compete with the propaganda-manufacturing oil lobbies and it has reduced the latter's revenues by fragmenting the audiences. Because of the oil reserves, all major players-be they private investors, like Saudi princes, heads of state, or ayatollahs-have to listen carefully to what the viewers want, both to gain political power by influencing public opinion and to attract advertising. "With a population of over 300 million people, all speaking the same language in a highly strategic region of the world," remarks Sheikh Pierre Daher, LBC's chairman, "we have all the potential we need to compete with the rest of the world, and attract billions of dollars in advertising budgets. If we don't do it, someone else will." (26)

Women are among the winners in this power shift because "the new information technologies are basically anti-hierarchical and detrimental to power concentration," explains Nabil Ali, an Arab linguistics and digital technology expert. "Destroying space and time frontiers ... these technologies blur the familiar distinctions our civilization has operated on up to now, such as the separation between student and teacher, learning and teaching, production and consumption...." (27) It is precisely the collapse of this latter distinction which is radically transforming the Arab World.

The irony is that the camp of pluralism and democracy is rapidly winning in the Arab World since September 11, not because the left has won the battle, but because the conservative heads of state and oil princes who have invested their assets in extremist propaganda, are now shifting to courting audiences in general and promoting women in particular. In her assessment of the "New Order of Information in the Arab Broadcasting System," Tourya Guaaybess makes the ironic comment that we are witnessing an unexpected "growing market of political liberalism." (28) In any case, it is startling to realize that the much longed-for democratic revolution is happening in the Arab world not because the left has subverted the system but because authoritarian regimes and oil-lobbies are rapidly realizing that in a cyber-Islam galaxy, you can only remain in power if you share it with citizens of both sexes.

10. MBC'S Money-losing Singing Girls versus Al Jazeera's Female Stars

According to the latest news, MBC 's emergency move from London to Dubai was " to get closer to its viewers so as to arrest its financial decline due to a catastrophic shrinking of audiences." We want to be closer to our audience," (29) said Ali Al-Hedeithy, MBC Director General, when asked to justify his hurried move to Dubai and his decision to launch a new MBC all-news channel like Al Jazeera. One of MBC's problems is that Arab female audiences seem to stick with al- Jazeera because of its rebellious images of femininity.

MBC was extremely popular when it started in 1991. It used Arabsat to target the Middle East and North Africa, Eutelsat to reach Europe's 20 millions viewers and ANA (The Arab Network Agency) to recruit an American audience. MBC was then the only satellite channel, but soon its "12.5% religious programs, 75.5% entertainment, and only 9.5% information" (30) got on the Arab viewers' nerves. Consequently, they deserted it in 1996 when Al Jazeera gave them the opportunity to see uncensored news twenty-four hours a day. But the other reason was that MBC's systematic censorship was projected through the superficiality of its entertainment programs, alienating viewers, especially women. "These channels' activities were reduced to a frantic parade of male and female singers" explained Walid Najm, one of the experts invited to diagnose the viewers' desertion. "One could say that such channels programmed citizens to hope to achieve one single objective: to become male or female singers." (31) Other stations like it, who also violated citizens' right to information and reduced talk shows with intellectuals to pitiful masquerades, were deserted as soon as Al Jazeera offered a different image of both informer and informed.

"MBC set out originally to be the CNN of the Arab world," explains Ian Ritchie, its former CEO. Once the channel started losing money, "my mandate was to change it into a more commercial channel and therefore the news played less importantly perhaps than entertainment and sport, because that was what advertisers want to see. That's why I did the deal to bring the US Champion League to MBC and a deal for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" (32) Entertainment meant promoting singing and dancing men and women and it proved to be fatal business-wise, because Middle Eastern women were interested in al Jazeera's more energetic femininity: "One of Al Jazeera's programs, "Sports News" (Akhbar Riyadiyyah), has devoted several episodes to the role of Arab women in sports and has highlighted the championships that have been won by various female sports figures." (33) Besides sports, it is the forceful female news anchors who fascinate both men and women. A news channel such as Al Jazeera, funded by the Emir of Qatar with the objective of strengthening civil society and free speech, offered the possibility of becoming stars to intelligent, articulate speakers and program hosts of both sexes. Therefore, it is no wonder that MBC shifted assets from its money-losing entertainment channel to launching a new channel devoted to information only. To catch up with Al Jazeera, MBC started looking for smart professional men and women rather than its usual singers, but it has to compete for such talent with Iran and the U.S.

11. The Fascination of Arab Audiences with Strong Female Hosts and War Correspondents

Promoting strong female stars has proven to be a fantastic asset for the Saudis' most threatening TV rival. Al Jazeera is winning crowds every night through the eloquence of its news anchors Jumana Nammour and Khaduja Bin Guna, and economics expert Farah al-Baraqawi. While state-owned televisions and oil-funded channels traditionally censored their staff and denied them the right to decide freely about their programs' content and their guests, Al Jazeera's success is due precisely to the freedom its programmers and speakers enjoy, which allow them to become credible communicators. "Channels that want to be viable are required to rely much more heavily on high-impact 'brands' and product lines. Al Jazeera demonstrated the value of such assets when it developed a range of programs whose titles and presenters have become household names inside and outside the Arab world," explains Naomi Sakr, the author of "Satellite Realism: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East." (34) The most famous reporters in the Middle East today are probably the Palestine-based Al Jazeera reporters Shirin Abu 'Aqla and Jivara al-Badri, who are admired for their courage and professionalism. "History will remember that day when there was no one to speak up in the entire Arab nation, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, but women such as Shirin Abu 'Aqla and Jivara al Badri and Leila Aouda," comments Ali Aziz, the columnist of the Egyptian magazine Al-Nuqqad ("The Critics"), "while male leaders and gallon-hat wearing generals have disappeared from our sight and hearing." (35)

How to explain this sudden passion of the supposedly macho Arabs for Al Jazeera's powerful women. While Amin Hussein, a mass communication expert, gives a technological answer to the question (the satellites' empowerment of women), the artist Hisham Ghanem offers a more sophisticated psychoanalytical explanation-the Arab male's identification with the woman as the victim who is taking revenge on her aggressors. For Amin Hussein, "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." According to his analysis, "Talk shows, news, and programs feature interviews with female leaders in business, government, politics, and diplomacy ... rather than covering only their role in the household of food preparation and as sex symbols in television commercials and video-clips." (36) But for Ahmed Ghanem, an artist who is more interested in esthetics and hidden emotions, technology does not explain it all. 

Ahmed Ghanem was one among the dozen intellectuals whom the Kuwaiti magazine Al Funun ("The Arts") invited to contribute to their summer 2002 issue on decoding the mystery of the Fada'iyyat. Unlike our much more publicized extremists, Ghanem feels empowered by a woman's strength. As both an artist and a designer, he goes into detail in his study on "The Esthetics of the Private Satellite Channels." He argues: "If we consider the laws and psychological mechanisms which in each satellite channel define for the female speaker the code for dressing and expressing oneself, as well as the way she uses the screen's space to unfold her personality, then we cannot escape noticing that the aggressive (hujumi) style of the Al Jazeera female speakers is a very distinctive kind of beauty which is very specific to them and makes them stand out when compared to other channels, especially if we remember that Al Jazeera is a news (as opposed to entertainment) channel, and that these women's job is to inform the viewer. The fact that the majority of this channel's female speakers are far from being young and insecure and display on the contrary maturity in both age and emotional equilibrium gives them a cerebral charisma and audacity which exercises a particular enchantment on the viewer. The Al Jazeera female speakers exude a spell-binding fascination which transcends physical attraction." (37)

Could it be that Al Jazeera's powerful women have such an attraction for Arab men because they trigger childhood fantasies when they enjoyed their mothers' story-telling and improvisations on the "1001 Nights"? Could it be that the satellite is reviving Arab men's childhood universe where Scheherazade, the powerful female inventor of adventures, empowered them as children? What is certain, according to Ghanem, is that by contrast to Al Jazeera where women's strength reflects the freedom of speech they enjoy as journalists on that channel, the superficial beauty of the fragile female speakers in entertainment channels reflects a passivity which does not excite him as a man, if only because, as he says, passivity "mirrors the rules of the game on those televisions. Rules which reveal that only the masters are players." (38) What is extraordinary about Ahmed Ghanem's analysis of digital Islam's new game, is that, as a male, he does not identify with the masters, the princes or ayatollahs who can afford to buy satellites, but on the contrary, he feels his own fate to be linked to that of the women. In my view, it is this rejection of the archaic role of the dominant male, whose masculinity increases with women's passivity, which is the news in digital Islam.


The novelty in this digital Islam galaxy is that many Arab men craving their own emancipation from authoritarian censorship have become alert enough to disconnect power from sex. Many of the male viewers of satellite broadcasting do not seem to think that their masculinity is threatened if women show their power. The problem now is how to interpret this new phenomenon.

Is this only a transient phase or are we witnessing a civilizational shift in the perception of the difference? Are the satellite-connected Muslims growing to perceive the sexual difference as enriching? Are they even preparing themselves to embark on a less threatening global universality? Is the satellite reviving the cosmic vision of the Sufis, the mystics of Islam who perceive the difference as enriching?

For the Sufi, the stranger (the different other), be it the woman or the foreigner, is not a threatening enemy. On the contrary, Sufis celebrate diversity as an enchanting display of human complexity in their concept of the cosmic mirror. "The mirror is like a single eye, while the forms (it reveals) are various in the eye of the observer" is how Ibn 'Arabi, born in Murcia (Spain) in 560 of the Hijra (1165 of the Christian calendar), encouraged his contemporaries to enjoy foreigners as fabulous reflections of the same divine being. "The essence of primordial substance is single, but it is multiple in respect to the outer forms it bears with its essence." (39) It is not only femininity alone which emerged in satellite broadcasting as a challenge, it is also the question of minorities, be they religious, or ethnic, such as the Kurds and the Berbers, which are claimed as positive enrichment. Morocco has declared Berber to be a national language and established an institute to enhance it as a vital dimension of a dynamic society. (40) The satellite has changed the frame in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is addressed in such a way that exclusion of either party is ruled out: "Palestine-Israel: Peace or a Racist System?" (41) This how the influential Palestinian journalist Marwan Bishara frames the question, ruling out any extremist alternative which is a negation of peace. It is no more "does the state of Israel have the right to exist or not" which is at stake, but how can harmony be engineered from the difference that is the challenge everyone is facing.

As for the Sufis and women, it is no wonder that male Sufis celebrate femininity as energy, an opportunity for men to blossom and thrive. For Ibn 'Arabi, the female lover is "tayyar" or, literally, endowed with wings, an idea that the Muslim miniature painters often tried to capture. Sufi men seem to explore the subconscious of the Muslim psyche where myths and legends, sacred and profane, endow women with extraordinary powers. From the dazzling Queen of Sheba to the irresistible Zuleikha in the sacred Koran, to horse-riding Shirin in the Persian legends and the subversive Scheherazade in Arabic tales, to modern women artists today, the feminine stands as a challenge in Islamic art. This brings us to understand better why intellectually dazzling female Al Jazeera hosts enchant male viewers.

But there is one final emotional nuance I would like to add which seems to me pertinent if we are to grasp the nascent trends of the digital Islam galaxy: Sufis were very popular in a medieval Islam which had to face the constant attacks of Christian crusaders because they addressed the question of fear. Sufis helped people in medieval Islam to face fear of the unknown by diving into knowledge." The human being can master his anxieties by channeling his energies into learning ... The issue is confusion. Confusion creates anxiety (hayra), and anxiety creates movement and movement is life." (42)

Fear is OK, says the Sufis, because it triggers in you the desire to know what frightens you. In so doing, it produces a positive movement within. The worst is to be petrified by one's fears to the point of being paralyzed and forced to shrink inward. And anxiety is indeed the daily share of many of us, Muslims or not, who witness the apocalyptic vanishing of our familiar frontiers. TBS.

This abridged version of THE SATELLITE, THE PRINCE AND SCHEHERAZADE: The Rise of Women in Digital Islam by Fatema Mernissi, Copyright (C) 2003 by Fatema Mernissi, is reprinted by permission of the Edite Kroll Literary Agency Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Mohammad Mahmud “Darura am ighra? Dirama Ramadan” (“Necessity or Seduction? Ramadan Films”) in the TV Programs insert of Al-Ahram Al-‘Arabi, Issue 299, December 2002, p. 18. Al-Ahram Al-‘Arabi is a Cairo-based avant-garde magazine. Website: www.ahram.org.eg/arabi.

2. Zaynab Muntashir “Qasim Amin wa-Faris Bila Jawad:
bayna harim as-sultan wal-sultan nafsih” (“Qasim Amin and Rider Without a Horse: Between the Sultan’s Harem and the Sultan Himself”) in the Television column of the magazine Rose El Youssef, Issue 3885, November 23-29, 2002.

3. Husam ‘Abd al-Hadi “The Empire of Women: of 80,000 Employed in Radio and Television, 50,000 are Women,” a survey published in the Ramadan issue of the Egyptian magazine Rose El Youssef, Issue 3886, November 30-December 6, 2002, pp. 43-45.

4.Tariq Ali in his Suhun Fada’iyya (“Satellite Dishes”) column in Al-Nuqqad, June 17, 2002. Al-Nuqqad is a Pan-Arab political and cultural weekly magazine with offices in London and Lebanon. Website: www.annouqad.com

5. Jamal al-Kashki “The Halal-Haram Fatwas” (Fatawi al-Halal wal-Haram) in the special Ramadan Issue of Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, Issue 295, November 16, 2002, p. 73.

6. “Aftahu fi-l amri, abana lahu …. and the verse of the Quran yastaftunaka qul Allahu yuftikum [Sura 4 Al-Nisa’ (“Women”), Verse 176] ay yas’alunaka su’ala ta’allumin ….” Ibn Manzur Lisan al-‘Arab, Dar al Maarif, Cairo 1979 edition, volume 5, page 3348. Ibn Manzur was born in Cairo in 1232 and died in 1311.

7. Jadal, the art of interactive debate central to the spread of Islam as an oral communication strategy (before the introduction of paper by the Persian Wazir Ja’far al-Barmaki strengthened the despotic bureaucracy of the Abbasid dynasty). It was the object of a whole school of dialogue training manuals such as the 13th-century Ibn ‘Uqayl’s The Book of Jadal According to the Way of the Theologians (Kitab al-jadal ‘ala tariqat al-fuqaha). Maktabat al-Thaqafa al-Diniyya, Port Said, Egypt, n.d. The author died in 510 A.H. (13th century). Today, we witness a renaissance of jadal, and books teaching dialogues are becoming best-sellers again. Such is the case with my Moroccan contemporary Taha Abderrahman’s book On the Tradition of Dialogue (Fi usul al-hiwar), Al Markaz al-Thaqafi al-‘Arabi, Casablanca, second edition, 2002), which has been reprinted in response to the great demand..

8. Jamal al-Kashki, idem.

9. Peter Mandaville “Digital Islam: Changing the Boundaries of Religious Knowledge” in the International Institute of the Study of Islam in the Modern World Newsletter, March 1999, pp. 1 and 23. This newsletter is a tri-annual publication of Leiden University, Netherlands. Website:http://isim.leidenuniv.nl

10. “maqsiduhum maqsidun wahid” Lisan al-‘Arab, Volume 1, p. 134.

11. Peter Mandaville “Digital Islam” op.cit. To get a quick glimpse of the speedy digital Arab galaxy build-up, the following two books are quite useful: René Naba: Guerre des Ondes…Guerre des Religions: La Bataille Hertzienne dans le Ciel Méditerrannéan, L’Harmatan, Paris 1998 and Mohamed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed The Middle East. Westview, Perseus Books Group, Massachusetts, 2002.

12. Naomi Sakr “Arab Satellite Channels Between State and Private Ownership: Current and Future Implications” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies Issue 9 (TBS 9), Winter-Fall 2002, p 3. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.

13. Naomi Sakr, op.cit.

14. Hussein Amin “Arab Women and Satellite Broadcasting” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies Issue 6 (TBS 6), Spring/Summer 2001. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com. Amin Hussein is chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo and has produced impressive work on the topic of new technologies.

15. Driss Bennani: “L’Iran Drague Nos Journalistes” in the Moroccan weekly
Tel Quel, Issue 46, October 5-11, 2002.

16. “Who Controls LBC?” According to Mohamed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar, LBC will be controlled by a board nominated by ministers and officials close to the Syrian government and not by Rafik Al Hariri, as many think. According to them, Rafik Al Hariri partially owns another Lebanese TV channel, Future TV (op. cit.).

17. Assya Y. Ahmed “The Closing of Murr TV: Challenge or Corrective for Satellite Broadcasting in Lebanon” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS 9), Winter-Fall 2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.

18. Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar, op.cit., p. 39.

19. “Akbar safaqa Sa’udiyya-Lubnaniyya li-damj at-tilifizyun bis-suhuf” (“The Biggest Deal between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to Merge Audiovisual with Printed Media”) in Al-Nuqqad, March 2002, p. 16 (cover story).

20. Duncan Campbell “US Plans TV Station to Rival Al Jazeera” in The Guardian, Friday November 23, 2001.

21. David Chambers “Will Hollywood Go to War?” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 8 (TBS 8), Spring-Summer 2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com

22. Abdallah Schleifer “Super News Center Setting Up in London for Al-Hayat and LBC: An Interview with Jihad Khazen and Salah Nemett” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS 9), Winter-Fall 2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.

23. Al-Nuqqad, op.cit.

24. The source for the statistics on illiteracy rates is the UNESCO Statistical Yearbook for 1999, Table II.5.1.: “Estimated number of adult illiterates and distribution by gender and by region.1980, 1999 and 2000.”

25. Naomi Sakr “Arab Satellite Channels between State and Private Ownership” op.cit.

26. Chris Forrester “Middle East TV Continues to Baffle and Bewilder” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS 9), Fall-Winter 2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com. Chris Forrester is a broadcast journalist and the author of Digital Television Broadcasting published in June 1998 by Philips Business Information.

27. Nabil Ali “Thuna’iyyat al-asr: al-sifr wal-wahid” (“The Century’s Duality: the Zero and the One”) in Wijhaat Nazar (“Points of View, an Egyptian monthly review), Volume 4, Number 44, September 2002, pp. 34-40. Website: www.wighaatnazar.com.

28. Tourya Guaaybess “A New Order of Information in The Arab Broadcasting System” inTransnational Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS 9), Fall-Winter 2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.

29. Abdallah Schleifer “An Interview with Ali Al-Hedeithy, the Director General of MBC” inTransnational Broadcasting Studies 9 (TBS 9), Fall-Winter 2002. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.

30.”12, 5% de son programme à des émissions religieuses, contre 75, 5 pour les variétés et 9, 5 pour cent pour l’information ….” René Naba op. cit. p. 85.

31.Walid Najm “Cultural Programs: The frequency is ridiculously low and the content is totally divorced from reality” in Al-Funun (a Kuwaiti magazine), Issue 6, June 2001. p.39. The issue is devoted to a survey of Arab satellite channels.

32. Abdallah Schleifer “Interview with Ian Ritchie, Former CEO of MBC” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 7 (TBS 7), Fall-Winter 2001. Website: tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com.

33. Mohamed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar op cit., p. 59

34. Naomi Sakr, op.cit.

35. Tariq Ali, op.cit..

36. Hussein Amin, op. cit.

37. Ahmed Ghanem Shakl al Fada’iyyat al Khassa Yataqqadam (“The Aesthetics of Private Satellite Channels Are Improving”) in Al-Funun 6, June 2001, p. 38. Website: www.kuwaitculture.org

38. Ahmed Ghanem, op. cit.

39. Ibn ‘Arabi Fusus al-Hikam (“The Bezels of Wisdom”). The English translation used here is that of R. W. Austin: “The Bezels of Wisdom,” Paulist Press, New Jersey, USA, 1980. The quote is on page 233. The original text of the first quote reads fal-mir’atu ‘aynun wahidatun, was-suwaru kathiratun fi ‘ayn al-ra’i. Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, Beirut, Lebanon, date not indicated, p. 184.

40. Since Berber was declared a national language, you notice regularly in the news stands magazines with its unfamiliar alphabet challenging you to learn its mysterious code, such as Le Monde Amazight and Tasafut (“Candlelight”).

41. Marwan Bishara Falastin-Isra’il: salam am nizam ‘unsuri? (“Palestine-Israel: Peace or Racist Regime?”). Cairo, Markaz al-Qahira li-Dirasat Huquq al-Insan, 2001.

42. My translation of the following quote: Fal-Huda huwa an yahtadi al insan ila l-hayrati fa ya’lam. Inna l-amra hayratun wal-hayratu qalaq wa harakah, wal-harakatu hayat. Fala sukuna fala mawt, wa wujud, fala ‘adam in Fusus al-Hikam (p. 200). TBS

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