Women in the Media: Middle Eastern Edition
Meredith is a student at American University who is spending this semester studying abroad in Jordan. She is blogging about her travels and experiences at Midwest Meets Middle East and kindly agreed to share her observations about challenges that face women in the Middle East in this guest post!
Hannah and Caroline have posted before about the pressure on the American women of our
generation to do everything perfectly—career, family, appearance, the whole nine yards—
despite the fact that these goals often conflict with one another. During my time in the Middle
East, I’ve noticed that an even greater conflict exists for young women here. The gap between
the ideal presented by the Arab media and real-life cultural and religious expectations are
complete polar opposites.
Switching on an Arab television channel and walking down a busy street in Amman or Alexandria give two entirely different perceptions of what the typical Arab woman looks like. Women in
Arab television shows, movies, and commercials look very Western—their hair is uncovered,
they wear tight-fitting clothes, and you might even catch a glimpse of a shoulder or collarbone.
Even the female news anchors on Al-Jazeera rarely wear the hijab and I can’t remember the last
time I saw a female Arabs Got Talent contestant with her hair covered. Other visible female
figures, such as Jordan’s Queen Rania, have also overwhelmingly embraced Western dress.
Take a look at the following Arabic-language commercials for Vodafone (a regional cell phone
provider) and Coca-Cola (featuring Nancy Ajram, one of the Middle East’s most famous singers).
If you translated them into English, they could have been pulled from any American commercial
Conversely, in the real-life Middle East, only the most Westernized women in the upper tier of
society would ever dress this way. In most areas of the Arab world, the overwhelming majority
of Muslim woman cover their hair. In the couple of hours that I have been sitting in this café
near the University of Jordan campus, I have seen only a handful of women walk by without
a hijab. Many wear long coats with sleeves to the wrists even on the hottest summer days.
However, none of these cultural norms are reflected the least bit in the Arab media.
This is what real Arab women look like:
I’m not saying that the American media does an outstanding job of portraying everyday women
either, but I do think that the especially vast distance between the media presentations of Arab
women and the day-to-day expectations of them are a big problem for women’s empowerment
in the region. It seems like young Arab women today have to make a choice between success
and independence and their religion and family. What other assumption is to be made when
all of the successful women in the media seem to have abandoned their culture entirely? I
have met many truly amazing women that I admire greatly during my time in Jordan and Egypt,
but I see this contradiction between the media and cultural ideals as a huge stumbling block
to the greater empowerment of Arab women that can only be overcome if a popular culture is
fostered where success and religion can coexist.