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Fatema Mernissi

The Satellite, The Prince and Sheherazade
The rise of women as communicators in digital Islam
by Fatema Mernissi

  • Complete article: Transnational Broadcasting Studies, TBS 12, Spring-Summer 2004
  • Original article for the exhibition catalogue Harem Fantasies ("Fantasies de l'harem i noves Xahrazads." Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, 2003)
  • Excerpts from the longer English manuscript, Rabat, January 2003
  • (…) 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. But to better understand 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 for credible communicators. And of course the Sheherazade profile, the brainy, self-confident storyteller is in big demand.


    Money-losing MBC's singing girls versus Al Jazeera's successful female stars

    According to the latest news, MBC is making an emergency move from London to Dubai in order 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", said Ali Hedeithy, MBC Director General, when asked to justify his rushed move to Dubai and his decision to launch a new MBC all news channel like Al Jazeera.(1) One of MBC's troubles is that Arab female audiences seem to stick with al Jazeera because of its rebellious images of femininity.

    MBC was extremely popular when it first started in 1991. It used Arabsat to target the Middle East and North Africa, Eutlsat to reach Europe's 20 million viewers and ANA (Arab Network Agency) to recruit an American audience. MBC then had no competitor as a satellite channel - it was the only satellite channel, but soon its "12.5% religious programs, 75.5% entertainment, and only 9.5% information" got on the Arabs' nerves.(2) Consequently, Arab viewers deserted it in 1996 when Al Jazeera gave them the opportunity to see uncensored news 24 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."(3) MBC and other stations like it, who 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.(4)

    Arab audiences' fascination with strong female hosts and war reporters

    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 Kaduja Bin Guna, and economics expert Farah al-Baraqaui. While state televisions and oil-funded channels traditionally limited their staff by censoring them and denying them the right to decide freely about their program content and what guests to invite, Al Jazeera's success is due precisely to the freedom its programmers and speakers enjoy, which allows 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 worth 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 Sakhr, the author of Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East.(5) 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 avant-garde Egyptian magazine 'Critiques' (An-Nuqqad), "while male leaders and gallon-wearing generals have disappeared from our sight and hearing."

    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 gives 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 Hussein's analysis, Arab women, as consumers, aspired to identify with powerful role-models: "Female presenters of talk shows and cultural and news programs on Arab satellite television channels are very popular. 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." But for Ahmed Ghanem, an artist who is more interested in esthetics and hidden emotions which program us to feel attracted to what we identify as beauty, technology does not explain it all.

    Ahmed Ghanem : Arab men are attracted by powerful women

    Ahmed Ghanem was one among the dozen intellectuals whom the Kuwaiti magazine Al Funun (Arts) invited to contribute to their summer 2002 issue on decoding the mystery of the "Fadaiat", which is the name in Arabic for satellite TV. "Fadaiat" means literally "space-ships" or rather "space-clearing engines". Not only was I happy to read an Arab man who declares publicly, unlike our much more publicized extremists, that he feels empowered by a woman's strength, Ghanem goes into detail as both an artist and a designer, 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 they use the screen's space to unfold their personality, then we cannot escape noticing that the aggressive style(houjoumi) of the Al Jazeera female speakers is a very distinctive kind of beauty which distinguishes them from the other channels. Mostly 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."(8)

    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 mother's storytelling and improvisations on "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 on 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."(9)

    What is extraordinary about Mohamad Ghanem's analysis of digital Islam new game, is that, as a male, he does not identify with the masters, the princes or ayatollah who can afford to buy satellites, but on the contrary he feels his own fate to be linked to that of the women. And 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 for their own emancipation from authoritarian censorship, have become alert enough to de-connect power from sex: many of the satellite broadcasting male viewers do not seem to think anymore that their masculinity is threatened if women show their power. They don't seem to see the sex difference as fatally locked into a power struggle. The problem now is how to interpret this new phenomenon? Is it just a transient fad or are we witnessing a civilizational shift in the perception of the difference: are the satellite-connected Moslems growing to perceive the sexual difference as enriching?(10)

    Are they preparing themselves to embark on a less threatening, globalized universality? Is the satellite reviving the cosmic vision of the Sufi, 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, Sufi celebrate diversity as an enchanting display of the 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."(11) This 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."

    It is not only feminity alone which emerged as a challenge in satellite broadcasting, 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 set an institute to enhance it as a vital dimension of a dynamical society.(12) The satellite has changed the frame in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is adressed in such a way that exclusion of either parties is ruled out: "Palestine-Israel: Peace or a racist system?"(13) This is how the influencial Palestinian journalist Marouan Bishara frames the question, ruling out any extremist alternative which is a negation of peace. It is no more "does the state of Israel has to right to exist or not" which is at stake, but how can harmony be engineered from the difference is the challenge everyone is facing.

    But to come back to Sufi 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.(14) Sufi men seem to explore the subconscious zone 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 Sheherazade in Arabic tales, the feminine stands as a challenge in Islamic art, from Muslim miniatures of yesterday to modern women artists of today. And this brings us to understand better why intellectually dazzling Al Jazeera female hostesses enchant male viewers.

    But there is a final emotional nuance I would like to add which seems to me pertinent to grasp the nascent trends of the digital Islam galaxy: Sufi were very popular in 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 perplexity. Perplexity creates anxiety (hayra), and anxiety creates movement and movement is life."(15) Fear is okay, say 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, Moslems or not, who witness the apocalyptic vanishing of our familiar frontiers.


    (1) Abdellah Schleifer, an Interview with Ali Al-Hedeithy, the Director General of MBC, at the channel's Dubai headquarters, in "TBS" (Transnational Broadcasting Studies), number 9, Fall-Winer 2002 (
    (2) René Naba: "Guerre des Ondes ... Guerres des Religions", page 85
    (3) Walid Najm: "Culturel Programms: The frequency is ridiculously low and the content is totally divorced from reality." in: N° 6 of Kuwait's magazine "Al Funun". June 2001 issue to a survey on Arab Satellite Channels" (al-Fadaiyates Al Arabiya), page 39.
    (4) Walid Najm, issue N° 6 of "Al Funun", op.cit
    (5) Naom Sakhr: "Arab Satellite Channels Between State and Private Ownership: Current and Future Implications", in TBS (Transnational Brodcasting Studies), N° 9, Winter-Fall 2002, page 3 (
    (6) Tariq Ali: "Satellite Dishes" (Suhun Fadaiya), April 8TH 2002, issue of the "An-Nuqad", a political and cultural weekly Pan Arab Magazine with offices in London and Lebanon, page 35 (
    (7) Hussein Amin: "Arab Women and Satellite Broadcasting", in TBS, op.cit.
    (8) Ahmed Ghanem: "The Esthetics of Private Satellite Channels is getting better."(Chakl al Fadaiyat al Khassa yataqadam), number 6 of the Kuweit monthly magazine "Al Funun", June 2001 with the cover story devoted to "Arab Satellite Channels" (Al-Fadaiyates Al Arabiya), page 38 (
    (9) Ahmed Ghanem, op.cit.
    (10) One can not but be impressed by the number of feminist books written by Arab men in this last decade such as Nacer Hamid Abu Zaid 's wonderful essay "Circles of Fear: A New reading of women's discourse" (Dawair al Khawf, qira'a jadida fi khitabi al Mar'a) Al Markaz at-Taqafi al 'Arabi,Beyrouth, 1999
    (11) Ibn 'Arabi: "The Bezels of Wisdom (Fuçus al-Hikam). The English translation used here is that of R.W.Austin: "The Bezels of Wisdom", Paulist press, New Jersey. USA. 1980. The quote is in page 233. The original quote is "fa l-miraatu 'aynun wahidatun, waç-çuwaru katiratun fi 'ayni ar'ai". Dar al kitab al'arabi, Beyrouth, Lebaon, date non indicated page 184
    (12) 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 Amazigh", "Tasafut" (which means candlelight).
    (13) Marouan Bishara: "Palastin-Israil: salam am nizam 'unsuri?" Markaz al qahira li-dirasat huquq al Insan, Cairo, 2001
    (14) See my chapter "Aggressive Shirin Hunting for Love" in: "Sheherazad Goes West", Simon and Schuster, 2001, page 179
    (15) It is my translation of the following quote (because I did not like Austin's, see his page 254) "Yahtadi al insan ila l-hayrati fa ya'lam. inna l-amra hayratun wa l-hayratu qalaq wa harakah, wal-harakatu hayat. Fala soukuna, fala mawt, wa wujud, fala 'adam." in: "Fuçus al-Hikam", Dar al kitab al'arabi, Beyrouth, Lebaon, date non indicated, page 200

    © Fatema Merissi
    If you are interested in publishing the article, partly or completely, please, contact the literary agent Edite Kroll.

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