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Cyber-Islam galaxy

With new satellite channels, more women are emerging in the Muslim world.


[Chronicle] According to Fatima Mernissi's report "The Satellite, the Prince and Scheherazad", women's participation as communicators has increased markedly, as a result of the digitalisation of the Muslim world. Fatima Mernissi is a researcher, professor of sociology at the University of Rabat, a feminist and author of numerous books, several of which have been published in Swedish. She has studied what is expressed on the new Arab satellite channels – whether and how the content of the programs changes the prevailing norms in society, what in Arabic is called Ummah, a word meaning "a group moving towards the same goal".

In his studies, Mernissi shows that the constantly ongoing conversation, on which Ummah rests, is now being conducted in prime time. She points out how the framework for civil society is changing in line with the offer on television, that it is the programs on the new satellite channels that question and challenge the norms in society.

Egyptian women's liberation.

The questions addressed in the programs deal with everything from gender and religion to the political rights of minorities. What was once classified as retrenchment now appears as less retrenchment. Malaysia, for example, which has previously had a marginal status in the Muslim sphere, both geographically and politically, has invested heavily in the new technology. Civil society, Ummah, is no longer confined to the male sphere or the group that is closest geographically.

Ummah is bigger than that, something that, for example, Saudi propagandists realized already in the 1980s. Then they started a series of digital transnational daily and weekly newspapers and satellite channels. Together with, among other things, the Center for Islamic Jurisprudence of the city of Qum (one of the Shi'ite headquarters), they now have a large share of the market in the digitized Muslim world.

But what kind of programs are there that appear on these satellite channels, and how are they received by civil society? During Ramadan in 2002, you could see, among other things, Equestrian Rider (Faris Bila Jawad) and Qasim Amin, both popular series in Morocco.

Equestrian rider is about a man, an opportunist who associates with the British upper class in Egypt in the 1930s. It is considered controversial and has been labeled as anti-propaganda propaganda by some US and Israeli media.

Qasim Amin also takes place in occupied Egypt in the 1930s, but is about a man who rejects the ruling class and sees it as inhuman. Instead, he identifies with his oppressed mother and her "sisters" in the harem, who are treated in a degrading manner by the harem's master. The story is based on the life of lawyer Qasim Amin. In 1899 and 1900 he published two texts on the liberation of women. Amin argued for education and work for women. The message of Qasim Amin is – Mernissi believes – that the path to the liberation of Arab power in 1930s Egypt is through the liberation of women.

Impotence and belly dancing.

In addition to series, the Arab satellite channels also broadcast talk shows. One of them is led by Muntaha al-Rimhi, whom Mernissi has described as "one of al-Jazira's sharpest brains". According to Mernissi, it was impossible to miss the talk of Muntaha al-Rimhi's program. Wherever she was – on the beach, the restaurant, the university, in the bank queue, at the mall – the men talked about the program.

One of the reasons for all the talk about Only for Women, as the program is called, is said to be that Muntaha al-Rimhy in one of the programs invited three women to discuss "the cause of declining sexual appetite between spouses". Fatima Mernissi believes it was a stroke of genius to use the word "appetite" to describe the problem. In the report, she quotes Ali Aziz, a male colleague of al-Rimhi, as saying: "I wish she had simply used the words sexual impotence, because when a woman talks about 'appetite', the man feels inadequate and co-responsible."

However, women are not only starring in television shows and talk shows, but also in feature films. The belly dancer appears in all shapes and forms. She's the one who lifts the businessman up in the clouds or pulls him down to hell. In a TV movie she is the heroine who fights for liberation from the occupying power, in another she collaborates with a Zionist organization. The old tradition of belly dancers as entertainers at prestigious events, such as royal weddings, is dying out, and instead the belly dancer has found a new place in the popular films.

The women win.

Still, the highest viewership gets the news programs, and they are increasingly led by women. Manufacturers and, above all, war reporters are also women. Having female reporters has proven to be a good financial investment. Al-Jazeera's viewership increases every night with news anchors Jumana Nammour and Khaduja Bin Guna, as well as economics expert Farah al-Baraqawi in the studio. At the same time, they are losing state and oil-funded channels, censoring their programs and not letting the editors themselves choose which guests to invite. For example, a study from Transnational Broadcasting Studies shows that MBC, which was the only Arab satellite channel when it launched in 1991, lost a large portion of its viewers in 1996 when al-Jazira started. That is why they chose to launch a new MBC channel with only news, and began hiring female reporters and producers as well. According to Mernissi, all satellite companies will now have more women on television. The reason is that 64 percent of all TV viewers are women.

With her survey, Fatima Mernissi shows that satellite channels play a major role in changing Ummah, the prevailing norms in society. She points out that women are among the winners of the power shift that is underway, thanks to the new technique that is far from being non-hierarchical and loss-making when power is concentrated.

The irony of it all is that after September 11, 2001, the struggle for pluralism and democracy in the Arab world is finding new ways, and is gaining momentum, says Mernissi. Authoritarian regimes and oil lobbyists have realized that the only way to retain power over the cyber-Islam galaxy is by sharing it with citizens of both sexes.0

The article is written by Gordana Malesevic, freelance journalist

Translated by Siri Lindstad

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