Nesrine Malik offers up a classic piece of warmed-over Edward Said at Comment is Free.
What happened is, a Lebanese tv presenter who is a woman told off a sheikh guest who is a man, and a video of the moment has gone viral (at least according to Malik it has). Malik’s point is big woop, because what she calls “Arab television news” is always like that. (There is such a thing? There’s generic Arab television news, about which one can generalize? Sounds dubious.) It’s always quarrelsome and noisy.
Moreover, Arabic TV news is predominantly staffed by women. The presenter in question, Rima Karaki, follows a long tradition of formidable female anchors that began at al-Jazeera Arabic and MBC, and it is nothing unusual to be interviewed by a woman on most channels.
I suspect that London-based Sheikh Hani Al-Siba’i’s sexism was ramped up in the reporting of the story, and I daresay he would have been as huffy and pompous if it had been a male presenter who had interrupted and cut him down to size. It didn’t hurt the mythologising of Karaki’s behaviour that she is attractive, and was wearing a headscarf.
But the headlines that followed in the western press are part of a now established genre that morphs the everyday behaviour of Arab and Muslim women as being something impressive and counterintuitive. The images of female Kurdish fighters in their fatigues sent the western media into shivers of orientalist reverie.
Oh please. The nature of IS is more than enough to explain interest in female Kurdish fighters without drivel about shivers of orientalist reverie.
It is however, consistent with a long heritage of the western gaze, spanning everything from misery-porn about Muslim women, to ostensibly serious journalism that shows life “behind the veil”. It is the creepiest of obsessions, hiding behind the pretence of concern, while actually being akin to the behaviour of a peeping tom, both in terms of the smug reaffirmation of the western consumer’s implied superior values, and as a general fixation on Arab women as exotic creatures whose value is derived solely from their imprisonment in a gilded cage. I don’t know how many photo essays from Iran and Saudi Arabia of women shaving their legs in sepia-toned images we need to see before we get it; Arab women are not frozen in 2D behind a burqa.
It could be argued that anything that humanises and shows Arab women not being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour-killed is a good thing. But when everything that is not that is treated as a novelty, one is effectively reinforcing the stereotypes by saying, “Look! Here is a woman NOT being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour killed. How about that?”
Yeah, that’s the thing to worry about, reporting on “Arab women” not being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour-killed. That’s much more urgent than worrying about actual women actually being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour-killed.
It is undeniable that there are many ways in which women all over the world are trapped in patriarchal societies. But the Arab woman as an emblem of only that is proving a difficult stereotype to shift. Not just because it is not accurate, but because it seems people do not want their world views challenged, only simply reinforced.
And her evidence for that is the virality of a video showing an “Arab woman” telling off a man. So her point is that there is no kind of reporting that could shift the stereotype. So I guess everybody should just ignore the whole subject, is that the solution?