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Digital Media Will Shatter Gender Stereotypes in the MENA Region.

1 Heart it! Yann Borgstedt 91
November 1, 2018
Yann Borgstedt
1 Heart it! 91

For women in the MENA region, pushing back against unrealistic or harmful gender stereotypes in media has long been a difficult battle. Female characterizations are rife with incomplete depictions and damaging portrayals; too often, entertainment programs pre-package skewed social ideas into simplified characters, idealized worlds, and pointed plotlines. The issue is widespread; according to researchers for the Arab World Development Report, approximately 78.68% of the images of Arab women in Arab media were negative. In a world where content is king (or queen), it’s easy for stereotypes to develop — and easier for viewers to absorb the unrealistic perspectives they see in media as truth.

As viewers and consumers, we may know that the characters we see and the voices we hear in the media don’t accurately reflect the complexities of people in the real world. We might realize that the interactions we enjoy are scripted, engineered, and cherry-picked for our entertainment. However, it isn’t always easy to notice the influence media has on how we perceive and engage with gender roles and social norms in the real world.

As Cairo-based journalism scholar Rasha Allam notes in a policy brief for the Middle East Institute, Arab media has historically passed over images of vocal or independent women in favor of portrayals characterized by passivity. These segmented stereotypes can slip into the subtext of even the dullest advertisements and rote broadcasts, presenting at-times unrealistic expectations of women’s beauty, behavior, and social interactions. This in turn shapes real-world ideas of how women should act, look, speak and behave, and importantly, limits the variety of role models girls encounter in the media.

Perhaps the issue might not be as bad if women were more active in the media industry. Sadly, the number of women working in media is unimpressive at best. According to recent reports, females make up only 27% of top management jobs in MENA media and a mere 4% of regional news stories challenge gender stereotypes. Despite constituting half of society, women have few platforms to express their concerns, share their interests, or even challenge the unrealistic portrayals they see in the media. This lack of access and representation has driven down the volume of female voices in media to a bare whisper.

The near-silence has a social cost.

To quote Nigerian feminist Ogundipe-Leslie, “The power of the media to make and unmake the image of women, to hasten or retard the progress of women in society, cannot be denied or underestimated.” Negative assumptions and set-in-cinema gender roles aren’t just inconvenient and frustrating for women — they also have a genuine negative impact on a woman’s ability to share her voice in her community and the community at large. After all, how can a society hope to thrive if half of its members are mired in skewed stereotypes and outdated expectations?

It can’t — unless women manage to bring their voices into the mix and set the foundation for a gender-balanced media landscape.

The power of social platforms

Fortunately, the MENA region is in a prime position for a female-centered revolution. With the astronomical rise of digital and social media, women now have the platforms they need to challenge gender stereotypes, provide more complex and realistic depictions of women, and better female representation in the media industry. The potential audience base is staggering; according to the 2012 Arab Social Media Report, over 93 million people in the MENA region are active social media users, while 147 million regularly engage with Internet-based content.

Interestingly, the same study found that exposure to social media leads to increased openness to and tolerance for different views — a finding which implies a great deal about the potential digital platforms hold for both raising awareness about women’s issues and breaking down preconceived notions about gender roles.

Even better, this rise in digital accessibility comes paired with a historically high public interest in achieving gender balance in the MENA region. The UAE, in particular, has done well: the nation recently announced its intention to be one of the top 25 countries for gender balance by 2021. With approximately 60% of the population in the Arab world under the age of 25, the MENA region now stands in a unique position to foster a greater open-mindedness and passion for gender equality in an upcoming generation.

The work to change the stereotype-laden narrative surrounding women and the issues they face is already underway. Online platforms have given organizations dedicated to female empowerment the voice and reach they needed to circulate content that sparks discussion and constructive debate about relevant issues among audience members of all genders, ages, and backgrounds.

The power and potential of the digital medium shines through in the online animated series B100 Ragl. Originally launched as a radio program, the fiction series has since evolved into an animated ‘edutainment’ series for online viewers. Each episode centers on the experiences of its protagonist, a determined journalist named Noha, as she navigates the complex social issues faced by women in the Middle East.

Over the course of three series, she combats prejudice, pushes back against oppression, and presents creative solutions to the problems she faces. B100 Ragl does not confine its scripts to a female audience, as it also seeks to engage men on gender-based issues and addresses key topics of masculinity such as fatherhood and a man’s role in society. Noha is a role model for an upcoming generation of young viewers, male and female alike. To date, the series has enjoyed over two million views.

However, the true marker of B100 Ragl’s success stands in how it has engaged audience members and its creative participants, not view count. The project drew in prominent local artists to create B100 Ragl’s soundtrack, popular regional actors to voice its characters, and well-followed social media celebrities to promote its content. The creative leaders behind B100 Ragl wanted to build a relatable identity for Noha that audience members in the Middle East could recognize and connect to on an experiential and emotional level. Their careful thought and implementation, as much as any digital platform, paved the path to B100 Ragl’s success.

Today, the organization that pushed B100 Ragl to success — the Womanity Foundation — is in the process of launching Nisaa Network: an online digital platform that will use technology and disruptive content to inspire, engage and empower millennial audiences towards a more equitable society. In doing so, Womanity intends to create bespoke tailored content for every platform and thereby ensure that nuanced discussions about gender equality issues are only ever a tap away.

It will take time to counteract the stereotypes and limitations that plague women in media; however, change is possible. Digital media will eradicate the limits on women’s voices — if we can only build more organized foundations for women in media to stand upon.

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1 Heart it! Yann Borgstedt 91
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