Originally posted July 2010
In the post 9/11 world, the Arab Region has been the center of global attention, with a renewed focus on Arab media and representations. Despite this increasing attention, there still is a lack of knowledge about Arab artists and media professionals, particularly women, who are mostly regarded as an oppressed species. We still measure female empowerment, by and large, by women’s attainments in the economic, political, and educational spheres, such as employment, access to the labor market, and the number of female legislators, ministers, parliamentarians, or other decision-making offices. It is only recently that women’s participation in the cultural field has begun to gain recognition as an important barometer to measure female empowerment. This field provides a vital platform for women to express their views about their identity and their rights within conservative societies not fully accepting of the role of women as culture producers.
Indeed, the creative sector is an important field within which the politics of gender and identity play out, particularly now with the skyrocketing demand for Arab cultural products by the growing youth population in the region. It is also a sector that, in the Arab world, has usually been male-dominated. Furthermore, access to this sector requires special skills and networking that may not be available to many Arab women not only inside the Arab region but also in diaspora communities. For instance, it is important to debate the role of female Arab cultural producers, the problems and prospects they face, and the different resources available to them in their native or host societies.
In the following sections, I provide my reflections on the role of creative Arab women, whether they are based in the Arab region or in Europe. My encounter with these women began with an idea to gather some of them for a conference in London in 2010, with support from the Anna Lindh Foundation. The conference included female Arab novelists, filmmakers, journalists, and performers from several Arab states, as well as women of Arab origin who reside in the European Union (EU). Although working in completely different contexts, these women seem to share an important characteristic — their passion to serve their communities.
In a region plagued by political crises ranging from military conflicts in Lebanon to wars in the Gulf, it is not unusual to find new forms of artistic expressions by male and female artists evoking life under conflict. For many female artists, creativity has been a powerful tool to influence their political surroundings. As the Iraqi-British filmmaker, Maysoon Pachachi put it, “There is an element in art, which is a direct confrontation to damage.” Maysoon grew up in Britain, where she received her film education, but her links to her parents’ homeland Iraq have become stronger over the years. Maysoon returned to Iraq after 30 years to set up the Independent Film & Television College, a free-of-charge film-training center in Baghdad. Amidst explosions and bombings, Maysoon felt that the Iraqis needed to reflect on their lives and voice their views to the world. Accordingly, she launched a project called Open Shutters Iraq, inviting 12 Iraqi women of different ages to share their experiences through participatory photography.
Lina Al Abed, a Jordanian journalist and filmmaker who lives and works in Syria, also saw the gap between reality and what is offered in news media. Al Abed noted that “the real life [in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, or Syria] is not that which is depicted in the news bulletins or books but rather in the very souls of simple people … these are the brave people who have managed to survive a cruel and gloomy reality without losing hope.” Al Abed’s debut documentary film was featured at the Syrian documentary film festival Dox Box in March 2010. The film is about a school girl, Noor Al Huda, who lives in a slum on the outskirts of Damascus. For Al Abed, the real professional accomplishment was not in making a film, but in the feeling of responsibility towards her society, community, culture, and people.
Nurturing a strong sense of identity is of particular concern to those who grew up between two societies, such as Najat El Ouragui, an International Project Manager in theater and film in Denmark. El Ouragui admits that it was never part of her career plan to access the creative field, but that her decision to do so came as a reaction to the rising xenophobia in Denmark: “I needed to address this xenophobia in a country where people like me of other ethnic origin make [up] 10% of the population.” Rather than leaving this issue to politicians or media pundits, she felt the need for a more creative analysis of the identity politics in Denmark. Through her work, she facilitates theater, radio, and film productions in which young people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, in cooperation with professional Danish artists, tell their personal stories.
Real Reforms Begin at School
Many creative Arab women see the flaws in the existing educational programs in the region as a great obstacle facing women and men alike. Sawsan Zaidah, a Jordanian journalist, criticizes current teaching methods as being far from encouraging to any creative critical thinking. She studied for an Master’s degree in the UK, and her time as a student in Britain opened her eyes to the importance of critical analysis. “The best student [in Jordan] is usually the one who knows by heart all what is in the books rather than being the one who questions what is in these books … Students are still taught to take … religious and nationalist ideologies for granted and as the only reference for their modern life. Curricula are still celebrating Islamic victories creating a nostalgic generation after generation who feels helpless and frustrated about their current reality.” Zaidah argues that promoting critical thinking is the most important foundation for progress.
Serena Abi Aad, a Lebanese filmmaker, had a similar experience during her film study in Denmark, where she learned to think outside the box. “In filmmaking, there are no rules … [I’ve learned] … to break every rule I ever learned in the Lebanese film school. One should learn to critique and break free from the same rules, if and when needed,” she said.
Another example is Reem Maghribi, a British-born Syrian-Libyan journalist who set up Sharq magazine in 2005 in London to help the Arab diaspora community get more visibility in the media. In 2008, Maghribi moved to Syria to lead the only English language daily newspaper, Baladna English, and to make a difference in the lives of many aspiring Syrian journalists. “The educational system in Syria prompts students to memorize information, not to question it,” she said. “With 60% of Syrians under the age of 25 and with an increasing number of students passing through the educational system every year, the country can barely manage to develop the quality of education and instead focuses on the physical expansion of schools ... That is why I am dedicating as much energy and resources to training the staff as I am to informing the reader.”
The majority of these creative Arab women seek to remedy injustice in their societies, whether it is directed against women and children in particular or marginalized groups in general. Through art, they communicate their views concerning the need for further reform — not only the political system, but also the educational system. These women are indeed passionate about reforming Arab educational programs in order to encourage critical thinking as the bedrock for change and gender empowerment.
It is only when women can think critically about their status, heritage, values, and identity that they can make sound decisions that affect not only their own lives but those of the generations to come.