Commentary, Lebanon, Published Work

Western media’s troubling obsession with “badass” and “submissive” Arab women

A version of this article originally appeared on Now Lebanon.

A clip of Al-Jadeed anchor Rima Karaki shutting down London-based cleric Sheikh Hani al-Sibai during a televised interview has received international attention. As a journalist and a feminist, I initially cheered at Karaki’s satisfying take down of her patronizing guest. But as the video went viral, I found myself struggling to come to terms with the ways that the clip was repurposed and framed by many international media outlets.

Mic.com wrote: “This Lebanese TV anchor just silenced the misogynist who told her to ‘shut up.’” Daily Dot referred to Karaki as “a strong female figure in a country where women’s rights are still commonly ignored.”Buzzfeed initially ran the headline “Badass journalist shuts a man down after he says it’s beneath him to be interviewed by a woman.” The headline has since been revised and now reads “to be interviewed by her.”

Though the clip does have the virality factor that now drives the 24-hour news cycle, it was not in itself a stand out moment in Arab broadcasting. Anyone who frequently watches Arabic channels is aware that it is not a rare sight to see a female Arab anchor engage in a heated discussion with male guests. Lebanese talk shows, especially, have a flair for the sensational, and often feature impassioned debates, swearing, and even (occasionally) physical altercations. Formidable women anchors of all ages and religions have become a common feature across many Lebanese and pan-Arab television networks – a fact that was not made apparent in any international coverage of the incident.

Western media also misrepresented the content of the now-famous interview by relying on a relatively accurate, but ultimately skewed translation provided by “media watchdog” MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute). According to the subtitles they provided, the cleric tells Karaki “it is beneath me to be interviewed by you. You are a woman who,” before being cut off by the presenter.

A more accurate translation would be: “I do not get honor by being interviewed by you. You are a person who…”

This is not to say that the cleric’s statements and tone were not unwarranted and disrespectful. But the blatant misogyny reported by western media was simply not there. Karaki herself later said in an interview with the Guardian that she “did not want to blame Sibai’s behavior on sexism.”

An investigation by the Global Post has since pointed out the somewhat contentious history of MEMRI, which has a track record of providing mistranslations that “reflect badly on the character of Arabs.”

Though the cleric’s sharp words to Karaki may not have been as overtly gendered as was originally reported, this is not to say that the situation of women in the Middle East, or in Arab media, is favorable in any way. But western media’s constant framing of Arab women as either submissive victims in need of saving, or rare diamonds in the rough, is both patronizing and dehumanizing.

Nesrine Malik’s hard-hitting op-ed in the Guardian points out that:

“It is the creepiest of obsessions, hiding behind the pretense of concern, while actually being akin to the behavior 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.”

This trend is also noticeable in the coverage of female Kurdish fighters, which has been called “bizarre, myopic, and orientalist.” In 2014 Marie Claire was heavily criticized for publishing an article profiling a number of Kurdish combatants, some as young as 12 and 14. After facingaccusations of glorifying “inspirational” child soldiers, the magazine re-purposed the story by removing the profiles of the underage girls. Vogue also famously found itself in hot water for running a 2011 profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, dubiously titled “a Rose in the Desert.” The article, which described the ruling family as “wildly democratic,” was later pulled from Vogue’s website without explanation.

Those who initially reported on Karaki’s clip are surely well-meaning, as there is a natural human instinct to cheer for the perceived underdog, especially in cases where misogyny is involved. The perception that it is exceptional for an Arab woman to do her job, or demand respect, is false. Arab women are not only journalists, they are human, and that should come as a surprise to no one.

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