US-Sponsored Arab TV Station Spotlights Women Others Ignore

US-Sponsored Arab TV Station Spotlights Women Others Ignore

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If you are a single mother, or a victim of rape or domestic violence, chances are you will not show up on Arab television. Those topics are taboo even for channels like Al-Jazeera Arabic, except for occasional segments. Perhaps these problems pale in comparison to the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Or perhaps the media shy away from controversial topics that could show Arab society in a bad light.

But now some of the remarkable women who are challenging these taboos have found a new forum. Ironically, it is Alhurra (The Free One), the U.S. Congress-financed television channel that is giving these women a chance to tell their stories on the air in an hour-long weekly program called Musawat (Equality).

Here are some of their stories.

Aicha Chenna

çhennaAicha Chenna is called the Mother Teresa of Morocco. She founded Solidarité Féminine, the first organization in the Arab world to provide help for unmarried mothers. Founded in 1985 in Casablanca, it has helped thousands of single mothers survive and prevented their children from being abandoned on the streets.

Chenna explained that even if the unmarried woman gets pregnant because of rape, she is considered an outcast. She has no option but to give her child up to an orphanage.

Chenna shared the story of one young woman with the audience. “I had just come back from maternity leave in 1981. A young girl was breast-feeding her baby. Her son was as old as mine. The social worker came in, gave her a piece of paper to sign and pulled the baby away. The baby cried very loudly and his mother’s milk was sprayed on his face.”

Chenna said that the sound of the baby crying never left her mind. “The home of a child is near his mother, not in an orphanage,” Chenna said.

But Chenna was accused by extremists of encouraging prostitution and declared an infidel. One official even said she should be stoned to death. However Chenna said it was not just Islamists who opposed her. “Even some educated Moroccans, including doctors, engineers, and businessmen accused me of encouraging prostitution.”

Chenna denied that letting a mother keep her child was tantamount to encouraging prostitution. “Do you want me to let her go to the streets and let the dogs eat the child?” she demanded.

Solidarité Féminine opened a culinary school in Casablanca and many other low-budget projects including kiosks, a "hamam” (bathhouse) with a salon and fitness gym. The proceeds help the women become financially independent. Between 2003 and 2008, 3,000 unmarried mothers, some as young as 15, came to Solidarité Féminine for help.

In 2002 the Moroccan government recognized Solidarité Féminine as a charitable organization and in 2009, Chenna won $1 million Opus Prize for her humanitarian work.  

“Suad Al-Shammari is the first female attorney to defend cases in Saudi courts. Her decision to take up law was also triggered by a painful story.”

Suad told Alhurra that she decided to “rebel” after her former husband did not allow her to see her daughter, even for five minutes, despite interventions by tribal leaders and officials. Suad eventually took her case to the media and prevailed. She decided to continue the fight by defending abused women in Saudi courts.

Suad said that there is no law in Saudi Arabia that prevents women from becoming lawyers, or even judges. The Saudi law says that any person who is a “Muslim, adult and free” can be a lawyer. The obstacle is Saudi tradition.

Suad said the judge was shocked when she appeared for her first case but he did not have the authority to ask her to leave because she was not violating the law. The main problem was because she wore the burqa or veil, she could not be identified. She did not want to appear unveiled in case that provided an excuse for her critics to attack her personally.

Some judges, but not all, demanded that she bring her brother to identify her.

Since media are not allowed into Saudi courts, many newspapers did not believe that she was actually an attorney defending clients in court. Finally Dalya Gazaz, chief editor of the women’s magazine, Laha, which means “For Her” in Arabic, agreed to go to court with Suad. Gazaz was able to slip into court by claiming she was one of the defendants. Thanks to the burqa, no one was any wiser. The magazine then ran her story as its cover story under the title “The First Saudi Female Lawyer.”

Nadine Al Bedair


Three months ago, Al Bedair wrote a very daring article, “My Four Husbands and I,” in the independent daily Egyptian newspaper Al Masri Al Youm, creating a storm of controversy.

In the article, Al Bedair sarcastically asked the clergy to allow a woman to have four husbands, just as men are allowed to have four wives.

“I’ll pick them with different shapes and sizes. One of them will be dark and the other will be blond. One is tall or maybe short,” wrote Al Bedair. “I will choose them from different backgrounds, religions, races and nations. And I promise you that we will all live in harmony.”

The article, however, was taken seriusly by some officials and clergy. Sheikh Mohamed Gama’i said, “No woman has the right to attack our traditions in this manner. She should be stopped.” Lawyer Khalid Fouad Hafez, who is also the secretary general of the People’s Democratic Party in Egypt, filed a complaint against Al Bedair for her “blasphemous” article.

Al Badeir continues to host Musawat on Alhurra.

Some Arabs are skeptical of Alhurra, saying it airs “American propaganda.” But others question whether it is fair to taint everything produced by Alhurra as untrustworthy just because of its funding.

Instead it might be instructive to see if other Arab television stations will follow up on Alhurra’s initiative in getting shows like Musawat on the air. It would only add to the diversity of voices and viewpoints on Arab television which has ignored Arab women’s voices for too long.

Jalal Ghazi is producer of the Peabody Award-winning show “Mosaic: World News from the Middle East,” for Link TV, and author of the column “Eye on Arab Media” for New America Media