First Published: 2010-12-19


Bullying and high-jacking Muslim women’s voice in UK live on air


The encounter between Dr Halla Diyab and Alhiwar TV presenter Saleh Al Azraq tells a lot about the male dominated, self-righteous media.


Middle East Online

By - Iqbal Tamimi

The Clarity.. lacking!

After watching an interview conducted by Saleh Al Azraq, a television presenter working for the London based Arabic TV Channel Alhiwar, with Syrian writer Dr Halla Diyab, aired on October, 6, 2010, I was totally disappointed as a journalist and as a media professional with the way the interview was conducted. It was shocking to see an Arab woman, a professional and an academic subjected to bullying.

Mr Al Azraq used his tactics of interruptions, high pitch voice, ridiculing the guest a number of times, and manipulating her views in a way that seemed like a punishment for she dared to expose some of the issues, a considerable number of Arab Muslim women suffer, due to misinterpretations of Islam. Bullying women happens on different levels, including through the Arab male dominated media establishments operating not only in the Arab World, but also on British soil where self expression is a sacred right and where any form of bullying is not taken lightly.

Alhiwar, the name of the Channel, translates in Arabic to ‘Dialogue’ and the chat show is called Bewedooh (With Clarity). But unfortunately the interview can hardly be described as a ‘dialogue’ or has reflected an acceptable amount of ‘clarity’. The interview reflected intimidation of the female guest, ridiculing her views, manipulating her words, interrupting her continuously, thus denying her the right to defend her work.

Azraq on the attack

The interview lacked the most important factor of professional journalism, where the presenter is supposed to reflect unbiased attitude regarding the subject in discussion. He should have detached himself from his personal stance based on his own convictions, but he did not. The presenter has not only attacked the female guest’s views and reflected her as a bad Muslim, but he also played the role of the defender of Islamic image and dared to generalise and describe western women unfairly when he argued about decency and manners, demonising their style of life and judging that his own understanding of freedom is the right calibre of conduct.

Dr Halla Diyab is a Syrian scriptwriter based in UK, an academic who carries a PhD in her field. She worked and lived in different Arab countries and wrote ‘Hur Alain’ (Heaven Maiden) in 2005, a thirty episode TV soap opera, whose title referred to the 72 virgins who are claimed to greet martyrs in heaven. The series explored the impact of terrorism on Middle Eastern families. But this time, she was invited by Alhiwar Television to discuss her latest controversial script; a thirty episode TV soap opera which investigates Arab women's current struggle for equality and freedoms that were aired on a number of TV channels during Ramadan 2010. Her controversial soup opera ‘Ma Malakat Aymankum’ (Your Rightful Disposal), bares a title that was derived from a verse of Quran that talks about women’s slavery.

Diyab on the defence

Dr Halla explained during the interview that she used this title to serve the drama through symbolism, but the presenter played the role of a Sheikh who creates Fatwas when he decided that using part of a Quranic phrase or ‘Ayah’ in a drama title is unacceptable from religious point of view. He argued that this is due to the fact that it was used with a story that does not reflect the positive side of Islam. I am puzzled and not sure how he came up with such fatwa and what religious scriptures he used as a reference.

During the whole show the presenter played the role of the advocate who defends the extremist views of Muslims, he even used the expression ‘we’ whenever he brought up the views of the Sheikhs, while she was forced to defend her stance for daring to offer a voice for the voiceless by highlighting Arab Muslim women’s rights in a transparent way. He was fishing for his guest’s faults in a non professional aggressive manner, instead of playing a neutral role as a journalist who is supposedly exploring a field of social drama.

I have personally watched every single episode of the above mentioned drama, as part of my duties as Director of Arab Women Media Watch Centre, a researcher and a journalist interested in gender equality issues and how they are reflected in the media, and I can claim that her work reflects excellent examples of individuals and groups within the Arab Muslim societies.

The issues she highlighted in her latest drama are indeed important and in need of further investigation on the way of reforming Arab media, societies and the policies of most Arab states. But our colleague Mr Al Azraq ignored the urgent need to highlight such issues and kept dragging his guest away from talking about the Muslim society and demanding of her to write about other political issues because he claims that what she is writing about is not considered a phenomenon. He believes that scriptwriters should write about the concerns of the majority. Obviously he knows very little about what makes a drama a valuable contribution to the society and to the media. The presenter was an opponent of writing about sexual oppression, Muslim women’s sexual needs or desires, child sexual harassment, and any negative image criticising men with beards or women wearing veils, as if beards and veils immune humans against human natural feelings, weaknesses or desires.

The presenter tried many times to lure his guest to talk about political opposition to Arab states and tried to force her to criticize the Syrian government which she was obviously not interested in. He wanted her to abandon her line of writing and suggested that she should write about ‘Syrian regime’s animosities with the Islamic Brotherhood’. It was clear that he is interested in politics and wanted to mould his guest to step into that puddle and write about what he is passionate about and not what she wants to write about, even though she explained to him several times that his proposed subjects were not her line of speciality and that she prefers to write about feminist issues because this is her line of interest and the subject of her study. The good old presenter judged that her work is worthless and equals almost nothing by commenting on the viewership without backing up his side of the story by any statistics or research findings.

During the full interview he never praised her work, not even once, on the contrary, he opened the doors of hell of criticism on every sentence she was trying to complete under his barrage of insinuations and accusations, he went as far as questioning whether she was working on corrupting the morals of Muslim women and encouraging them to rebel against their faith and traditions and become as loose and shameless as ‘western women’.

I consider the interview an insult to all women and degradation to journalists and a good example of the worst practices of television interviewing.

Such ‘Dialogue’ can be dismantled and produced into 30 episodes of academic critical examination about bad media practices and what not to do during an interview, to serve students studying media. It shows how a journalist disrespects his guest and tackles the interview from a very narrow self opinionated personal conviction that reflects a great deal of ignorance, anger and superficial understanding of media production from academic and practical angles, besides ridiculing the guest and underestimating her accomplishments and achievements. But fortunately enough, his unacceptable conduct proved her drama’s point of view 100% valid. Most Arab men are control freaks and many of them, including some of the so called ‘educated’, have a superficial understanding of faith and do not know how to respect the views of the other.

Ma Malakat Aymankum: No place for women's desire

Arab women are oppressed and their voices are hijacked by males on every level even by their own colleagues who are supposed to be the crème de la crème of their societies. This interview reflects the mentality of the male journalist who seemed very proud to watch his own ego inflates while he was deliberately working hard on trying to bully his guest without giving her the time to complete her sentence, as if she was walking in a mine field. Clearly, he was not exploring the subject of discussion in a balanced way, but rather aiming to show his guest as less of a good Muslim than himself.

The honourable colleague referred in his show to the views of Sheiks on the content of ‘Ma Malakat Aymankum’ . He described them as prominent scholars and mentioned the name of the well respected Muslim scholar Shaikh Al-Buti as an example amongst those who attacked this drama, but he failed to mention, not even one view of any of the academics, drama specialists, or any non religious figure that might have seen the positive side of this drama production. Funny enough, it was revealed later, during the same interview, that the scholar mentioned as a reference, has confessed later that he did not watch it personally; he fell in the trap of making his judgement on what others have told him, after airing the second episode of the drama only. Talk about media balance and impartiality.

In the introduction the presenter confessed that the drama series was a success and that it was aired on a number of TV channels and watched by thousands, yet in the middle of the interview, during his attack on his guest’s views, he changed his mind to undermine her accomplishments by saying that her work was not a big deal, and the viewership was not that much and the viewers’ comments published online about the drama reflect the views of an angry audience, thus contradicting himself. He ignored the fact that her work was extremely successful and the viewership was high as anticipated by the channels who bought the drama for its commercial value and anticipated advertising revenues.

He even used another tactic of character assassination by asking her questions about her private life and whether some Arab authorities were behind the information and sources compiled for her drama, then shortly after that he accused her of bypassing the Arab governments’ institutions and demanded of her to reveal her sources of information about child sexual harassments in the Arab world, arguing that there is no child sex abuse as such in the Arab World, even though he knows perfectly well that there are no Arab state that can be considered totally transparent regarding access to information and that journalists protect their sources because it is not an easy task to compile such data.

Then he attacked her for saying Muslim women have sexual needs and desires, and accused her of attempting to disgrace and smear Muslim women and encourage them to ‘declare’ their sexual desires without shame or inhibitions, thus breaking the barriers of shame inside Muslim women and make them a copy of ‘western women’.

In the end, she was forced to retreat by declaring ‘I do not want the Arab woman to become like a Western woman’. Clearly this kind of defence was an outcome of pressure. What’s wrong with Western women if I dare ask…?

I found the whole argument a totally hypocrite attitude, both the presenter and the guest of the show, are and have been working in the West since many years, yet they obviously doing their best to detach themselves from any feelings of admiration of western women, generalising, without even saying what exactly they found so horrible about Western women that make them so horrified of the mere idea that they might be mimicking western women.

Then the presenter dwarfs Islam when he implied that those men who have beards or women who wear a veil are not susceptible to the same physical needs or are capable of making mistakes like the rest of the human race. After losing his battle of trying to defend those who hide under the cloak of Islam, he attacked his guest for writing a role in her drama about a businessman who uses his power and connections to reach his goals, then he turned the table on her again for not tackling issues related to the corrupt states and their authorities, as if every female creative writer who intends to write about a favourite subject should fix the corrupt political systems first. He seemed like he was not hearing what she was explaining about her interests in feminism and the fact that she is a woman trying to use her academic knowledge in this field to highlight social concerns.

Ma Malakat Aymankum: the face of extremism

I can see that he did not watch the drama he was attacking, otherwise he would not have mixed up the characters and he would know that balance was maintained throughout the series. The drama reflected the good Muslim, the father figure, who was a religious, pious, moderate, compassionate and understanding person, and there was his son who had a beard, stereotyped as a Muslim, but he was a cruel, womaniser, and a manipulative extremist. There were women who had positive balanced attitudes, and there were shaky characters that lost their way under pressures as is the case in every society. There was the Iraqi mother example, the refugee who worked as a maid to earn her living with dignity and respect; and there was also the character of her daughter who fell in the trap of prostitution because she could not handle the poverty and the deprivation she experienced since she and her widowed mother arrived in Syria after the American occupation of Iraq. Balance was maintained, and different characters were used to reflect different levels of understanding of Muslim faith. But the presenter insisted on seeing the empty part of the glass.

It was naive of the presenter to suggest that solving the problem of Muslim women’s sexual needs does not come by broadcasting such drama series but by marriage. Implying that Arab Muslim women are offered this choice, yet they refuse it willingly. It seems that he landed from Mars and forgotten that most women in Muslim Arab societies are usually the passive partner in the sense that they have to wait until someone asks for their hand in marriage. They have no choice but to wait since any sexual relationship outside the wedlock is totally condemned and out of question. Besides, even if a man came forward and asked for the hand of a woman in marriage, usually it is not up to the woman to accept or refuse; its her male guardians who decide if she should get married and be relieved of her misery or she should wait longer and remain the extra pair of hands serving the members of the family or remain the cow milked for her salary that usually relieves the males in her family from the financial burdens.

The presenter, seems to ignore the fact that, Muslim women are advised to be patient should they feel any ‘natural sexual desires’, and remedy that by waiting until their problems are solved by the will of God; and while they are waiting for the rescue that is landing from heaven, they are advised to find their relief by fasting and praying more.

Our colleague accused Dr Halla of encouraging women to abandon their Islamic teachings and manners. He even accused her of condemning men who have beards even though she repeatedly explained that she did not.

I do commend Dr. Halah Diab for her patience and intellectual capacity to deal with such an attack. Clearly Arab TV channels in UK should be subjected to more scrutiny and be advised to adhere to the same codes of journalism followed by other UK based English channels as part of the democratic practices that respects human rights of self expression and fights bullying in all its forms and improving the standards of journalism, since I consider this interview as a good example of media bullying live on air.

Iqbal Tamimi

Director for Arab Women Media Watch Centre in UK


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