Rima Karaki’s put-down of Sheikh Hani Al-Siba’i has gone viral — proof that creepy western stereotypes about Muslim women are dismayingly hard to shift.
There is a new version of “Dog bites man”, and it is “Arab woman does everyday thing that will amaze you”.
The latest example of this occurred last week, when a female Lebanese TV presenter told off a male sheikh guest for insulting her when she urged him to keep his answers short. A video of the incident has gone viral.
While her summary dispatching of him was indeed satisfying and righteous – the man was an irritating windbag – you clearly have never watched Arab television news if you think this is a unique event. It is quite often a carnage, with presenters and panellists talking over each other, hurling insults and abuse, sometimes even coming to blows. If anything, this was relatively tame compared to most clashes between anchors and guests.
Moreover, Arabic TV news is predominantly staffed by women. The presenter in question, Rima Karaki, follows a long tradition of formidable female anchors that began at al-Jazeera Arabic and MBC, and it is nothing unusual to be interviewed by a woman on most channels.
I suspect that London-based Sheikh Hani Al-Siba’i’s sexism was ramped up in the reporting of the story, and I daresay he would have been as huffy and pompous if it had been a male presenter who had interrupted and cut him down to size. It didn’t hurt the mythologising of Karaki’s behaviour that she is attractive, and was wearing a headscarf.
But the headlines that followed in the western press are part of a now established genre that morphs the everyday behaviour of Arab and Muslim women as being something impressive and counterintuitive.
The images of female Kurdish fighters in their fatigues sent the western media into shivers of orientalist reverie. The story of the Emirati female pilot who participated in the air strikes against Isis also took on exaggerated proportions – as if she was a mascot rolled out as an additional insult to Isis because she was a woman.
It is, however, consistent with a long heritage of the western gaze, spanning everything from misery-porn about Muslim women, to ostensibly serious journalism that shows life “behind the veil”.
It is the creepiest of obsessions, hiding behind the pretence of concern, while actually being akin to the behaviour 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.
It could be argued that anything that humanises and shows Arab women not being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour-killed is a good thing. But when everything that is not that is treated as a novelty, one is effectively reinforcing the stereotypes by saying, “Look! Here is a woman NOT being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour killed. How about that?”
It is not worthy of reporting because it shows a woman defying the norms and prejudices of Arab society; it is newsworthy because it challenges your views and prejudices about Arab society.
It is undeniable that there are many ways in which women all over the world are trapped in patriarchal societies. But the Arab woman as an emblem of only that is proving a difficult stereotype to shift. Not just because it is not accurate, but because it seems people do not want their world views challenged, only simply reinforced. – Guardian News & Media