Negative stereotypes and the objectification of women in the region will be overturned by women speaking for themselves in the new media.
Women are their own knights in shining armour in new media
In the many debates about negative representations of women in the public sphere, we tend to point fingers at conventional media as the prime culprits. Academic studies, policy reports and media commentaries over the past four decades have consistently concluded that women have been dehumanised and commercialised in print and broadcast media.
In a way these findings are self-perpetuating - there has been a misleading view that offering balanced views of women in the media requires top-down reforms. There have been scores of appeals to media executives and journalists to demonstrate more responsibility when dealing with women's issues.
But at a recent conference in Beirut, organised by the UN Economic and Social Committee for Western Asia (ESCWA), it was clear that women will now be directly communicating their own thoughts and experiences instead of relying on media institutions. In the age of social networking and media saturation, powerful messages on women's rights and issues are directly available to a global audience.
Since the depiction of women in the media became an issue in the 1970s, we have often been focused on objectification, overlooking achievements in favour of superficial traits and stereotypes. There were no channels for women to express themselves directly. In the 1980s, a single piece of in-depth coverage of an issue relating to women would be widely celebrated as a remarkable achievement.
In conventional media, women - including activists and feminists - had no choice but to appeal to the powers-that-be. As experience of the past few decades suggests, such appeals generally fell on deaf ears. There was a disconnect between women's achievements in social and professional life and the way they were treated in media representations.
In 2011 things are surely different. Thanks to the digital revolution and rising media activism, conventional media are no longer the sole gatekeepers of information that reaches the public sphere. At the Beirut meeting, I found that new media in Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories were pioneering new, women-orientated initiatives that showed a lot of promise.
The Arab Women Media Strategy, launched in 2008 in Abu Dhabi by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the chairwoman of the UAE General Women's Union, also attracted praise from participants. The strategy, developed as one programme of the Arab Women Organisation, lays out an integrated scheme - individual media projects are given training, production support and content advice to convey their messages.
As a member of the Arab Women Media Strategy team, I was glad to hear participants call for more localised media initiatives that empower women in their own communities. The Arab Women Media Strategy and the other initiatives presented at the ESCWA meeting show the converging power of feminist activism and new media in enhancing women's roles and representation in the public sphere.
In the coming decades, media stereotypes will certainly remain an outstanding challenge for everyone in the region. A combination of negative cultural attitudes and skewed conventional media practices only serves to stifle any real progress in this regard.
But with the development of new media practices and feminist advocacy traditions in our communities, there are opportunities to take women's causes into the public sphere in a way that has never been done before. As the ESCWA experience suggests, women are no longer at the mercy of conventional media to communicate their views and concerns. They themselves are now in control.
Muhammad Ayish is a UAE-based media researcher and adviser