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Media blooms where democracy thrives Barriers put in way of women help drive the ‘malestream’ agenda

MARWA Muharram, Egyptian, is a female Television news anchor known by TV viewers for her professionalism and dedication to women’s causes and human rights in general across Kuwait. Her seven years tenure as a news and current affairs anchor at KTV1 has drawn her out of her shell as a typical Arab woman —  less shy, less withdrawn and more assertive when it comes to addressing the issues that matter to women in general.  
 
In an exclusive interview with Arab Times, Marwa gives an insight into her travails as a woman in the uneven media terrain and her future ambitions. She also speaks about the low representation of women in management positions of the media networks worldwide, but also admits to male dominance in mainstream media ownership which ultimately leads to what she sarcastically termed as “malestream” media. She also as well argues forcefully in favor of the woman’s ability to simultaneously rock the cradle at home and the boardroom if given enough time to do so.   
 
Question: Have you ever felt discriminated against or privileged as a woman working in media in Kuwait?
Answer: I am glad to say I have never felt any form of bias against me or any woman for that matter in Kuwait. I was born into a society that respects women both in the media and outside of it. But speaking in general terms with the Middle East region in mind, less than a fourth of all registered companies adopt a real company policy on gender equity. And as far as I know, there are no national laws in these nations that prohibit workplace discrimination. Together this lack of laws and company policies may help to explain women’s low representation in most of the newsrooms of this region. These scenarios may be considered within the larger context of women’s efforts to achieve equality within the region. The greatest gender disparities in employment exist in the North Africa and Middle Eastern nations, according to an ILO (2990) study (Global Employment Trends for Women). 
 
Q: Has greater representation in the media really conferred power on Middle Eastern women or is it all a mirage, and an ongoing struggle?
A: Middle Eastern women’s greater exposure especially in television has yet to become synonymous with decision-making empowerment for most women in senior media positions. 
 
Q: How soon may they expect that empowerment? 
A: For an answer to that question, one has to look at the situation of women in the Western media where popular female columnists abound but women executives remain a small minority. Female representation in Middle Eastern media, as well as their extensions in the West’s diasporic communities, has grown over the last few decades, but the patterns of its progress differ from country to country. It is worth noting, however that not all women in journalism necessarily want to move into top management or governance roles, obvious personal reasons, but rather a pool of qualified women within the profession is likely to increase women’s potential to move into these decision-making positions. 
 
Q: Why should we even be thinking of women empowerment in the media landscape when there are men to take care of business? 
A: We are talking gender balance here in the media landscape and how it can engender press freedom. Free flow of information is an essential ingredient of open and democratic societies. I believe that that there can be no full freedom of the press until women have an equal voice in the news-gathering and news dissemination processes. There is abundant evidence of underrepresentation of women as subjects of coverage. There are no reliable, comprehensive data on which to make a clear determination about where women currently fit into the news-making operation or in the decision-making or ownership structure of their companies. If news content is the final outcome of a series of steps involving the participation of a number of individuals, what then is the role of women in determining and shaping the news agenda? Who decides how many stories are by women and feature women as pivotal subjects in news operations? It is a telling commentary on the forces at work behind each successful media enterprise — from adequate core funding to astute management to official patronage —that the most talked about entity in the media business today is no longer Al Ahram in Cairo, or any print publication for that matter, but tiny Qatar’s Al Jazeera television channel which has a substantial female involvement in both the office and the news gathering arena.
 
Q: Is there sexism in the media in Kuwait? 
A: In the Kuwait media landscape, there is neither segregation nor partiality. Men and women are treated equally. But    having said that, one can also say with certainty that the depiction of women in the Kuwaiti media is nearly always shaped by the instrumental values of media owners and confected from their wishes about how the world should be. Mainstream outlets are usually ‘malestream’ outlets. Mastering the media requires change not only of the media but, even more, of the society that they reflect.
 
Q: What are the challenges you face in your field as a woman?   
A: As a woman working in the field of media, it is fair to say that many challenges do exist. I am a television anchor with ambitions of becoming an outstanding news broadcaster and commentator. But there are limits to personal freedoms in this field in a governmental institution of a conservative society that has its special conditions and controls in place and there is nothing I can do about that.  
 
Q: Tell us something about the nature of your job?
 A: I have been in the media sphere for the past seven years as a newscaster and reporter. I cover local news on various levels — political, social as well as cultural. I also present the World This Morning program, an international and current affairs bulletin that lasts for an hour. Personally, I like my job and feel distinguished to be doing it, especially in the field of news editing. I feel more attached to the audio visual media now than print media. 
 
Q: What is given more weight in the media here: beauty or brains of the anchor and how do you deal with it?
A: A presenter’s beauty is more appreciated than her mental efficiency, but thank God I don’t have any of that deficiency, at least not that I know of. I try as much as possible to maintain my good looks as well as keeping as much a close eye on my mental and cultural aptitude. I personally would have preferred that people in the media would rather be concerned more and lay more emphasis on a newscaster’s mental and intellectual uprightness rather than her looks. But unfortunately, it is what it is and I have to go along with that.
 
Q: What are the drawbacks to the media in Kuwait?
A: There are a few drawbacks in the Kuwait media landscape. But talking about drawbacks, one must also look in the rearview mirror and you’d realize how far the country has advanced in the media field and that could be widely attributable to the relatively stable democratic atmosphere prevalent in the country. You know where democracy thrives, the media blooms because of its role as the fourth arm of government, albeit unofficial.
 
Q: What are the advantages of being a female journalist in Kuwait?
A: Good question. It all depends on how one looks at the issues. Some women use the media to become visible, as in the case of journalists and activists. Female bloggers on the other hand use the media, not for visibility, but to highlight feminist issues that some conservative Gulf states seem not to regard as important and worthy of notice by the international community. The media is too good a tool to wield without using it to one’s advantage.
 
Q:  Are there any dream assignments you would like to undertake as a female media person?
A: Every journalist’s dream is to rise to the level where she will have the chance to work in big media organizations where assignments that bring them in direct contact with top political, business and showbiz personalities exist. That is my dream as well.  Most importantly, I aspire to be the Oprah Winfrey of the Arab World. You know Oprah is my source of inspiration and I admire her so much for her humble origins and self-made initiatives. 
 
Q: Is it possible for a woman to successfully rock the cradle and at the same time rock the media boardroom? 
A: The average woman in some parts of the world would spend an additional forty hours a week tending to the household chores that tend to attach themselves to small helpless creatures. In addition, an average woman would probably spend countless hours taking care of an older child or two, going the doctor’s visits and so forth. She would probably spend additional hours we won’t border counting looking after a spouse who might as well be looked after because he can barely get out of the house. A woman might be able to make the math work if she is working thirty three hours in the home even as much as forty hours a week if she has a very predictable or very flexible job, then she is a wonder woman. But as CEO or the chairperson of a publicly traded corporation, the head quite frankly of any major enterprise, it is simply not possible or at least highly, highly unlikely for a woman to play the role of a good housewife.
 
But clearly there are many forces at play here, discrimination in the sense of the big corporate work place is alive and well and at the end of the day the dominant reason, in fact the scariest reason we don’t see many mothers among leadership positions is that these positions are not 35 hour a week jobs. Being the CEO or being in a position where one is able to rock the boardroom is a 50, 60 or even 70 hour a week job with, in addition, international travel, sudden and unmovable deadlines and global international conference calls. Women can find or hire somebody to rock that cradle for them and if they are willing to hire a cradle rocker, then they can rock the boardroom. That cradle rocker can be a nanny, if they have the means to do so, it can be a mother in law, if that works out for the family, it as well can be the partner if that also works for the family. But in any case, this cradle rocker that the mother acquires or hires has to truly be the primary cradle rocker. Women can also make a legitimate choice not to have children and to concentrate on their boardroom activities instead.
 
In all of these cases though, the underlying constraints crucially do not change. If they want to stay in the boardroom or get to the boardroom quickly, women and men cannot at the same time be rocking the cradle. This is not a matter of skills or preferences or biology, but rather at the end of the day there simply are not enough hours in the day. It is a mathematical impossibility of anyone, man or woman to be able to simultaneously rock the cradle and the boardroom. If one must have to do it, it is the woman who is better equipped to handle it.
 
Q: What is your advice to media students in Kuwait?
A: Media students whether they are specializing in tabloids, television or whatever, should be bold in discharging their duties while also sticking to the ethics of the profession and not be swayed by inducements or personal convictions of any kind. 
 
Q: Have you perceived any change for the better or worse regarding opportunities for women in Kuwait, with the political empowerment of women?
A: I do not see any recent shift in the situation of women in Kuwait as far as opportunities are concerned. What is very clear to all is that though Kuwait remains a religiously conservative society albeit with a highly educated womenfolk who enjoy a good measure of liberty compared to other Gulf women. Women stand for elections and participate in government — a milestone other Gulf States still try to emulate.  
 
Q: How has the rise of Islamists affected your position as a female journalist?
A:  As far as I know and can see, there has not been any rise in Islamism in Kuwait so I cannot say how the phenomenon affects females or males in the journalism profession. Kuwait has remained an open and democratic society even post the Arab Spring. Thank God we here live in a balanced environment. 
 
Q: Are Kuwait’s media women benefitting from current changes in the Middle East media landscape?
A: The proliferation of satellite television channels has increased women’s visibility in the region including Kuwait but it is also fair to say that visibility does not necessarily confer power. In some instances the media has been used to open up possibilities for women in the society, and conversely in others, the same media is used to restrict women.
 
Q: With media all over the world marginalizing women and trivializing gender issues, how does the situation in Kuwait compare? 
A: This sends us diving right into the realm of gender inequality in the world of journalism. In every field of endeavor for instance, the nature of the voices heard depends to a very large extent on the preponderance of a particular gender in that field. So it’s not surprising that male gender issues, even though not openly advanced by activists, take precedence over females because of the dominance of males in the 24-hour media cycle. It is not surprising therefore that the worldview is formed in large part by the male perspectives. The under representation of women in journalism is sometimes the direct result of male dominance in many facets of life.  In the not- too- distant past it was uncommon to come across female sports journalists especially in the field of football or soccer because that is a field dominated by males  who end up being the top decision makers.  
 
Q: What are the cultural/religious barriers to women in the media?
A: The days of Kuwait being a hard-lined conservative society are behind us. In the current metropolitan environment we find ourselves in today, one can hardly point to any cultural or religious barrier to women practicing their professions freely in the media sphere apart from helping drive the “malestream” agenda. 
 
biography
* Name: Marwa Mahmoud Moharram
* MA Political Science, Cairo University, Egypt
* BA Social Studies Graduate from Banha University, Egypt
* Born and brought up in Kuwait into an aristocratic Egyptian family 
* An Actress and full time TV News Anchor and Broadcaster
* Writes stories and edits essays in magazines as part time hobby
* Loves swimming, horse riding and domestic pets as passions
 

 By Iddris Seidu

Arab Times Staff
 
مروة محرم ,MARWA Muharram, anchor, KTV1, Marwa Mahmoud Moharram, Media, مروه محرم 
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By: MARWA Muharram

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