Seeing Middle Eastern women with different eyes

What do you think of when you hear about the Middle East? Go on, think. I bet you think war, explosions, terrorist attacks. A conflict-ridden area such as the Middle East suffers from a negative public image conveyed by the mass media. Just as their region is more than a little too often described as nightmarish, Middle Eastern women have to bear the burden of clichés. In the western world, in times of peace (just in times of peace?), they tend to be portrayed by the media as submissive, vulnerable women ill-treated by men in their societies, and often receive pity and compassion from readers who may be surprised to know Middle Eastern women don’t want or need pity. This problem of negative images and stereotypes is somewhat accrued in times of conflict. Women, because of the multiple roles they take on are one of the favourite targets of war journalists and photographs. Women in the Middle East in times of conflict are often depicted as either extremely vulnerable; having to bear the war and face a high risk of gender-based violence, or as warriors, the woman suicide-bomber. This image is even more shocking than her male equivalent because within the collective unconscious, women must be gentle and harmless.

The problem with these two images is that they are limited and negative: Granted, women are and remain vulnerable in times of crisis, and the protection they enjoy under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the additional protocol I of 1977 needs to be respected. And it’s true that a tiny minority of female suicide bombers exists within the most radicalised fringe of the Middle Eastern population.

But please, let’s not forget about women who just want to live in peace. Even the vast majority of women who demonstrate holding Hezbollah or Hamas banners want to live in peace but with dignity. Women who don’t want the world to pity them. The problem with images is that they affect you, no matter if you know that these images are not the entire reality, no matter how hard you try to replace them within a certain context. A good illustration of the dangerous power of images comes from the book Lebanon…Shot Twice ,. Zaven Kouyoumdjian features the picture of a Shi’a woman during the Lebanese civil war, wearing the Iranian Chador, smiling and carrying a Kalashnikov amongst the rumbles. The picture at the time toured the world, scaring western audiences. Over 20 years later, the author found this woman again. She didn’t even know this picture had been taken. She is a mother of 5 and while everyone who saw this picture thought she was a Hezbollah fighter, she was getting on with her life like every other woman on the planet.

During the 2006 July War between Hezbollah and Israel, what media covered the networks of Christian women setting up shelters in schools and convents to help their Shia’a sisters of the south? There was no show of solidarity that united the country at the time. Why not talk about women as peace building forces? Why not run special features on women who spend their days helping to build bridges between hostile parties?
Portraying the truth is at the heart of the journalist profession. That’s why reporters and photographers should not leave a topic uncovered. While showing the high state of vulnerability or in some cases, aggressiveness, of women in times of conflict may be partly true, it is equally important the mass media give “useful” visibility to women. Give women a platform to make their peace building efforts known, so that communities can help in return by talking about their work and supporting it financially.

Who knows? Maybe showing more women of peace will bring more security to this troubled area that is the Middle East.


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