In December, Womanity hosted an event that brought together influencers from across the media sector to discuss “Digital Media and Gender Equality”. In this blog, Rana Askoul, Head of Media Programmes, reflects on the state of gender equality in the Middle East and the role media can play in promoting more gender equitable attitudes and behaviours.

Social media for gender equality in the Middle East

A mixed picture

The realities of gender equality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region present us with a mixed picture. On one hand, some of the women’s rights gains that have been achieved in the region were phenomenal. 2018 has been a particularly pivotal year for women’s rights gains and saw the lifting of the driving ban on Saudi women and new countries granting citizenship rights for children of their women citizens – including Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia and Iraq. 2018 was also the year when the region witnessed a widespread repeal of laws allowing rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims. Additionally, nine countries in the region passed laws against domestic violence.

Despite these tremendous gains, we know that the MENA region still ranks amongst the worst performing regions when it comes to achieving gender parity (World Economic Forum, 2018), as women here still face bigger economic, social and political barriers than women in other regions. And despite the passing of numerous laws stipulating rights and granting further freedoms, we remain well aware that “laws cannot legislate away deeply ingrained attitudes about the role of men and women”. It is these very prevalent gender stereotypes -among men and women and girls and boys – that are fundamentally blocking progress towards equality.

The power of media in shaping gender norms

There still remains a window of opportunity that can help in shifting these deeply ingrained attitudes. Media stands to be one of the greatest tools available to shape beliefs and influence behaviors and actions. It can impact audiences through agenda-setting, hence influencing audiences on which issues to focus on and which to ignore. It is also capable of norm-referencing: shaping our beliefs on how we think of the “other”.  Currently, a staggering 79% of images of Arab women in Arab media are negative (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Al-Ariqi, 2009). Moreover, media stories in the Middle East region which reinforce current harmful stereotypes about gender roles amount to 81% of total media stories (Global Media Monitoring Report, 2010), making the Middle East the worst performing region in the world in this regard.

Despite these disheartening figures, the rapidly increasing digital media penetration in the region and the prospects for gender equality that it can deliver offer a ray of hope. According to a recent survey, an average of 54% of social media users across 8 MENA countries report becoming “more open to tolerating different points of view” as a result of social media use.

A convening of collaborators

It is against this very backdrop that Womanity’s Forum on “Digital Media and Gender Equality” took place in Dubai, UAE in December of 2018. Held in partnership with Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, the Forum was an intimate gathering of key stakeholders from across regional content creators, digital media platforms, broadcasters, advertising agencies and multinationals. The forum was a call for collaboration among these vested partners in order to collectively push for more gender equitable content in the region.

Over a day and a half, the participants examined various topics including: 1) how content creators are challenging prevailing stereotypes and what support can further their impact 2) the role of broadcasters in adopting and promoting causes 3) how private sector organizations are championing gender equitable content in the region 4) Cause-driven advertising and campaigns and 5) how digital platforms are shifting attitudes about gender. The forum concluded with an overwhelming commitment amongst the stakeholders on creating a coalition to action key steps in support of creating more gender equitable content in the region.

The journey for gender equality in MENA is a long one but we have a firm belief that through opening up opportunities for debate and collaboration, we can collectively move the needle towards more inclusive attitudes and behaviors in the region.

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