Friday, 29 August 2014

An article written by Heba Katoon, MA Diversity and the Media Student, originally published at the Media Diversity Institute website

Tahrir Square, Cairo has gained recognition for being a global hub of political freedom. Yet, it has also become a haven for sexual harassment against Egyptian women.
The latest video from Tahrir Square showing a woman being brutally stripped naked and assaulted, went viral on social media, provoking a huge public outcry. Since then, a new law, defining sexual harassment, was approved for the first time in Egypt’s history. The UN said that the new law is very progressive as more than 99% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, ranging from verbal harassment to rape. Egyptian rights groups reported that such figures were tied with the dramatically increased number of assaults post-revolution.
According to the law, whoever commits a sexual assault would face imprisonment for at least one year, and a minimum fine of 3,000 Egyptian pounds (£248). There have been many grassroots initiative to counter harassment, with social media being a useful tool for many women to speak up and help tackle this sensitive topic within Egyptian society.
Harassmap’ is an independent initiative with the aim of ending the social acceptance of sexual harassment in Egypt. It uses crowdsourcing data linked to an interactive online map that is used to track and prevent rampant assault, allowing women to report instances of abuse by using the hashtag #harassmap.
“Aside from the map, ‘Harassmap’ uses its online outlets to raise awareness and challenge the stereotypes about sexual harassment. It also informs our followers and volunteers about plans of protests,” says Engy Ghozlan, co-founder of Harassmap.
“Our Facebook page, for instance, posts about services such as tips for victims on how to report harassment, legal services and advice, psychological support, and how to react to different forms of harassment,” Ghozlan adds.
Apparently, social media is a quick and free way to disseminate information and raise awareness about sexual harassment. Furthermore, such initiatives’ online outlets are used as alternative media, and to generate content for traditional media.
Maria Michael, a volunteer in ‘I Won’t Shut Up on Harassment’ initiative elaborates:
“We can’t rely on traditional media in transmitting the pure truth, as most of them are owned by the state, and they often twist the truth according to their political reference. If they want to say that there is no harassment at all in Egypt, they will,” Michael comments.
Moreover, Ghozlan pointed out the effective use of their online platforms to build a network of solidarity that engages women around the world.
“We tend to post sexual harassment-related news and stories from other countries that draw parallels with Egypt or provide some learning,” says Ghozlan.
After the shocking video, a mass protest against sexual violence was organised via Facebook. Thousands of demonstrators, both men and women, gathered for the campaign “Walk like an Egyptian woman”. Besides, the sense of helplessness has given rise to unusual hashtag campaign called “we will sexually harass men”, aiming to make men feel victimized as women and condemning a culture of tolerance that abets sexual harassment. Another hashtag trending in Egypt was discussing reasons for the spread of harassment. It was used more than 7000 times on Twitter, according to the BBC trending. But most of them were giving excuses not explanations.
“Bussy” or “Look” is a project intended to tell women’s stories to the public and publish them. Accordingly, its followers express solidarity and acknowledge the braveness of these women.
“Social media is a very effective tool at the moment, if not our only tool amidst the new protest law and countless arrests,” said Sondos Shabayek, director of the Bussy online initiative.
Although activists and non-governmental organisations utilise the new space for dialogue created to disseminate information about such matters, sexual harassment continues to take its toll on Egypt’s women.
Michael believes that in order to be a successful initiative, you have to reach your target audience both online and offline.
“We must tie what is going on in the virtual world to what is happening on the ground. It’s not enough to post your refusal on Facebook; we have to tie this with volunteering to educate people or to help victims on ground. We have to talk to people who don’t have a Facebook account,” says Michael.
The sexual assault video dominated the traditional media more than usual. One newspaper, Al Watan, used its front-page to demand the government to “Execute them”,  referring to rapists. However, activists see that media’s approach still frames sexual attacks as a one-off, and consider harassment as the fault of the victim rather than a social epidemic.
“It’s not about how much the media says about these matters, but about the way the media says them,” Mozn Hassan, the director of rights group Nazra for feminist studies, told the Guardian.
Further uproar was caused by comments by Maha Bahnassy, a TV anchor-woman, during a live report while covering the Tahrir celebrations. When the correspondent for al-Nahar TV told the anchor-woman about many cases of sexual harassment, she laughed and said it's "because they are happy, the people are having fun”. Bahnassy denied later that her comment was in response to the harassment incidents.
“What the anchor-woman and many others said have led to a mentality that doesn’t respect women. It is not easy to confront such a problem when there are lapses like such examples,” says Ahmed Mokhtar, a journalist in Al Dostour Newspaper.
Moreover, several media outlets also further harmed the victims. They published the video revealing the identity of the harassed women. “Which is unacceptable, as the victim has the right to protect her privacy,” Michael comments.
Another case in March went viral on social media when a female student at Cairo University was sexually harassed by male students. A well-known TV presenter, Tamer Amin, said that it’s the victim’s fault, as she was “dressed like a belly dancer”.
Gaber Nassar, the university president, adopted the same attitude. He spoke to a private channel ONTV, implying that the victim provoked the attack by wearing an “unconventional outfit”.
Amid uproars on social media, both Nassar and Amin apologized for their comments.
“Mob sexual harassment incidents are happening on university campuses, yet ‘academics’ blame the victim. ‘What made her go there?’ is often the first question asked when women are being harassed in public spaces. There’s still a long way to go,” women’s rights activist Mariam Kirollos wrote on Twitter. “For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue,” says Engy Ghozlan, co-founder of Harassmap.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Between/Beyond Derrida and Mandela: Reading our fractured societies

A recent essay by Musab Iqbal (current student of the MA in Diversity and the Media) published in World Bulletin 
Between/Beyond Derrida and Mandela: Reading our fractured societies

The ‘meeting’ of Derrida and Mandela is intersection of two events, two sides of our political reflection; this ‘meeting’ is a meeting of experience and reflection in all possible sense....

Musab Iqbal 
In just less then ten year’s time Nelson Mandela left this world, after Jacques Derrida. Derrida met Mandela in 1998, eight years after his release from the prison but Derrida’s interest in him was from his prison days. 

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Meet the Somalis

Meet the Somalis is a collection of 14 illustrated stories depicting the real life experiences of Somalis in seven cities in Europe: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Leicester, London, Malmo, and Oslo. The stories allow readers a unique insight into what everyday life is like as a Somali in Europe. Meet the Somalis is based on the first hand testimonies of Somalis in Europe interviewed during six months in 2013. 

The Somali community in Europe is a vibrant, diverse minority group, including people of Somali origin born in Europe, Somali refugees and asylum seekers, and Somalis who have migrated from one country in Europe to another. There are no accurate figures for the number of Somalis in Europe, but on the whole they are among one of the largest minority groups.

The illustrated stories focus on challenges faced by Somalis in their respective cities in Europe and issues raised in the Somalis in European Cities research, including education, housing, the media, employment, political participation, and identity. Meet the Somalis depicts experiences many of us will never know, like fleeing a warzone with your children or, worse, leaving your loved ones behind. But more often, these stories portray the values shared amongst many of us, like the importance of family, well-being, and identity in an ever-changing world.

Stay tuned: Meet the Somalis will be translated into other languages soon.

The stories in Meet The Somalis were told to journalist Benjamin Dix and drawn by artist Lindsay Pollock.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Saudi Blues ... or Reggae

The past few days have seen a flurry of activity in Saudi Arabia against the ban on women drivers. A number of protests, some unreported, some high profile have sent a powerful message to the ruling elite. 

The protests are a symptom of the contradictions of Saudi society, partly the product of the policies of the ruling elite who, in order to protect their hold to power in an increasingly diverse society, have invested in a dual strategy consisting in courting the ultra-conservative religious establishment (and the notorious Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice also known as the religious police) and facilitating the expansion of middle class consumerism (described so vividly by Rajaa Alsanea in her Banat al-Riyadh (Girls of Riyadh) novel. Tensions have surfaced on a number of occasions from unrest in many provincial cities against corruption to the various forms of activism on women's rights. Media activism constitutes one of the fields in which contentious politics find expression in the troubled Kingdom. Protesters devise creative and innovative ways in expressing grievances and criticism towards the regime.  

Below activist and artist Hisham Fageeh's take on the ongoing driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Britain's niqab debate: Channel 4

The debate about the face veil is not a novel one. Muslim notions of modesty, have often been subverted and colonized by patriarchal practices seeking to restrict women's autonomy. As such, the veil issue has mobilized social forces inspired by liberalism and western feminism and generated valuable criticisms of patriarchy in Muslim communities. On the other hand, Muslim women in Europe (but also in parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia where secularist forces have been able to inform or determine state policy) who choose or are forced to cover their bodies and faces are often subjected to state regulation and disciplining. Focusing on Europe, it is undeniable that the 'out of place' look of veiled women in public spaces all over the continent has provided fertile ground for the transformation of the veil issue into a potent mobilizing symbol for xenophobic, right wing forces only too happy to jump into the bandwagon of the secular, liberal and feminist opposition to the veil and, often, to incorporate these discourses into their own arguments. 

We have discussed here how the dignity of Muslim women has, predictably, become the rallying point of the European Right as it provides a respectable vehicle through which it can deploy its xenophobic discourse. Shockingly this obsession with the way Muslim women dress has not been confined to Europe's populist Right; it has been taken up by forces of the broader Left which have been at the forefront of struggles for human, political and social rights. In the burqa ban vote at the French National Assembly not one single voice was raised to doubt, let alone protest at, the institutionalization of the violation of several fundamental rights of Muslim women through the regulation of how they can dress in public.
A veiled woman next to the minarets
both potent symbols of the 'islamization'
of Switzerland in the recent minaret referendum 

As we have argued 
in the UK the niqab, has been posited in public discourse as the visible symbol of the perceived lack of integration of the Muslim community into British society and has therefore been associated with the whole debate over the perceived failures of multiculturalism as Jack Straw’s (who was at the time leader of the House of Commons) 6 October 2006 column in the Lancashire Telegraph indicated when he described the veil as "such a visible statement of separation and of difference". 
In most interventions of this sort, proponents of the ban use arguments that identify in the veil patriarchal oppressive practices that are detrimental to the dignity of Muslim women, or safety and security problems or, finally, barriers to intercultural communication and social cohesion. Without disputing that there are Muslim women who are coerced into, or feel they have no choice but to cover up, I believe that it is arrogant and dangerous to assume or suggest that the face veil is taken up by Muslim women in Europe just because of social pressure from within their communities or as a result of more material forms of coercion (French legislation for example has inbuilt in it a 'cherchez l'homme' clause as it provides for enormous fines for the men who force women to cover).

What is remarkable however, and should be noted, is that this debate is also one conducted over the absence of the women in question, as it largely leaves the affected women in a position of aporia, voiceless and powerless in the midst of a cacophony of opinions offered by western politicians, human rights activists and feminists on the one hand, and Muslim community leaders on the other: veiled women constitute the battlefield between abstract discourses of emancipation and discourses of cultural autonomy that emphasize the lack of competence of the part of liberals and feminists to criticize an essentially reified 'muslim' culture and tradition. It is true, that behind the veil one can find women that are isolated, lonely, abused and oppressed. In such cases, the veil can dissimulate suffering and silence cries for help. In such cases we need to devise ways of listening, of intervening and of empowering. On the other hand, considering the veil simply as a means and symbol of oppression may be misguided as it decouples it from its social-historical context. In the course of our research we have encountered numerous young women who experiment with covering their hair or face who have stressed in very articulate ways that this was a matter of choice and not coercion. Women have mentioned numerous reasons for covering or veiling themselves: affirming their identities as young Muslims, protesting against assimilationist ideologies and practices, expressing their religiosity and protecting themselves from the objectification of the male predatory gaze.

Before resorting to the platitudes that are rehearsed time and again in order to bring about a blanket ban on the niqab, it is worth considering the voices of women who stress the right to choose as the primary reason for wearing it. The Channel 4 debate goes some way towards this direction as guests in the debate include advocates of banning the veil (Douglas Murray), moderates who try to argue that the veil is not universally accepted among Muslims (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown) and veiled women (Fatima Barkatullah, Sahar Al-Faifi, Shalina Litt). Having watched the debate, we were left with the feeling that the debate format, however useful, may make a disservice to the complexity of the issue. The binary logic that permeates the discussion has helped reify two opposing positions advocated by selected guests who have the necessary symbolic capital to frame the debate along these lines. As one of our Muslim friends has suggested, after watching the debate she was left with mixing feelings. She felt that ordinary Muslim women who do not quite fit into the 'boxes' the debate participants had constructed were left voiceless.

We will soon start to address this issue ...

Friday, 27 September 2013

United we stand

The Union of Jewish Students of France is suing the editor of Valeurs Actuelles for inciting racist hatred. Le Monde says 'Shocked by the hateful cover of the weekly Valeurs Actuelles' the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF) announced on Wednesday 25 September its intention to sue Yves de Kerdrel, director of the publication for inciting racist hatred.

The cover of the weekly that appeared on 26 September featured the picture of a Marianne (symbolising the French Republic) wearing a face veil next to the alarmist title 'The naturalised: The invasion they hide'. The title utilises a common spatial metaphor that gives the abstract phenomenon of migration - an essentially unplanned and decentered process characterised by disjuncture - the characteristics of an intentional, planned and, at the end of the day, malicious effort to undermine the sovereignty of
the French Republic (see also Sofos and Tsagarousianou, Islam in Europe, chapter 1).

Although the articles are primarily Islamophobic, the Union of Jewish Students of France considered that islamophobia, antisemitism and, more generally, racism are not that distinct ideologies and practices and therefore decided to move against the journal. 

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Graduating Students Claim MA Diversity and the Media Broadens Their World

Originally published in

Students who attended the course this year are still savouring and digesting all the thought-provoking knowledge they were nourished with. They come from different countries, speak different languages, they have different cultural backgrounds and make plans for different careers. Yet, they share the same impressions about the MA in Diversity and the Media at the University of Westminster. They claim the course has widened their horizons. “I used to consider myself an open-minded person, but I realised I wasn’t,” says Betina de Tella, 26-year-old student from Brazil. Khaled Abdalla, from Egypt, is of the same opinion: “This master changed my view about everything happening around me. I now pay attention to things I never thought about before.”
The MA Diversity and the Media, designed and developed in collaboration with the Media Diversity Institute in 2010, is a highly innovative course. It is designed to attract not only media graduates, but also “people who have already worked in journalism, but want to enhance their skills in the area of inclusive journalism,” the course guideline says. When asked if she would recommend it, Thaila Moreira, from Brazil, has no doubts: “I always tell my friends they’re missing a huge part of the world, because the world is not just surface. The approach you are taught during lectures helps you to see different issues you couldn’t normally see,” she continues. Learn how to be a good journalist But what is it that makes this MA studies at Westminster University unique? Ivana Jelača, 25-year-old student from Serbia, has the answer: “Most of the media courses teach you how to sell the story. The MA Diversity and the Media provides you with skills and critical abilities that can make a difference,” says Jelača. The Diversity and the Media course encourages student journalists to look at, reflect, and report on the society they live in. At the end of the year, they have developed a critical understanding of the role of mass media in the social construction, representation and understanding of difference and social diversity. Shazwan M. Kamal, a student who has worked in Malaysia as a reporter, explains: “There is not enough understanding in the media about diversity. Journalists should think about repercussions, but they don’t.” Theoretical engagement is not the only focus of the Master. Theories are combined with practice-oriented modules intended to give first-hand experience in the practice of inclusive journalism. “We learned how sociology can help you understand the media,” explains Lin Zhao, a young student from China, “but it is a practical learning at the same time”. As the website course overview explains, through the practical training students are equipped to enter employment in various areas of the media, or communication with governments and NGOs focusing on immigration, equality, and social inclusion. Hebatallah Katoon, 25, came to attend this course from Egypt, where she works as a university teacher. Having produced a documentary on the life of dwarves in Egypt and being involved in charity projects with disabled people, she is not the kind of person you would consider to be unaware of the importance of diversity.  Yet, her studies at Westminster were useful for her, too. “This course gave me the tools to deal with today’s challenges,” she says. “I now know how to make my students appreciate diversity”. Still, books and lectures are not the only way students have learnt to appreciate diversity as a value. One of the distinctive features of the course is the diverse cultural backgrounds of students. “Having classmates coming from all over the world has definitely enriched my experience,” comments Betina de Tella. “We have had great debates.” In addition, London itself offers them the opportunity to be part of a society where a multitude of different ethnic groups live together. In a few months students will be flying back to their home countries where they will apply in both profession and life what they learned throughout the academic year. A lot of work is waiting for them, but they are ready to respond to the challenges.