Thursday, February 19, 2009

Spotlight - Everywoman

Everywoman, Al Jazeera Style, Smashing stereotypes in Muslim societies
(click image to see more Everywoman)



MUCH WESTERN MEDIA portray Arab women as subservient victims, an image as monolithic as stereotypes of the Arab world itself. So people may be surprised by Everywoman, a new English-language TV program from Doha, Qatar, whose segments shatter stereotypes and replace them with multidimensional realities.

Since its launch with the new Al Jazeera English (AJE) network in November 2006, the half-hour weekly program has produced well over 200 short documentaries. They expose special hardships for - and crimes against - women, and present diverse perspectives on ways of responding. In Malaysia, a Muslim woman who married a Hindu man fights for the return of her child after being charged with apostasy. In the United States, women soldiers speak about rape in the military. In Egypt, although a male soccer player scoffs, "Football [soccer] and sports are forbidden for girls," Nevine Jamal plays soccer in a head scarf, shrugging, "I do whatever I like."

"Every week we try to have something from each part of the world," says Maire Devine, the show's executive producer; AJE has bureaus in Doha; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Washington, DC; and London. Ideas for content come from Devine, who has covered poverty and human-rights issues in the Middle East and Africa, as well as from AJE producers elsewhere. Difficult subject matter, or being barred access, doesn't deter Devine or the show's presenter, Shiulie Ghosh.

"Some of the things we'll show you will make your hair stand on end," says Ghosh, recalling a mobile-phone recording they broadcast of Du'a Khalil Aswad, a Kurdish Yezidi girl being dragged out of her house and stoned to death simply for planning to meet a boy.

"Some issues are still too sensitive in some countries," says Devine. "With the apostasy story, we did some secret filming [since] we didn't have permission." They're surprised by permission they do get, as in a piece on an all-women de-mining team clearing cluster-bombs in Southern Lebanon.

Ultimately, they choose a story because "it needs to be told." Ghosh emphasized the courage of individuals they cover; the Iranian women who, after bing jailed and tortured for demonstrating, returned to the streets; or Zimbabwean women who spoke on camera without hiding their identity, despite the repression in their country.

Everywoman's success is reflected in viewer email. "You wouldn't believe the feedback we get," says Ghosh, "particularly from the Middle East and North Africa, where women are often seen and not heard. Issues affect them greatly, and they have no one to turn to."

US cable networks still refuse to carry AJE. But in addition to it's regular broadcast, plus availability on the satellite network JumpTV, every episode is posed on the AJE channel on YouTube: The network averages 35,000 views each day, ranking it among the "Most Viewed Partner Channels."

Devine conceived the show's format after "being handed a blank sheet of paper and asked to design a woman's show." She based
Everywoman in part on the 60-year-old BBC's Woman's Hour; where she once worked. "But really," she says, "Everywoman was inspired by the women in my life and the realization that women can be side-lined." Even so, she debated including "woman" in the title. "When you have a program tagged as 'a woman's show,' there's a preconception," she explains. "But we're right up there with any major-league magazine program." - Aimee Dowel
Maire Devine

More than 80 feminist groups are condemning a new constitution being drafted behind closed doors to replace this formerly secular nations' current one. Activists want to retain the current constitution's guarantee of equality for all. The new draft deletes the equality clause, describing women as a "vulnerable group in need of special protection." Women's groups demand to be consulted and want more rights, including a provision that the state will use quotas to ensure gender equality.

As of October, nearly 90 women had died due to the year-old repeal of legal abortion in cases of risk to woman's health. Lobbied by the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical pastors, Parliament in 2006 revoked even "therapeutic" abortions - those for medical reasons or in case of rape or incest - with the support of leftist Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Now president of Nicaragua, Ortega had forged a political alliance during his campaign with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. Patricia Orozco, coordinator of the feminist group fighting for reinstatement of therapeutic abortions, says the group has sent 54 appeals to the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional, adding, "[We] have been attacked in the streets when we protest - they have sent the police after us, have beaten us and have harassed us." Gynecologist Ana Maria Pizarro of the NGO Si Mujer calls the abortion ban "a government death penalty imposed on women."

Monica Arac de Nyeko

Monica Arac de Nyeko won the Caine Prize for African Writing with a story about lesbian love, often a taboo topic on the African continent. "Jambula Tree" - described by the judges as "witty and mischievous" - depicts a relationship between adolescent girls in a country where same-sex love is illegal. The Caine Prize, awarded to an African writer published in Africa or elsewhere, bestows $20,000, plus a one-month writer's residency at a US university. Nyeko was born in 1979 in northern Uganda, the site of one of the world's worst, longest civil wars.

A sexist law is under assault from 41-year-old Masae Ito. When she and her second husband tried to register their new baby, they were told the child legally belonged to her former spouse. This is because of an antiquated civil-code law that makes women wait for six months after a divorce to re-marry, and prohibits infants born within 10 months of divorce from being listed in their biological father's family registers. (Japanese law requires the householder - usually the husband - to maintain family registers in additional to individual birth certificates.) Rather than sue, Ito lobbied politicians to change the law: "[Finally] I was allowed to register my child under a new family register without going to court," she said. "But the law itself remained intact, [so] I started my grassroots movement."

According to lawyer Fujiko Sakakibara, the 1898 law, established to ensure "legitimacy" before DNA testing existed, reflects conservative politicians' desire to protect Japan's male-dominated society. Conservatives claim that abolishing the law will destroy family values, encourage divorce and increase the number of "illegitimate" children; some insist women in this situation are committing adultery. Currently, the situation can be mitigated only via a court procedure wherein the former husband testifies the child is not his. But Ito says many women suffer anguish at being forced to ask permission from former husbands. Divorce wounds can be still raw, she notes, and "domestic violence [victims] ... do not want to meet their former husbands ever." Consequently, approximately 3500 children go unregistered annually - which makes them ineligible to apply for national benefits or obtain a passport.

U.N. human-rights experts have declared sexual atrocities in war-torn South Kivu province the worst in the world, going "far beyond rape" to include sexual slavery, forced incest and cannibalism. Sexual violence by rebel groups, the armed forces and national police is rampant throughout Congo, says U.N. special investigator Yakin Erturk. John Holmes, who coordinates U.N. emergency relief operations, claims rape has become almost "a cultural phenomenon." "The justice system is in the deplorable state," Erturk reports, "overwhelmed even by the limited number of cases in which women brave all obstacles and dare to report sexual violence."

Last fall, the government suddenly reversed its plans to legalize prostitution, joining a major European trend to combat sex-trafficking. In 2006, Finland made it illegal to purchase sex from trafficked women; Norway is poised to impose an outright ban on buying sex. Even the city government of Amsterdam has proposed closing more than a quarter of its notorious storefront brothels. In the Czech Republic and the three Baltic republics, pushes for legalization have also been reversed. The lobby to outlaw prostitution has been led by an unusual coalition, including feminist groups and the US and Swedish governments. proponents of the Swedish model, which punishes customers instead of prostituted women, note it has succeeded precisely because it targets those who pay for sex without criminalizing women who are victims of such transactions.

Rigoberta Menchu, the country's first indigenous presidential candidate and winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for advocacy on behalf of Guatemala's marginalized Mayans, has lost her race, finishing sixth in a field of 14. A Quiche Mayan from the highlands, Menchu speaks a language unintelligible to other Mayan groups. Do to conflicts among Mayans, she needed to win Mayan voters like any other outsider. Furthermore, "lots of men don't want a woman to boss them around, and especially a woman president," said Delores Ratzan, a Tz'utijil Mayan tour guide. Menchu, who established a foundation for Mayan communities with her $1.2 million Nobel Prize money, later invested in a pharmaceutical chain. During her campaign, she was accused of not helping her people and of being wealthy.

The government says it will review new job-appraisal forms requiring women civil servants to document details of their menstrual cycles. The personal ministry appealed to the health ministry following complaints that the forms were grossly insensitive, requiring women employees to list "detailed menstrual history and history of LMP (last menstrual period) including date of last confinement (maternity leave)." In another development, a new government study reported that more than half the country's children are subjected to sexual abuse, mostly by parents and relatives, but few ever report the assaults. Last year the government banned employment of children under age 14 in domestic, hotel, restaurant or tea-shop work, where children were often subjected to physical, sexual and mental abuse.

United Kingdom
British newspapers recently reported on women who deface sexist images in ads on the tube (subway) - stickering messages on posters for plastic surgery, images of emaciated models and ads eroticizing little girls. Writing in The Independent, Hermione Eyre exulted that "something that started out as a very informal group - on Facebook, for goodness' sake - had been elevated into 'an underground movement;" Eyre joined a Facebook group, "Somewhat Strident But Who Cares?" founded by a woman friend. Soon, she wrote, "three hundred, then 500 of us had joined... which made it seem a lot less shrewish, somehow. Facebook is a social utility and, suddenly, it was... useful." Stickered messages include: "You are normal. This is not!" and "Special couples' deal: Boob job, penis surgery and double lobotomy - only £3,666! Book now!" American's, take note.

Sources: BBC News, Inter Press Service (IPS), The Guardian Unlimited, The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Irish Times, The Independent (U.K.).

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