Ebtihal Mahadeen, Women and the Media in Jordan: Gender, Power, Resistance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ebtihal Mahadeen (EM): The book is an attempt to weave together academic necessity with personal and political interest in questions of gender dynamics in/and the media in Jordan. I worked on it during the pandemic and multiple strict lockdowns, so it feels also like a personal triumph of sorts!
I have always felt that research on Jordan is a bit lacking, in the sense that it can be easily charted across a few distinct lines of inquiry to the detriment of others—gender and media studies being some of the latter. It is a bit of a black hole in so far as there is very little academic research that applies a feminist, critical lens to questions of gender and the media. For example, to my knowledge, there are no comparable books that explicitly and singularly focus on gender-media dynamics in the country. So this book is my attempt to address this gap and to contribute to correcting the bias that does exist in academic literature on Jordan. It is also partly motivated by a personal (and political) desire to engage critically with these questions, being a Jordanian scholar myself, having been brought up in Jordan, and having worked in Jordanian media in a previous life. My entire academic career has been centered on unpacking and understanding gender issues in Jordan, particularly as they manifest through the media. So it made sense to fulfil these various desires and impetuses in a monograph.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EM: This book provides a feminist, critical study of how gender power relations are played out through and across multiple mediated arenas in contemporary Jordan. It departs from an understanding of the status of women in Jordan as highly charged subjects, and a view of the media as not just a locale where tensions play out, but also as an important arena for contestation and resistance. So, in this work I examine the dynamic relationship between women and the media in Jordan as it manifests at three key levels: labor, representation, and activism. To this end, I engage with wider issues such as the political economy of the media, regulatory and legal frameworks, the economic participation of Jordanian women, the history of Jordanian feminist activism, gender-based violence, and the political context of the Arab Spring in Jordan.
As a feminist scholar and a Jordanian, I hope to contribute to an understanding of how gender dynamics shape media messages and the mediascape in Jordan, and how those in turn shape gender relations, be that by reinforcing and perpetuating gender inequality or contesting and challenging it. My approach here is to select case studies to unpack the complex role of legal, political, and social factors in shaping women’s relationship to the media. Throughout, I prioritize and center the experiences of women and highlight their agency, disobedience, and efforts to negotiate and resist the limitations imposed by Jordanian patriarchy. In doing so, I illustrate how gender, power, and resistance interplay through and within Jordanian media.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EM: The book builds on my previous research, which has always been located at the nexus between gender and media studies. My previous research has covered such areas as representations of femininities and masculinities in Jordanian media, as well as questions of media hegemony, activism, and the gendered politics of culture. But the book also consolidates this research and, in my view, is the fruit of all that previous work.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EM: I hope the book is useful to researchers and students working within the fields of media studies, gender studies, Middle East studies, and feminist media studies. Beyond the strictly academic, I hope the book is found useful and enjoyed by media practitioners, those concerned with women’s rights in Jordan, and the Jordanian public.
While this is an academic text, I have made a conscious attempt to make it as accessible as possible, and have selected my case studies with care to ensure the analysis is relevant and impactful beyond academia—which I find often to be interested in only speaking to itself. I am hopeful for this book to reach a broader audience, as my findings can be carried forward to inform policy and practice both in Jordanian media institutions and at the level of women’s rights activism.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EM: I am currently in the planning stages of another book project that, again, centers women’s experiences and voices. This new project does this in a different way, however, through listening to Arabic-speaking feminist interventions and debates (in translation). This means a turn away from strictly media-focused and Jordan-focused research, and an opening up of my work to broader geographical and thematic areas. I am very excited about this new project as it will contribute to debates on decolonizing feminism(s) and will play its part in de-centering White, Anglo-European discourses on women’s rights and feminist activism.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-11)
Why write about women and the media in Jordan? For one, there is a dearth of feminist media research focusing on Jordan and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region more generally. Jordan, specifically, seems not to capture the attention of many scholars of media studies or gender studies whose work otherwise focuses on neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria. In contrast to its neighbours, Jordan is a country renowned for its political stability and ability to survive in a turbulent region. Yet despite the relative lack of turmoil and conflict (both very attractive to researchers of the MENA), the country makes for a rich subject of study: a patriarchal, conservative, Arab and Muslim-majority country with a rich history and a dynamic social makeup as a result of changing economic conditions, waves of refugees, ever-evolving internal and external political dynamics, advanced information and communication technologies, a booming media scene, and an overwhelmingly young and educated population—this profile makes for an interesting subject of study indeed. Specifically, the interplay between gender and media in Jordan is worthy of study. It is often in mediated locations that we can observe assertions and contestations of gendered power through dominant and counter-discourses, activism, and even institutional and self-censorship. Similarly, it is only by taking a critical, gender-sensitive analytical lens to the workings of the media that we can truly unpack how it functions, in terms of the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern it, its political economy and employment practices, as well as its messages and representations.
Like other Jordanians, I witnessed the country undergoing deep social, economic, and political transformations in the 1990s and 2000s. During this time, great strides were made towards improving women’s access to economic opportunities and some progress was made on their legal rights as well. Yet to say that Jordan is a patriarchy is stating the obvious. But what concrete evidence do we have to diagnose Jordan as a patriarchy? This is not a rhetorical question, especially at a time when the articulation of a gender equality agenda elicits the seemingly jokey, but deadly serious response that I have often heard in Jordan: “women have all the rights they need, now we should demand rights for men!”. So what evidence do we have that Jordanian women do not, in fact, “have all the rights they need”? What is happening at the legal, political, economic, and social levels that would expose such dismissive responses for what they are: false? What does it mean to be a woman in Jordan?
I, along with other Jordanians, also witnessed the rise and diversification of Jordanian media first-hand. We witnessed its transformation from a very limited offering of official, state-owned television, radio, and newspapers that spoke in the name of the state and conveyed its viewpoint, to a booming landscape of online and traditional media that now includes privately owned satellite television channels, news websites, tens of radio stations, and numerous publications. Early investment in the infrastructure and education needed to build and sustain information and communications technologies and a push to put Jordan on the map with the advent of the internet meant that rapid developments took place and private investments flourished, especially in internet provision and online media. Yet, counterintuitively, legal frameworks governing Jordanian media and those relating to freedom of speech did not keep pace with the technological developments that occurred and, indeed, heavily impacted on the potential and the scope of Jordan’s expanding media scene. The waves of modest opening then rigid pushback against media freedoms continue unabated, and the country’s international ranking in media freedoms and freedom of expression have suffered as result.
As a feminist scholar and a Jordanian, I hope to contribute to an understanding of how gender dynamics shape media messages and the mediascape in Jordan, and how those in turn shape gender relations, be that by reinforcing and perpetuating gender inequality or contesting and challenging it. To this end, in this work I introduce a number of analyses that each focus on a specific angle of the women-media interaction. I present this book as a concise, non-exhaustive tour of the key issues I argue are paramount to understanding the spectrum of dynamics between women and the media in Jordan, these include legal and regulatory frameworks, the political economy of the media, media labour and its gendered nature, feminist (and anti-feminist) media activism, representations and discourses, and the political utilisation of the media and patriarchal gender norms.
In Chapter 2, I start with a discussion of the Jordanian mediascape through highlighting the key milestones that have shaped it. This dynamic, contradictory mediascape is highly responsive to the political, economic, and social context in the country, and to advances in technologies and infrastructure. It is also extremely sensitive, and indeed in many ways restricted by regulatory and legal frameworks that are themselves bound to domestic, regional, and international dynamics. I make a concerted effort to link, where possible, these frameworks to the political economy of Jordanian media and I show how they have a direct impact on it, leading to concentrated ownership, poor employment practices, and real obstacles to achieving geographical parity and content diversification.
In Chapter 3, I turn my attention to building on this preliminary overview to a more detailed investigation of the experiences of female media professionals. Based on qualitative interviews, this chapter provides a gendered analysis of the conditions of these women’s employment, covering the obstacles they face within the media sector. Not surprisingly, female media professionals face obstacles similar to those of other working Jordanian women: balancing their careers with their family life, sexual harassment, pay discrimination, and restricted career progression, among others. Yet they also face a unique set of limitations due to the unique set of demands their media careers make of them. To shed light on women’s experiences, I interviewed twenty-one female media professionals in the summer of 2017 to gain a better understanding of their experiences working in Jordanian media. My respondents were diverse in terms of their specialisations (TV, radio, print and online media, media education and research) and at different stages in their careers. I was keen to dig deeper into their experiences, and unlike previous studies, carved out space for their voices rather than just reporting numbers and statistics that conceal much. Through this fieldwork, I found that these women had varying readings of their place within the media sector, but that their shared experiences were of discrimination and fighting against the odds, purely because they were women who had chosen to pursue careers in the media.
In Chapter 4, the analysis focuses on feminist media activism that builds on but departs from traditional, more formalised, feminist activism and innovates through its use of the media. Here, the emphasis is on understanding how Jordanian feminists have carved out counterpublics and resisted moral panics designed to silence them. The case study selected for analysis is the 2011–2012 emergence and publication of an anti-harassment video under the supervision of the late Dr. Rula Quawas, of the University of Jordan, and the subsequent moral panic and wave of counter-feminist activism led by social and religious conservatives. The intermeshing of “appropriate Jordanian femininity” and Jordanian identity is of particular relevance to the analysis, as long-established discourses on authenticity, foreign intervention, and sovereignty are recycled to discredit feminist activists. Tensions between liberals and conservatives are also relevant, especially given the dynamics at play during the Arab Spring and the modest gains made by Jordanian women.
In Chapter 5, I analyse the way the Jordanian state deployed the ideology of honour through various media channels to silence female political dissidents. In this effort to understand state-media-gender dynamics I find overt and covert cases of this strategy, including the high-profile case of Enas Musallam in 2012, and accounts from various female activists who reveal the myriad ways they have been intimidated, harassed, and trolled by state agents in order to stop their political engagement. The consequences of these covert and overt campaigns illuminate the contradictory position the Jordanian state holds both towards gender equality and female political participation, and point to a real discrepancy between the Jordanian state’s declared position and its actions on the ground.
In Chapter 6, I focus on changing media discourses and representations of honour-related femicide, otherwise known as “honour crimes”. Here, I select two moments of analysis. The first is 2008–2010 media coverage of multiple instances of honour-related femicide in news items and opinion pieces (published in Arabic), as well as readers’ comments and journalists’ and writers’ statements given in personal research interviews. This work draws on elements of my PhD thesis. The second moment of analysis is a 2020 case study of a single crime that ignited much media and public interest due to its gruesome nature. This is not a direct comparison between the two, but rather an attempt at sketching a rough outline of how discourses on honour-related femicide have changed over the years in response to consistent (and sometimes controversial) activism and pressure.
This book is thus a concise exploration of different facets of women-media dynamics in Jordan. The aim here is to illuminate choice moments of interaction between the two, to unpack the mechanics of gender, power, and resistance that exist therein, and to open the door for future explorations. The chapters in this work can be read individually as stand-alone case studies, or collectively as component parts of a larger picture of women-media interaction in Jordan. In the concluding chapter, I weave them together by identifying the commonalities that emerge from the analyses, and I sketch out possible future lines of inquiry.