Christina paschyn, a lecturer of journalism at Northwestern University based in Qatar (NU-Q) recently published an in-depth report for Chime for Change about a local taboo that prevents Qatari women from appearing in published photos and on television. Chime for Change is a new global campaign, funded by Gucci, which focuses on raising funds and awareness for female empowerment.
“Here, journalism is viewed negatively as a profession,” says Paschyn. “It is considered low paying and not prestigious. In addition, many locals are wary of the media. They do not necessarily trust journalists to get the story right or are afraid their quotes will be misconstrued, changed or used against them.
“Qataris I’ve interviewed also said that Qatari people in general are ‘shy’ and try to avoid unnecessary media exposure. However, it is more acceptable for a Qatari man to appear on TV and promote himself in the media than it would be for a Qatari woman.”
These are the main reasons why many locals prefer not to pursue a career in journalism. Nevertheless, NU-Q is attempting to change all this by teaching the new generation exactly what journalism entails; in other words, that reporters can be trusted if they are trained with high standards. In addition, it is also crucial to educate young people about the importance of the role the press plays in their country and the world.
Interestingly, Paschyn’s research revealed that television appearances by Qatari women have not always been rare to non-existent.
“Historians found that in the early 20th century Qatari women were willing to pose for photographs or paintings drawn by foreign travellers,” she says. “In addition, decades ago, Qatari women even appeared in films and TV soap operas. But their presence and visibility in visual media has diminished.”
For instance, Paschyn recalls that professor Amira Sonbol of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar explained to her during an interview that historically, the upper classes in Islamic societies veiled and restricted the movements of their wives and daughters. They also adopted strict gender segregation and norms. However, Sonbol said that this had not been common in early Qatari history. However, the discovery of oil in Qatar in the late 1930s led to an explosion of the country’s economy, with much of that wealth flowing into the pockets of the local population.
That, in turn, hardened gender norms and ensured a cultural proscription against women from appearing in publicly disseminated photos, news or social media, and on TV. Sonbol claimed that this could have been a consequence of the process of class formation, and local families’ attempts to assert their new higher social status.
“Other scholars I spoke with suggested this taboo also might be a pushback against encroaching Westernisation and globalisation,” Paschyn says.
In other words, this means many Qatari women who appear in print media or on camera risk family disapproval.
“When I interviewed Qatari women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, a large number said the reason they won’t appear in visual media is because they don’t want to dishonour their families’ reputation and expose themselves to nasty gossip,” Paschyn continues.
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