Over the weekend, Viacom launched the new MTV Arabia with much excitement and a publicity blitz in the Middle East that left one’s head reeling. While music videos are nothing new to the Arab market (and quite a few of them more risqué than one would think), it will be interesting to see what kind of impact MTV has on this region. When I think about the effects that it might bring though, I have to admit I am being selfish and thinking more of how it will affect me than the Egyptian society I am living in.
When I get together with other women in Cairo, the topic of conversation almost always turns to the sexual harassment that is a part of everyday life here. No woman is immune, from graying grandmothers to pregnant twentysomethings. Arab women complain of getting harassed to a point as well, but it’s mainly limited to catcalls. That’s what I was prepared for when I arrived here. Catcalls I can deal with, leering I can learn to ignore. But there’s a vibe that’s very difficult to explain but that is felt by many Western women when they are harassed here. The best way I can think of to describe it is instead of getting the usual sense of disrespect and chauvinism, there is rather a clear feeling of proposition and expectation. To try and illustrate this, it’s one thing to be walking down the street with men whistling as you pass. That can be explained away by machismo and bad form. But when a man chases a woman all the way down the street and into her apartment building, then is truly and honestly shocked when she is terrified and angry, there’s clearly a miscommunication going on.
So what is it about Egyptian culture that makes a man grab a woman’s breast on the Metro and think its okay? I think many people would quickly explain it away as a result of a culture that is less respectful of woman or perhaps a problem with Islam or Arab society. I think this explanation is too easy and far too full of holes. I’m going to get uncomfortably close to blaming the victim here and suggest that Western woman are harassed because of the way they are portrayed by Western culture.
We’ve checked movie listings several times here to see if any good American movies are playing. We have yet to see one. Everything shown here falls into two categories: horror film sequels where the female characters are either Paris Hilton in lingerie or senseless other half-naked women who up the body count (invariably after having sex with someone) or violent flicks about Americans going after those Muslim terrorists. I’m not even going to touch the impact that the second genre probably has. But I suspect that these movies, hand in hand with exported American reality TV that shows women living in the Playboy mansion and bachelorettes all sleeping with the same man in hopes of getting chosen by him lead to certain assumptions about American women.
We talk about what impact seeing women portrayed as they are by popular media has on the Young Women of the church. We consider these images when trying to understand chauvinism or the addiction to pornography that plagues so many men. What we don’t think about is what these images are saying to others whose only experience of American women is through American popular media. At least in the US we have examples of and access to women who are not naked sex-crazed bimbos as role models.
A woman in Relief Society was discussing this with close Egyptian (female) friends who knew her well and was shocked when they admitted that they had assumed she and their other American women friends slept around frequently and indiscriminately with no qualms. When this sister explained her standards as a member of the church, she got the sense that her friends did not quite believe her. In speaking to college-aged women in my classes, I have find a distrust of Western women because of these widely held beliefs about their behavior that the women admit comes from what they see on TV.
As an avid fan of Beavis and Butthead from its nascent days and a fierce devotee of Matt Pinfield and 120 Minutes, I’m surprising myself by taking such a conservative tack. But now I’m experiencing the effects of MTV culture and I have to say that our tastes as Americans are hurting our citizens abroad and feeding their objectification and harassment.
Whose fault is this? The American public that tunes into trash like Laguna Beach and The Girls Next Door and makes it profitable or the Egyptian public that imports and consumes it? One can hardly argue that American women are especially chaste and modest as a whole. The reality is that American attitudes towards promiscuity and sex are very different from Egyptian attitudes. So what happens when these attitudes meet?
One of the bigwigs at MTV Arabia was boasting of the 60% of content that would be brought in from existing MTV staples such as hip-hop videos, reality shows and such gems as Cribs and Pimp My Ride (which will actually translate well in places like the United Arab Emirates). He said that he hoped this would act as a culturally unifying force. But when the result of exports such as this is physical harassment and women of different cultures becoming more suspicious and distrustful of one another, I have to say I’m skeptical.