From Hilary Clinton to the Sarah Palin media frenzy, the topic of “women in politics” has never been hotter. It has even gone way beyond being the subject du jour to being a staple of the entertainment world, dominating political parody shows across the spectrum. At the other end of the globe, with Lebanese parliamentary elections looming ahead and social and political reform being lauded across the region, this is also a campaignable subject in the Arab world, with a host of regional conferences and local talk shows dedicated to it.
The topic has never been more powerfully thrust into the limelight, with the media playing a significant role in bringing it to the forefront, but not always favorably. Although the intended message is to seemingly increase awareness and highlight how women are now, more than ever, poised to play an increasingly important role in the world of politics, the actual discourse and outcome are alas only serving to pull women back.
To start with, coining the topic as “women in politics” is actually a testament to the persistent problem. The proliferation of media segments, articles, and conferences in both the Middle East and the West tackling the subject of “women in politics” can only imply that that there is a need to discuss and debate such an anomaly — almost as if we are debating something as bizarre as “man in outer space.”
This indicates that the core challenge lies in the positioning of the issue itself. This cannot be truer when it comes to women and their never-ending quest to reclaim their rights. For example, for as long as this topic has been debated, the fight has always been about equality with men. Does this mean that men are perfect and complete, and that women are only slowly striving to reach that perfection? Shouldn’t it rather be that a woman should be demanding the rights that are equal to her role in society? Women represent 50% of society and therefore should claim the rights that are commensurate with their role and position. The real positioning therefore should be a struggle for women to be equal to themselves and their potential, rather than wasting energy on fighting with men.
Moving from positioning the issue to communicating it, one needs to look at how the media has been covering the women candidates in the run up to the US elections. Analyses point to the media attacking female candidates based on their gender, focusing more on personal criticism and putting them down more for their appearance, family life or other personal matters. Examples abound from criticizing Sarah Palin that by running for Vice President she is either potentially jeopardizing her children’s upbringing or the position itself, as she cannot both raise five children and run the country, or mocking her as a former beauty queen who wears red lipstick (too feminine) while at the same time she is being made fun of for hunting moose. To belie any possible media partisanship, let’s not forget Hilary Clinton being derided as too cold or tough, whereas a man may never be described this way for the same attitude or actions. All of this only points to the media’s role in promoting the perception that expectations of women politicians are different than what is expected of male politicians. But aren’t they supposed to be equal?
Regarding the role of media in building the political image of women in our part of the world, if what is said is true about the media being a mirror of society, one would really think that all women care about is fashion, makeup, tabloids, video clips, and cooking. Men also have their fair share of publications dedicated to their horses, watches, and sports, yet these are easily balanced if not outnumbered by the many that focus on “the real issues.”
At the same time, regional coverage of female candidates sometimes borders on marveling at an unnatural phenomenon, while seeming to uphold the conception that there is a “woman way to govern.” Whether this is characterized by empathy, and an emotional, more peaceful or even motherly approach, this only reinforces the misperception that women politicians are a different “breed,” which in fact only sets the cause back.
Many would argue that there is only so much the Arab media can do, in the face of the social and religious barriers that women politicians face, overcoming one obstacle only to stumble across another. From female suffrage to the right to stand for election, women now face the challenge of social norms and purposeful religious misinterpretations that hinder their being elected to office.
Despite this, what the media can do is highlight that there is only one way to govern regardless of gender, and that is to agree on one system of values and then hold candidates accountable to that. The real role that media should play is to increase political maturity by highlighting candidates’ political programs and allowing the public to elect the winning politicians and hold them accountable for their performance and certainly not their gender.
In effect, positioning the cause properly and communicating the right messages that can raise awareness and shift social norms will go a long way, yet there is only one factor that can overhaul this cause and catalyze this endless evolutionary journey towards claiming women’s confiscated rights, and that is that women finally shake off their inaction, stop waiting for others’ conscience to kick in and actually make their voices heard, loud and clear.
Zeina Loutfi & Ramsay G. Najjar, S2C