From cooking to controversy, Arab women can tune in
A new Arab TV station the first to target a female audience hopes to reach women in remote villages as well as cities.
From his no-frills offices, Nicolas Abou-Samah is preparing for a revolution. His weapon is satellite television. His mission: empowering women of the Middle East.
After two years of planning, Heya TV (Arabic for "she") will begin broadcasts this summer. Like the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network which gained international recognition for its coverage of US operations in Afghanistan Heya TV will boast celebrity anchors and be based in a Middle East state with relatively little censorship.
But it also will be first station in the region to target a female audience and will air "anything and everything to do with women," Mr. Abou-Samah says.
The station will initially broadcoast on a digital satellite network that currently reaches 6 million viewers. Within the next three years, however, Abou-Samah hopes it will expand to count 10 million women among its viewers from sophisticated residents of big cities like Beirut or Cairo, to illiterate villagers in remote parts of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.
Along with typical programming for women shows about makeup, fashion, modeling, and cooking Heya TV will screen two shows designed as forums for debating restrictions placed on women by traditional culture and Islamic law.
"We want to be controversial," says Abou-Samah. "We will discuss the difficult issues that face many women in the Middle East, as well as Muslim countries like Pakistan and Malaysia."
The new station's signature program, "Too Daring," will run every day at 8 p.m. Each episode will feature a woman who has challenged the region's code of female conduct and a panel of guests who both oppose and support her decision.
Leila Bazzi-Jarrouje, who will direct the show, has herself defied stereotypes: She is a Shiite Muslim married to a Christian Maronite. Ms. Bazzi-Jarrouje is also the executive producer of Lebanon's National Broadcasting Network.
"We will broach sensitive subjects," she says. "It's like putting a finger on a wound. But there is a feeling in the region now that things are evolving, and women's role is shifting. We may not be able to change the mind-set of older generations, but younger viewers can be enlightened about how to open up."
The first program will feature a Lebanese woman named Renee who created a scandal when she posed nude for artists in the 1960s. Renee says she had "lost her relationship" because of her career and now lives alone with her cats.
In most Western countries, such prejudice would be unthinkable. But a woman's virtue is highly prized in the Middle East and, to many, the decision to take off her clothes for money was akin to prostitution. The episode will discuss the line between freedom and cultural insensitivity.
"Too Daring" doesn't seek to reach a verdict on these questions, but to push boundaries and focus on women's changing role. "We don't aim to take a moral standpoint," says Bazzi-Jarrouje. "The goal is simply to present these issues as facts, put them out there for debate."
And the debate is not just about loosening limitations on women.
In its second episode, the show will discuss a 23-year-old Egyptian movie star's decision to swap Western-style dress for hejab, the scarf and long coat associated with Islam defying a trend in her country. Her family and friends were appalled by what they saw as a backward step for women.
Heya TV will also produce the "Morning Show," broadcast from 7 a.m. until noon each day. An Arabic version of "The Oprah Show," it will address serious subjects such as HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, divorce, prostitution, and honor crimes in which male members of a family kill sisters, wives, or daughters who are deemed to have shamed the family, often by having sex outside wedlock.
"Even within the Middle East, women have a difficult time understanding each other," says Bazzi-Jarrouje. "Each country has its own atmosphere. It may surprise some women from Lebanon, which considers itself one of the region's more progressive countries, to learn that divorce laws in Egypt offer women greater equality."
But unlike Oprah where women willingly come before the camera the "Morning Show" will ask viewers to drive the debate by phoning in personal testimonies and opinions, a format designed to overcome particular challenges of the Middle East.
At the very least, many women are uncomfortable discussing such difficult and intimate subjects in public. Some may also fear reprisals if they are discovered promoting controversial change.
Although similar themes are now addressed in women's magazines, television has a special role to play, says Abou-Samah. Illiteracy or lack of access to newspapers and journals locks many isolated villagers out of the print-media discourse.
"Even though many families in the region are poor, television is the easiest and cheapest form of entertainment," says Abou-Samah. "Many families see a television and satellite subscription as a priority."
Censorship shouldn't be a problem as long as the station steers clear of directly criticizing particular leaders or regimes, adds Abou-Samah, whose television production house, Filmali, is known for its innovative programming. And while losses are expected for the first two years, he says, Heya TV ultimately promises good financial returns.
Arabic speaking countries are home to about 100 million female teenagers and women, and Abou-Samah's research shows women make up between 65 and 70 percent of regular TV viewers in the region. "This is a positive start," he says. "We approached advertisers who felt they had a gap in the market for selling high-end products like perfume and jewelry. Most of these advertisements were being sold to magazines, not television, and that was another advantage for us."
The station, broadcast on the digital Nile Sat satellite TV, will run on a tight budget of $3 million to $4 million a year raised through coproductions with regional television companies. It will have a staff of 50, with studios in Beirut and Dubai as well as correspondents in Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and North Africa.
"I'm excited," says Bazzi-Jarrouje. "We are going to push buttons."