- Heya TV:A Feminist Counterpublic for Arab Women?
The changing media landscape in the Arab world at the beginning of the twenty-first century is said to be creating new social and power dynamics in the region.1 New forms of media, particularly transnational satellite broadcasting and the Internet, are providing new spaces for diverse and critical views of contemporary life in the region and putting forward diverse role models from across the political, social, economic, and religious spectrum, as well as expressing diverse opinions on issues pertaining to everyday life. In these new communicative spaces, not only is the number of women working in and represented in media visibly increasing, but public discussions about so-far taboo subjects concerning women, such as domestic violence, Islamic law, and honor killing, are also substantially rising. Though the changing media landscape in the Arab world has attracted attention inside and outside the region, particularly since Al-Jazeera was thrust into the international spotlight with its reporting of the post–September 11, 2001, U.S.-led war on terror, it is still rare to see analyses of the altered landscape for public communication that regard the changing climate for the empowerment of women and that take into consideration the social, cultural, and political dynamics operating from the inside and the outside.2 It is particularly significant to take account of such dynamics in the Arab context, where the expansion in media industries and increasingly privatized ownership, media's intersection with local and global political, social, economic, and cultural powers, and the role of the different forms of new media in the politicization of culture remain largely understudied.
The question of whether these changes are contributing in one way or another to improvements in women's social conditions continues to be hotly debated. While some argue that Arab women are among the winners in the shift in power relations because of the antihierarchical nature of new technologies and the nature of satellite television as the mass medium par excellence,3 the obstacles facing women in their attempts to capitalize on the media as a powerful tool for transforming discriminatory practices are numerous. These obstacles can be found at the institutional level, where prevalent negative gender attitudes are blamed for women's low participation in the media industry, and at the social level, where the Arab media's reproduction of prevalent gender discriminatory attitudes has had a negative effect on women both as users of and as subjects in the media. [End Page 513]
Against these concerns, this essay focuses on the Lebanese satellite broadcaster Heya (Arabic for "she"), the first pan-Arab television station among 205 Arab satellite channels to specifically target Arab women audiences, according to an estimate published in April 2006.4 With a potential overall audience of about 100 million women across the Arab world, who according to Heya's chief executive Nicolas Abou-Samah represent a little over 50 percent of total television viewers, Heya launched in 2002 with the objective to address the position of Arab women through its various programs catering to diverse tastes among diverse women, from the career to the stay-at-home woman, from the old to the young, and from the religious to the secular.5 Any serious discussion of Heya's contribution to the incorporation and/or empowerment of Arab women in the largely male-dominated Arab public would not be entirely complete without addressing competition from other broadcasters in the region: the interplay between the national and the transregional and the problems associated with Heya TV addressing its audience—the Arab woman—as a homogeneous collective. However, this essay argues that two key considerations make Heya relevant for an analysis of the changing landscape for gendered public communication in the Arab world and for assessing what counts as the political.6 The first is that Heya publicly defines itself as the platform for Arab women—its programs are interspersed with a promotional blurb that reads, "Heya TV, the Arab woman's channel: now there is an address for every Arab woman" (my emphasis), providing the first pan-Arab female public platform or a counterpublic in which women's voices...