Beating Up the Already Battered: Modern Arab Media’s Role in Bullying and Harassment

Naomi Pham
Left to right: Rabia al-Zayyat on her program “Over 18”; a Lebanese woman poses with her face painted with a red hand during a demonstration against sexual harassment in the Lebanese capital, Beirut (AFP); Malek Maktabi on his program “Red in Bold-Face."

Harming, intimidating, or mocking the vulnerable are familiar behaviors; some have witnessed the abuse from afar, while others have experienced it. We used to think of bullying as something that children do in the schoolyard, and ideally something they learn to stop after reflection and normal maturation. But beyond the playground, bullying and harassment serve as standard practice in fields like modern media. Arab media and television promote harmful and offensive depictions to impressionable audiences for higher ratings and money. Media networks also give platforms  to regressive messages that cause both emotional and sometimes physical harm.
Bullying and harassment perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination while desensitizing the public to inhumane behavior. Arab comedy frequently uses bullying and harassment for “cheap laughter,” using jokes about physical bodies, dialects, and even disabilities. Audiences devour the content with no social awareness, normalizing and giving these comedians more fuel to continue. These comedians exploit people “in the name of comedy, whose true concept has been lost amid the crowd of foolish laughter… from all parties, the spectator and the marketer of these acts that violate human values,” said Hakim Marzouki in Al Arab newspaper. They spared no groups of mockery in comedy and cinema alike, including children, the elderly, and using the poor as material for humor. Comedians often ridicule particular dialects, customs, traditions, and the physical features of different races of people. Some go as far as casting animal abuse and child sexual abuse positively for jokes.
Arab media is not alone in its use of bullying rhetoric for viewership. However, according to Marzouki, it seems to have focused on such tactics, whereas Western media has moved forward because of awareness and sensitization campaigns. The actor Muhammad Sobhi commonly joked about curvy bodies, tall height, and enormous noses in works like “Takhareef” and “The Joker,” as cited by writer Shaima al-Esawy in Al Modon. The film “The Danish Experience” mocked the character Baha for his weak build and androgynous appearance.
Transgender actress Hanan al-Taweel died in 2004 at age 38. They speculated that her death was suicide stemming from mental illness exacerbated by harassment for her physical appearance and deep voice. These behaviors go against human decency and respect for human dignity and result in deadly and tragic outcomes.
Comedians, actors, or other individuals with sizable social presence use their platforms and inadvertently or knowingly justify emotional and physical abuse. Celebrities who cannot handle the topics with the gravity they deserve propagate issues like sexism and sexual harassment in the Arab world. Recently, two programs have proved counterproductive to gender equality in Lebanon, promoting domestic violence by normalizing its occurrence.
Last year, Rabia al-Zayyat aired an episode about domestic violence in her program “Over 18” on the Lebanese Al Jadeed TV channel. The promotional clip advertised on her Twitter page posed the questions for debate: “Is it permissible for a husband to beat his wife? Do you agree with the saying, ‘The beating from the beloved is like eating sweet raisins?”
The program sparked outrage, airing just after Lebanon’s 16-day campaign against gender-based violence, which began on November 25 with the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women up to December 10, Human Rights day. The campaign aimed to raise awareness about gender-based violence on local, national, and international levels and work towards restoring women’s rights to choose, marry, divorce, have custody and inherit. These rights are currently all prohibited by the religious personal status laws. 
ABAAD, a resource center for gender equality in Lebanon, aired clips on Lebanese TV channels and social media to highlight domestic violence, harassment, and rape against women. The campaign expressed, “It’s always time to talk about women’s safety” — but programs like Zayyat’s ‘Over 18” suggest the abuse of women is a hot topic for viewership rather than awareness.
“The question ignores survivors and victims around the world to turn violence against women into a viewpoint,” according to Maryam Seif El-Din in Al Modon. “The question ignores the struggles led by women who challenged patriarchal authority and the patriarchal system, and suffered to extract from Lebanese legislators the recognition of their right to live through a law criminalizing domestic violence.”
Activists and critics claimed the TV program’s poor handling of the subject set the fight for gender equality a step back. One comment claimed Zayyat had neither the experience nor skill to do justice for women and address their issues. Using the topic as a “buzz” to bring high viewership did the opposite in bringing awareness to social media users, as cited by Seif El-Din. Social media user Layal Haddad wrote that Zayyat “took the discussion about violence back to square one… women in Lebanon, through long and exhausting human rights and journalistic struggles, could move the primitive discussion about their rights to a somewhat advanced place in media discourse. Rabia al-Zayyat takes us back to the early 90s when violence against women was a common occurrence, and the media normalized it,” as cited by Seif El-Din.
Zayyat deleted the original Tweet and republished the clip with an updated caption condemning violence in response to the backlash. However, the video and episode’s content remained the same, featuring opinions encouraging violence against women along with abusers explaining the methods they used to beat their wives. Men blamed women for their abuse, and women justified their abuse by blaming themselves for upsetting their husbands.
Like Zayyat, Malek Maktabi’s program “Red in Bold-Face” on LBCI normalized domestic abuse, where some men proudly advocate for the killing of unmarried women who have lost their virginity, as well as interviews with women who are content with being beaten. One woman said that violence was “the right of a man over his wife, who is her “lord” on earth after the Lord of Heaven,” according to Seif El-Din. Her perspective was contrasted with another woman’s, Nahil, who urged women to fight against their abuse and elevate their positions through education.
Lawyer Laila Awada states media professionals who raise violence against women for discussion “seem to be unaware of issuing a law criminalizing domestic violence and toughening the punishment against its perpetrators, which shows a lack of knowledge of the issue, or worse, ignoring its developments.” She continues, “Violence against women is a crime and is no longer an opinion, and the media cannot deal with it impartially as if it were an opinion… They invoke extremist and obnoxious opinions that provoke society to achieve high viewing.”
More and more, sensitive topics and people’s dignity are trivialized for entertainment value in Arab media, regardless of the harmful messages projected and normalized to large audiences. The enormous outcry against these programs gives hope that society will stop ignorantly trampling over vulnerable voices and instead work towards changing the normalization of harassment and abuse.
Translations and edits from Arabic by Elie Chalala.
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