By Iqbal Tamimi
While compiling academic evidence about the prevalence of gender discrimination in media organisations and gender segregation policies, I came across a good number of reported incidents and news articles, which left me with firm belief that the fundamentalist Muslims and fanatics Jews, have so much in common when it comes to gender discrimination.
A story published on September 11, 2012 by "Emilie Grunzweig" on Haaretz newspaper, the reported gender discrimination at "IBA" Radio, Israel’s Broadcasting Authority, which has opened a synagogue for IBA employees. But women employees were shocked to discover that they had no place for them to pray at the synagogue, because it had no women's section. Being an Orthodox synagogue, men and women cannot occupy the same space during services.
IBA said the criticism was unfounded and defended its stand by the following reasons: ‘Due to a lack of rooms in the building where the synagogue is located, and because few women attend prayers, and because there is no demand’. IBA explained ‘If there is demand, a wall will be built in the synagogue to divide it into a men's section and a women's section.’
Regarding the rights of non-Jewish, the IBA declined to respond to questions by the journalist on whether there are prayer chambers for employees of other faiths.
The people who run media organisations are part of their nations at large, and their decisions are influenced by their social and religious upbringing. In Israel, 56 Mehadrin buses in 28 cities operated by public transportation companies run sex-segregated buses, where female passengers sit in the back of the bus and enter and exit the bus through the back door, while the male passengers sit, enter and exit through the front part of the bus. Israeli media reported a number of times about incidents where an Ultra-Orthodox Jew riding a bus insisted a woman vacate her seat and go to the back.
Religious communities create their own rules within countries around the world. In USA, New York City authorities threatened to shut down The Private Transportation Corp, a city bus service run by Orthodox Jews that make women sit at the back of the bus. The B110 bus runs through the sections of the borough of Brooklyn that are heavily populated by Orthodox Jews
Some -but extremely few- Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox parishes practice gender segregation during mass, with men and women worshipping in separate halves of the church.
It is quite clear that there is evidence of systematic gender discrimination among religious groups at places of worship, and at media organisations. As an example, IBA confessed that it has allocated the only room available to worshiping for men, claiming that its decision was based on the fact that few women attend prayers, even though there has been no place allocated to women to support such excuse or validate such claim.
I have personally worked for almost 17 years at media organisations in the Middle East, all of which adopted segregation at prayers chambers if there is enough rooms to allocate a place for each gender, but if there weren’t enough rooms, the priority has always been offered to men while women are told they can pray at their offices, or any room tucked or used to store things away.
The only exception was when I worked for 6 years at al-Arabiya television channels at Dubai Media City, owned by Saudi Sheikh Waleed Al Ibrahim. The five-story building had prayer areas allocated for practicing Muslims of both genders on the ground floor.
The women’s chamber was equipped, furnished and had the same space and facilities as the chamber allocated for men, even though the number of practicing Muslim men was far higher than that of practicing Muslim women. This is not due to discrimination in employment policies based on gender in general, but rather another kind of hidden discrimination, since a high percentage of employed women were from liberal Lebanese background, mainly Christians.
Media organisations can find its ways to hide their discrimination policies against practicing women. For example, although al-Arabiya Channel had almost 50% women employment, the management favoured ‘liberal’ looking broadcasters. No veiled practicing Muslim women were chosen to appear on its screens neither as broadcasters nor as reporters, but were allocated for supporting roles only, such as research, production routines, coordination and office work, where they can be heard but not seen. None of the veiled Muslim women employed by al-Arabiya Channel were ever chosen to represent the company at media festivals, conferences, forums or awards ceremonies.
I have to mention that there was no chamber allocated for al-Arabiya employees practicing other religions. Possibly because of their comparatively small overall number compared to Muslims and the diversity of their faiths. There were employees of different Christian sects, and non-Muslim Asians from different beliefs. But I would suspect the main reason was due to the fact that the channel receives financial and logistical support from Saudi Arabia, which does not permit establishing houses of worship for non-Muslims on its territory.
The above mentioned subject about sexism, reminded me of a visit I have made to a mosque in the British city of Birmingham in late 2006 where I stayed at the house of a Muslim woman living in the city as a guest. She invited me then to accompany her to attend a lecture held at a mosque. The guest lecturer was a Sheikh arriving from Egypt.
Families were arriving at the mosque together. But once they reached the mosque’s gate, men went through the big beautiful main door of the mosque, while women and children went around the back of the building. After entering through the small door at the back, we stumbled with piles of shoes because there were no enough racks for women's shoes in the limited space allocated for women.
The screams of crying little children who seemed unhappy with being squeezed in a limited space with women where nothing interesting available to divert their attention, reflected another alarming signal, that men are considered as more worthy of receiving education in a quiet place where they can listen to lectures without interruptions than women.
I have heard women whispering words reflecting their gratitude towards their men for allowing them to have a break from house work to attend the lecture at the mosque. In return for such granted pleasure, women had to endure listening to an intermittent blurred lecture amid the cries of young children, while fishing for the sound coming from the men’s section through the small gap left in the door, where the men sat comfortably in the main hall while the women were crowded in what seemed like a tin of sardines packed by women and children.
I managed through the slightly ajar door left open to allow the voice of the lecturer to go through, to see men sitting in the spacious, well lit, excellent air conditioned and ventilated hall. While women and children sat uncomfortably in the crowded back room which seemed like a small station for temporary use for different tasks, where the light was poor and there was no adequate ventilation or windows.
While addressing the audience, the lecturer made an offensive remark ridiculing the actions of a group of people from another faith. I tried to object to his remark in an attempt to follow the example of other Muslim women who used to participate at Prophet's discussions councils, but I could not. The distance between the women’s chamber and the guest speaker was too far for my voice to reach him. No microphones were provided for the women's section similar to that arranged for men's.
It seemed that whoever organised the event did not believe women’s views count. But most alarming was women’s attitude, they practiced what I can describe as censorship against each other. When I muttered few words, disapproving the guest's conduct, I found myself surrounded by angry eyes; staring at me with disbelief, disapproving of my attempt to make my voice heard. One of them nudged another while making a head gesture, pointing at my journalism ID that was showing from the side of my hand bag. Even though I am a practicing Muslim woman and wearing a veil, I felt an unwelcomed intruder.
The butter of the matter, it is not acceptable to allocate places for activities or worship exclusive to men, or equip venues allocated to women to a lower standards than those allocated for men, or deprive women from equal access to information and full participation, nor considering men's education a priority while ignoring women's need to access to similar sources and facilities, not in this day and age, and not in democratic societies where men and women are supposed to enjoy equal rights.
And because worship facilities are used for activities other than for prayers such as social, educational and cultural events, I believe our Muslim communities should reconsider their double standards when it comes to enforcing gender segregation, or allocating areas for women's activities or neglecting equipping such areas to the same standards of men's facilities.
Muslim women go shopping, use public transport crowded by people from both genders, talk to salesmen, cashiers, doctors and taxi drivers, but the moment they arrive at the mosque's gate their behaviour change. They lower their heads as if they can’t resist the force of gravity, rushing towards the gate of the women’s section at the rear of the building, hurrying in an exaggerated manner, avoiding the chance of being seen by men.
I have worked with a female journalist at a UAE daily. She became a close friend of mine that she used to invite me to her family weddings and gatherings where I discovered the double life women journalists have to endure in a society that favours segregation. While on duty, we used to interact with all kinds of men while conducting interviews and participating in media activities and debates. But as soon as we were invited to social events, which happen to be all segregated, where men drop their wives, daughters or sisters at the venue and pick them up later when the event is over. She used to cover up all her face by the tail of her Shaleh (the head cover), hiding her identity as soon as she steps out of the car at the party, then she would walk fast past any men around, including her own uncles, without greeting any of them. While when she travelled on work duties abroad, as soon as she arrived at her destination, she took off her Abaya (cloak) and her veil and met the delegation with a suit and without a head cover. These double standards affected the transparency of her work at one occasion, when I discovered the amount of effort she went through to delete every single photo taken at the event where she was unveiled.
Many Muslim men in UK, from a wide spectrum of professions as well, work, meet and converse with women. But once they arrive at the mosque, they start acting strangely. They avoid walking close to women, including their own wives; as if walking close to women is like walking next to a bomb about to be detonated, or risk being sucked by a black hole. But once they are out of the mosque vicinity, they resume their old selves.
It is still mind boggling why women and men would work together at the same desk, yet when it is time for prayers, they should be segregated.
Such behaviours reflect gender discrimination, macho control and shameful double standards, practiced by both Muslim fanatics and Orthodox Jews, who will not walk next to their wives but do not mind them walking on the opposite pavement next to total strangers.
Such discrimination adopted by extremists, reflect women as subordinate, created to obey, provide pleasure and receive orders from men. Women in the view of fanatics should be always in the back row, hiding behind walls, kept in the dark and confined, because they are not seen as equals to men. Such discrimination contradicts equality laws and legislations embraced by civilised democratic nations. I do still remember attending a conference at a hotel in Dubai, where all needed facilities were arranged for the delegates except allocating a praying chamber. And since men, unlike women, can pray anywhere and in the open, I ended up praying in the brooms storeroom.
Iqbal Tamimi is the Director of Arab Women Media Watch in UK