Arab entertainment is romanticising misogyny and femicide

The Arab entertainment industry is romanticising misogyny and femicide
6 min read

Tharwa Boulifi

20 July, 2022
Arab popular culture has long trivialised women's rejection, discomfort, and harassment in the name of humour or romance. Now, as a spate of femicides shock the region, we must question the narrative coming from our TV screens, writes Tharwa Boulifi.
Egyptian protesters hold up placards and shout slogans during a demonstration in Cairo against sexual harassment on February 12, 2013. [Getty]

Last week, the murder of Naira Ashraf, a 21-year-old Egyptian woman, by her male classmate, rocked Egypt and the Arab world. The killer’s motive was Ashraf’s rejection of his marriage proposal and romantic advances. Over the last several years, domestic abuse and gender-based violence have become highly debated topics in MENA societies.

However, femicides are still perceived as isolated incidents, and have not received the same attention as other forms of gendered violence. Yet numbers and facts prove otherwise; the same week that Ashraf was stabbed to death, two Arab women from Jordan and UAE were murdered by men in a similar fashion.

Femicides are by no means exclusive to the MENA region. However, according to the UNDOC Global Study on Homicide in 2018, the African and Asian continents had the highest numbers of annual femicides, with 19,000 and 20,000 respectively. Aside from implementing legislation guarantying women’s safety, MENA feminist activists’ main goal has always been to change the traditional Arab mindset.

Ever since mass entertainment mediums, especially television, became accessible to the masses, the entertainment industry has played a major role in establishing culture, values, and norms. Hence, movies and TV series have contributed to shaping gender dynamics, perceptions, and roles. Throughout its history, the Arab entertainment industry has reinforced biases about the inferiority of women and conveyed misogynistic ideas, both through comedy and drama.

Egypt is considered the “Hollywood of the Middle East” due to its continuous and thriving cinematographic production. For a long time, it has held a monopoly over the region’s entertainment industry. Generations of people in the Arab world were influenced by the widespread Egyptian soft power through pop culture.

Born and raised in the MENA region, most of the entertainment content I was exposed to while growing up was Egyptian. In my grandparents’ house, our large family across generations would gather to watch an Egyptian movie or series. The collective euphoria around the “Hollywood of the Middle East” didn’t leave much room for reflection and criticism. As I got older, I became aware of the link between the entertainment industry and women’s oppression in Arab societies.

Sexual harassment has always been a recurrent theme in Arab comedy. Women’s discomfort, frustration, and fear when chased by a man gazing at their bodies, touching them, and making sexual innuendos is considered stereotypically humorous material. Generally, harassers are wealthy older men, whereas the laughing stock are young women economically inferior to these powerful men.

As a child, I was already normalising this misogynistic humour since adult women in my family found it amusing too. Prominent comedy actors, such as Egypt's king of comedy, Adel Imam, promote this type of humour by starring in movies focusing on the comic dimension of sexual harassment, such as in Morgan Ahmad Morgan (2007), where Imam portrays a wealthy businessman sexually harassing a renowned college professor, performed by Mervat Amin.

Arab comedy also often trivialises men’s aggression after rejection. In Saye Bahr (2004), Ahmed Helmy insults his fiancée and her family for ending their engagement. Such scenes pass over in silence, under the pretext of humour, appreciated by the audience who finds male actors charming and funny.

After the trivialisation of violence and degradation of women in its different forms, these movies and shows often end with a marriage between the two main characters. In Morgan Ahmed Morgan, the college professor, who resisted at first the businessman’s harassment, marries him eventually.

Such happily ever after endings only teach girls and young women to ignore their discomfort with harassment, since they’ll get used to it. They also convey a message to boys and young men that they can have anything they want, even when they’re being disrespectful, and that their insistence will be rewarded.

In parallel, drama movies portray romanticised stories of one-sided love and heart-broken who will do anything to win a woman’s love, even resort to violence. In 2015, in the Egyptian movie Awled Rezk, Reda Rezk portrayed by Ahmed Ezz shouts under his loved one’s balcony that he’ll kill anyone who thinks of marrying her, and will disfigure her if she accepts.

In 2019, in the second movie of the trilogy, Reda Rezk marries the woman he loves, then threatens to beat her and her mother up when she asks for a divorce. Possessiveness, constant harassment, and death threats are perceived as heroism and a sign of virility since a ‘real man’ doesn’t give up on the woman he loves.

Thus, violence against women is romanticised and justified in the name of love. Such representations distort the perception of healthy romantic relationships for young people. Men are allowed to be violent, as long as it’s about their virility, whereas women should bear their anger and abuse because it’s a sign of love. Stereotypical movie endings involving either a happy wedding or tragic homicide flatter men’s egos while simultaneously telling women that they have only two options: marry your abuser or get killed.

Beyond the movies and TV shows, celebrities themselves reinforce this culture of misogyny and abuse. Through their endorsements and standpoints as influencers, they play a major role in impacting mindsets.

Najwa Karam, a prominent Lebanese singer, once stated her disapproval of feminism, since it’s threatening “men’s masculinity” and women’s rights are “getting out of control”. Mohammad Assaf, a Palestinian singer, said that he wouldn't let his sister pursue a singing career, since it’s against “Palestinian customs and traditions”.

The Arab entertainment industry has both constructed and reinforced a deadly culture of misogyny across the MENA region. Now, more than ever, saying no has become a luxury many Arab women can’t afford, out of fear of ending up the next victim in a murder headline, soon forgotten when the next one comes.

Questioning and supervising entertainment content consumed by youngsters is the most efficient way of creating real change in mindsets since it’s easier to raise a better generation than current generations.

While popular culture can be an effective tool for social criticism, we desperately need more critical engagement with the content that we consume. Creating content that can question the dominant narrative and challenge the widespread misogyny is the most efficient way to effect change in future generations.

Tharwa Boulifi is a Tunisian freelancer who writes about feminism, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Newsweek, the New African, African Arguments.

Follow her on Twitter: @TharwaBoulifi

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.