15 December 2017

A Voice for the Unequal Half

raChristian Satellite Television by and for the People of the Middle East and North Africa

The situation in the Middle East and North Africa has been dominating our news headlines over the last 18 months. We watch from a distance and pray for indications of longed-for improvements in Arab nations, where every member of society enjoys equal rights and freedoms.

Will the changes have any impact on the status of women in the region, the unequal half? There are some signs of progress. In Tunisia, the birthplace of this revolution, the 2011 elections required that party candidate lists alternated between men and women – resulting in around 4,000 women running. In Egypt, presidential candidates made concerted efforts to win the vote of women. In fact, a handful of women were appointed as MPs in the first parliamentary elections under the new order.

These are good but frustratingly small steps towards the empowerment of women in a society where men traditionally hold the upper hand – politically, legally, economically, educationally, and socially. The perception commonly held in the West that women hold a lower status in the Middle East is frequently borne out by the experience of millions of Arab women.

The United Nations Human Development Report 2005 on The Rise of Women comments, somewhat presciently, that, “At a time when the Arab world needs to build and tap the capabilities of all its peoples, fully half its human potential is often stifled or neglected.”

raGranted, the picture for women is not entirely grim. Many Arab women have distinguished themselves in business, science, the law, education, and politics. But the vast majority of women and girls in this patriarchal culture face challenges that their brothers, husbands and sons do not:

• In some countries women receive little protection from the legal system.

• Educational opportunities can be severely limited; a girl is three times less likely to attend school than a boy.

• For the majority of Arab countries, between one third and two-thirds of all adult women are illiterate – one of the world’s highest rates.

• Domestic violence is common and often culturally accepted.

• In some parts of the region women are severely restricted in their movements and cannot leave the home without a close male companion. In Saudi Arabia women are not permitted to drive.

• Women living in remote regions are often unaware of their rights and of the services available to them. Often, they do not possess the papers, such as birth certificates, that would permit them to receive such services.

• Lack of education and gender discrimination combine to keep the percentage of employed Arab women at only one-third, the lowest in the world.

The Church as the Body of Christ is instructed to especially look after its weaker members. In the Middle East and North Africa women are among the weakest members of society. Whilst many indigenous churches and mission agencies are endeavouring to reach and serve Arab women in a variety of ways, what of those women who are never likely to meet a Christian, who spend long hours secluded away at home, or who live in remote parts of the region? How are they to be reached with the message that they are equal in God’s eyes? Who is going to tell them that God loves them, values them and has a plan for their lives?

Let me introduce you to a ministry called SAT-7. Over the last 16 years, this Middle Eastern ministry has been creating and broadcasting Christian television programmes for its Arabic, Turkish and Farsi speaking audience. From studios in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Cyprus, SAT-7’s mainly Middle Eastern staff is committed to broadcasting positive messages of hope and the freedom to be found in Christ to every member of society, including women.

The strategic medium of satellite television allows SAT-7 to reach viewers in lands hostile to the Gospel, including those closed to traditional missionary activities. Its wide range of programmes encompasses Bible teaching, acts of worship, current affairs, entertainment, social development, documentaries and much more.

Arab women and satellite television

Satellite television is immensely popular in the Arab world. Around half the population in the region – some 250 million people – has access to it. It is unhindered by physical or political barriers, reaching people in their own living rooms regardless of where they live – the skyscraper in Dubai or the Bedouin tent in Algeria. People are hungry for the uncensored information it brings them, news that may not be available on their state-run TV channels. And for the illiterate – over 30% of this region’s population – it makes news and information accessible to them in a way that print media and the internet don’t.

Being frequently confined to their homes in many parts of the region, television is particularly important to women. Unsurprisingly, illiteracy rates among women are higher than men so television is often their sole source of information. Sadly, in many instances, satellite TV can have a very negative effect on the status of women. Commercial Arabic channels display the female body as a market commodity. National and religious channels, in reaction, present a traditional patriarchal, and equally oppressive, image of the ideal woman.

SAT-7 presents a different image of the Arab woman. Each of its five channels broadcasts a variety of programmes in which women are portrayed in a positive light. Bible teaching programmes enable women to view themselves through God’s eyes. Magazine shows and documentaries tackle issues such as violence in the family, communication between husbands and wives, mutual consent marriages, women’s rights, female circumcision etc. These programmes are extremely popular and generate a lot of response from viewers.

One Arab woman contacted SAT-7 to say, “I have been touched very much by the Biblical teaching on honouring women, which is very different from what I have been hearing all my life.” SAT-7’s programming policy is driven by the realities faced by women in the Middle East and North Africa, and promotes Biblical values that help women understand their true identity and that they are equally loved by God. The programmes give a voice to Arab women and encourage them to play active and diversified roles in society. By promoting godly principles and demonstrating Biblical roles and relationships for members of Arab families, SAT-7 hopes to help minimize the current widespread level of social, and even spiritual, prejudice against women.

‘Bent el Malek’ (Daughter of the King) is one programme that is having a positive effect on the lives of its female viewers. This magazine-style show addresses issues that face the women of the region, bringing the light of God’s word into every situation. In response to this programme, Nadia in Egypt emailed SAT-7 to say, “My life has changed because of the programme “Bent El Malek”. I am really blessed to know how valuable I am. I was raised thinking I am not worthy and all my life I’ve heard negative words from society, friends and even from my family.

Thank you for helping in healing me. I am no longer sad because I know that I am the daughter of the King. I have learnt to see myself through God’s eyes and He doesn’t see me lacking anything because of His grace. A heavy load has been lifted off my shoulders! I am free and healed because of Jesus’ blood.”

More than a struggle for human rights, SAT-7’s goals are to improve the selfworth of women and the dignity and respect seldom afforded them in the Arab world.

For more information about SAT-7, visit www.sat7uk.org.

WORDS Ruth Lancaster