A Critical Cultural Analysis: The Portrayal of Egyptian Women in the Los Angeles Times

Abstract:

The following study is a critical cultural analysis of the portrayal of Egyptian women by the Los Angeles Times. By analyzing recent news stories, the study aims to identify whether articles reporting the experiences of Egyptian women exhibit exclusion, stereotyping, assimilation and/or othering. This paper will take a critical look at themes presented by the texts, such as oppression and the symbol of the veil, and explore how cultural values and ideologies exhibited by mass media shape the depiction of Egyptian women. A variety of news stories about Egyptian women appearing in the Los Angeles Times before, during, and after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 will be compared. Using a critical cultural analysis, my findings illustrate how mass media socializes Americans to accept certain myths and stereotypes that are based on deeply-rooted Western ideologies. These ideologies shape mass media depiction of Middle Eastern women, resulting in portrayals that are not always accurate. By pointing out myth and reality in mass media depiction of Middle Eastern women, perhaps we can better understand ways in which distortions may hinder the advancement of these women both in Egyptian and in global society.

Mass Media Portrayal of Egyptian Women

Egyptian women today are reforming their cultures and authoring their own stories. Tahany El Gebali stunned the world in 2003 when she was appointed as Egypt’s first female judge, and more recently, Egyptian-American Dalia Mogahed became the first veiled woman to hold a position in the White House. During the 2011 revolution that brought down Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian-American freelance journalist Mona Eltahawy reported on the uprising for outlets across the world. The feminist website Jezebel dubbed her “The Woman Explaining Egypt to the West.” In fact, throughout the 18-day revolution, women joined men in Cairo’s streets and shouted into megaphones for social justice as tear gas rained down.

These women are creating a new narrative about what it means to be female in the Middle East. The problem is, as this study will explore, the portrayal of their stories in Western media is often plagued by myths and stereotypes that skew the truth. The social and political strides made by Egyptian women have been overshadowed by stereotypical coverage in the media, which has highlighted their oppression and shaped public opinion of Egyptian women as ‘others’— women drastically different from their Western counterparts.

This analysis of the Los Angeles Times stories expands upon existing research that has examined other major U.S. media outlets; however, it digs deeper by looking specifically at coverage of Egyptian women and illustrates that widespread, deeply-rooted ideologies impact American media coverage, resulting in inaccuracies, stereotypes and myths. The analysis supports the argument that socialization by the media causes consumers to accept myths and stereotypes about Middle Eastern women, including that they are victimized, veiled, or even barbaric. Study implications are important for understanding how distortions portrayed by American media may be hindering the advancement of Egyptian-born women in American and in global society, as well as in Egypt itself.

It is important to understand and recognize distorted portrayals of Middle Eastern and Muslim women because of an increased focus on the Muslim world since 9/11, according to an argument by Nahed Eltantawy (2007). This emphasis has been renewed in light of more recent events, including the November 2015 Paris attacks. Eltantawy writes that the emphasis placed on Muslim women and their roles in worldwide cultures seems to speak to the contrast of their lives with the ideals of western media and culture (Eltantawy, 2007, 1-2). In her dissertation examining the portrayal of Egyptian women by the media since 9/11, Eltantawy examines the stereotypes used by Western reporters to describe Muslim-Arab women and the journalistic practices that contribute to these distortions. The common theme she uncovered in U.S. media was the persistence use of the veil or headscarf to represent all Arab and Muslim women. In many cases, the news stories accompanying these images did not even address women. “Many of these images portray Arab and Muslim women for the American audience as the “other”: different, sometimes exotically mysterious, sometimes backward and oppressed compared to American women” (1). Marci Manley (2009) explains that research into these types of depictions is necessary to discover whether mass media is “propagating a negative stereotype of oppression of Middle Eastern women that could influence Americans’ perceptions” (Manley, 2009, Introduction).

Cultural Analysis and Media Representation of Minorities

To understand why stereotypes appear in media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, it is important to explore the cultural factors that drive their development. Ott and Mack (2011), single out what might be culture’s most important trait—it is ideological. According to Ott, the “attitudes, practices, and artifacts of our everyday lives encourage us as individuals to interpret the world according to certain frameworks of culturally based knowledge” (126). Ott explains that ideologies tend to take up roots within a culture through myth, doxa and hegemony. Drawing on Roland Barthes’s theory of ideological dominance, the authors explain that myth is a higher level of meaning for an object, be it an advertisement or video game. Similarly, Pierre Bourdieu’s doxa refers to the “constructed aspects of a culture that its members do not really challenge or critically reflect upon” (130). Lastly, hegemony occurs when a particular ideology “wins” and take a place of dominance over other ideologies (131). Related to these theories, Ott refers to Raymond Williams’ proposal that every culture is governed by a “structure of feeling,” which Ott explains is “the subtle nuanced aspects of a historical culture, those aspects not obviously or completely captured in the artifact of a society.” However, he suggests that structures of feeling become apparent when there are social changes or discussions of culture with members of outside cultures (134).

Deborah Spitulnik (1993) argues that there are numerous angles for approaching mass media culturally, even anthropologically. Her article Anthropology of Mass Media suggests that by approaching aspects of mass media anthropologically with an examination of culture and its inherent ideologies, researchers can answer questions such as: does mass media represent and shape cultural values in a given society? Spitulnik explains that although cultural studies have suggested that mass media act as “vehicles of culture, and as modes of imagining and imaging communities,” the ideological functions of mass media have focused on media texts, such as newspapers and books, “with the common assumption that media’s meaning are to be found in media’s messages” (Spitulnik, 1993, 294-295). She presents the beginnings of scholarship which argues that textual analysis is excellent for “establishing possibility,” but that it is incomplete without an analysis of media production, the political economy and social history of media institutions, and society’s media consumption. Mass media, she asserts, are “at once cultural products and social processes, as well as extremely potent arenas of political struggle” (297).

According to Ott and Mack, cultural studies scholars interested in minority representation by the media should investigate how a culture’s racial ideologies help determine the structure of media texts. This type of cultural analysis shows how these texts reflect hegemonic racial ideologies and encourage ideals of “whiteness” as the status quo. Ott introduces a set of concepts that are relevant within American culture: exclusion, stereotyping, assimilation and othering. Exclusion is the “process by which various cultural groups are symbolically annihilated…through under-representation in the media” (Ott & Mack, 2010, 139). Stereotyping occurs when “misleading and reductionist” representations of a racial group attempt to define the entire group by a few characteristics (140), while assimilation happens when media texts “represent minority groups in a positive light while simultaneously dehistoricizing or stripping them of their cultural identities” (141). Othering is the marginalization of minorities by comparing them to the white majority, “which is assumed to be the natural order” (145). Othering is particularly difficult to identify in media texts since it relies on “unquestioned ideological assumptions about race and culture that we use to make sense of our world” (145). Exoticism, a manifestation of othering, is the attempt by media texts to romanticize or mystify other cultures, while removing their “contemporary political agency by constructing them as primitive, unintelligent or animalistic” (146). The following analysis will look at the use of stereotyping, othering and exoticism in current media portrayals to highlight the simplistic and often belittling nature of Egyptian women’s depiction in the press.

Analysis: Los Angeles Times coverage of Egyptian women

Stereotyping, othering and exoticism were all present in recent news stories by the Los Angeles Times. The 2009 article “Egyptian women confront sexual harassment“ by Anna Johnson portrays Egyptian women as victims of daily sexual harassment in the streets of Cairo, while emphasizing that the victims are often women who wear the veil. Johnson cites research showing that more than two-thirds of the women reporting abuse “wore traditional Muslim head scarves or robes. Some even wore a flowing body-length black burka, with veil and gloves” (Johnson, 2009). The article tends to exaggerate the situation, describing women as afraid to walk city streets and taking up self-defense classes all over Egypt.

Similarly, the 2013 Los Angeles Times article “Fear and loathing: The promise of the revolution is at risk as sexual assaults increase” by Reem Abdellatif reports violent sexual attacks against women, and some men, that occurred during recent protests in Cairo. By stating that women are attacked even when conservatively dressed, and reasoning that men are sexually frustrated by the restrictions of Islam and Egyptian society, the article points to differences in Egyptian society. Abdellatif sets the actions of Egyptian men apart from what his article implies are more deviant, but perhaps less primitive reasons for sexual harassment in the West. The article emphasizes the symbolic otherness of the hijab when it describes an Egyptian victim of sexual harassment as the “girl who was stripped of her veil” during an attack. However, Abdellatif does not paint women as totally passive: “Instead of yielding to intimidation, women have come back in greater numbers, filling the streets with calls for change.” Though adhering to typical stereotyping of Egyptian women, the article follows the trend of the post-revolution story and tends to depict a mixture of both women as victims and strong, independent women seeking more rights.

Both articles portray Egyptian society as the “other,” or “socially and cognitively inferior to white, ‘civilized’ society” (Ott, 146), where the everyday lives of women in Egypt stand outside the normalcy of Western ideals. Johnson’s article even warns American women not to travel in Egypt without a male escort. Although both articles are about women being harassed in Egypt, they explore in depth the reasons why men harass women and provide unnecessary details about the dress (conservative or western) of the women they harass. Although these stories do not negatively portray women, they do emphasize stereotypes held by the West that all Middle Eastern women are veiled, conservative, victimized, and dominated by men in their daily lives. Ott states that “stereotyping establishes the hegemonic norm of whiteness by largely reducing realistic or affirming images of racial minorities” and creates an inaccurate depiction of the group to consumers of media texts (140-141).

A Look at the Associated Press and Major TV Networks

Despite media’s common use of stereotypes, one study found positive portrayals of Middle Eastern women to be common after Westernizing change in a country’s politics. Shahira Fahmy performed a content analysis in 2004 of the depiction of Afghan women in AP photos before and after the fall of the Taliban regime. She suggests that despite signs of visual subordination and framing stereotypes, women were portrayed more positively after the fall of the regime—more “involved, interactive, more socially intimate and symbolically equal to the view”—than in AP photographs taken while the regime was in power. Fahmy points out that while most Western media stories announcing the regime’s fall were ripe with images of women throwing off their burkas, AP photos instead showed images of women continuing to wear the long, black veils in the months after the Taliban’s fall. The photos depict a different side of the liberation that Fahmy says does not necessarily fit the expected outcome and ideals of the West. “The media finally recognized that coverage and traditions were culturally rooted and could not easily be changed” (Fahmy, 2004, 92). Sometimes the actions and voices of Middle Eastern women are stronger and louder than the Western ideologies that cloud media coverage with distortions and stereotypes.

Fahmy points out that pictures taken after the fall of the regime show significant changes in camera angles, including framing, focus and depictions of women’s roles to represent a more positive image. In many of the photos, the photographer seemed to position themselves closer to their subjects, which gave the photos a more realistic and less mystical or exotic appearance (95, 102). She argues that this “reflects more of a change in the attitudes of western media than in the situations of the Afghan women, as culturally rooted traditions are not easily changed” (106-107). Still, Fahmy cites examples of media’s tendency to “over simplify and decentralize foreign affairs to the public by finding symbols that match with western ideals about appropriate social policies while most often ignoring native symbolism” (109).

Similar to this study’s findings in the Los Angeles Times, Manley (2009) found that the depiction of Middle Eastern women on major TV networks (ABE, CBS, NBC) and cable were more often negative than positive. The burka, Manley illustrates, was almost always used as a tool to depict Middle Eastern women in a negative way—backwards and oppressed by men. The hijab, however, was depicted as either neutral or positive in 63 percent of the stories (Manly, 2009, 63). Manley cites the Brookings Institute report that found 3 million Arab Americans and 6 million Muslim Americans living in the U.S. She suggests that the hijab may be seen by news as more acceptable since it is common among groups in the U.S. She states, “The need to ‘other’ women who wear the hijab may be less, because the hijab has ties to certain American populations” (67). Akin to stories in the Los Angeles Times, Manley found that Middle Eastern women were depicted as “victims of their cultures” and differences in experience were often ignored by journalists and “replaced with a generalized depiction of an existence of oppression” (68)

Manley’s analysis of stories depicting Iraqi and Afghan women after the fall of the regimes also found that “women were more often depicted as active, though they were simultaneously cast as victims or escapees” (68). This was exemplified in several of the Los Angeles Times articles covering protests during recent years in Egypt. For example, the article “Protests raise hope for women’s rights” (King, 2011) describes how women picked up megaphones and shouted out chants that were passionately repeated by men in the audience. Women participating in the protests, King writes, were “treated with an unaccustomed respect.” However, these droves of women who braved police brutality and camped out in Tahrir Square are also described as being afraid of crowded public places where they risk sexual harassment. Moreover, King points out that the young women interviewed for the story wore the hijab. He speaks of a revolution in the ways Egyptian women are perceived, but it is a mixed bag of stereotypes and myths in itself.


Analysis: Positive vs. Negative Portrayals in the Los Angeles Times

The analysis of the Los Angeles Times articles found increased positive representations of women in articles published after the Egyptian Revolution compared to more negative portrayals in articles published before the uprising. For example, long prior to the Revolution, the 1993 article entitled “Egyptian society shaken by ‘husband killers’” by Kim Murphy, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, discusses the individual cases of 17 Egyptian women who murdered their husbands in brutal ways during the 1990s. The article describes horrifying details of the killings for a spectacle effect, but fails to mention that the women suffered prolonged physical and emotional abuse by their husbands until the last paragraph. Murphy finally explains that some of the women, faced with economic, legal, and societal restrictions that often trap Middle Eastern women in abusive relationships, felt they had no other way out. However, early in the article, Murphy writes that one of the ‘husband killers’ was simply a “bored and lonely” woman who killed her husband on the first night of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, which implies that she did it to spite Islam. The article states that a housewife, “struck her husband on the back of the neck with a butcher knife while he was praying…” In a separate case, Murphy fails to give context to an example of an Egyptian woman who killed her American husband and fried parts of his dismembered body in a skillet, implicating that Egyptian women are an oppressed group driven to a murderous psychosis even outside of Egyptian society. The article goes so far as to mention an Egyptian column that warned Egyptian men of the dangers of going home to their wives (Murphy, 1997).

In contrast, Molly Hennessy’s reporting from Cairo for the Los Angeles Times during the 2011 revolution exemplifies a shift towards more positive portrayals of Egyptian women during times of social reform and strife. One of Hennessy’s stories explores “virginity checks” that occurred during the uprising when several female demonstrators were “beaten, strip-searched…and forced to submit to a procedure that supposedly determined if they were virgins” (Hennessy, 2011). In this article, Hennessy writes that women were camping along with male protestors in Tahrir Square, drinking and using drugs—the opposite of earlier articles that paint Egyptian women as a picture of Islamic conservatism. The photo that accompanies this story is of a woman wearing a hijab, but her face is exposed and the hijab is bright and colorful. This picture contrasts the black burkas and hijabs that typically represent Middle Eastern women in American media, shrouding their faces in mystery. Unlike some of the pre-uprising stories by the Los Angeles Times that mostly quoted secular authorities in Egypt, this article gave women a strong voice throughout. However, the story is again based on an issue where women are victims.

The Los Angeles Times stories discussed the role of social media during the Revolution, describing the participants as “youths;” in-depth discussions of women’s roles as consumers and producers of media were rare. However, a 2010 article about a popular Egyptian radio show highlighted women who break the normal stereotypes. The article (Hassan, 2010) is about a secular radio show that discusses topics once considered taboo for women to talk about publically such as sex, dating, and relationship advice. The article, however, states that the show is limited to “an elite class of Egyptians with Western taste,” implying that Egyptians who embrace Western values are “elite” and less primitive than their more conservative counterparts who identify more closely with traditional Muslim culture. Still, the article does portray the women as individuals who freely voice their opinions. In “From Veiling to Blogging: Women and Media in the Middle East,” Eltantawy (2013) argues that uprisings in the Arab world have introduced images to the media of Middle Eastern women who are active participants in social media and other online media. For Eltantawy, this speaks further to the importance of understanding the influence of media’s depiction of women and the ways that it may be impacting women in the Middle East as consumers and producers.

Some more recent stories in the Los Angeles Times seem to return to the conventions of emphasizing otherness as the images of Egyptian women yelling into megaphones grow dim. The April 2014 Los Angeles Times article entitled “Egypt girl’s death after genital excision leads to unprecedented trial,” which recently went viral on social media, portrays genital mutilation as a daily occurrence in Egypt. The article, paired with a photo of a woman in a black veil with only her green eyes showing, describes the villages skirting urban areas where the act of genital mutilation most often happens as “distant as the moon” and “medieval” compared to civilized societies (King, 2014). The article depicts women as weak, dominated, and oppressed, exemplified by this quote from the cousin of the Egyptian girl who died following the procedure: “‘She didn’t want it,’ said a cousin by marriage, Fotna Mohamed, who, like most local women, was veiled and clad in a long robe. ‘But she understood she did not have anything to say about it.’” Eltantawy (2007) notes that Western news coverage exaggerates the nature and frequency of tribulations faced by women in the Middle East. She states, “Issues like genital mutilation…receive a lot of Western media attention, yet the coverage usually lacks proper context and thus strengthens the frame of the victimized and helpless Muslim/Arab woman.” (Eltantawy, 373).

Critical Conclusion

It appears that the journalistic convention to highlight the bizarre, the shocking, and the “other,” dominates coverage of Egyptian women in the Los Angeles Times. These stories outnumber those that portray more positive aspects of women’s lives in Egypt. This cultural analysis shows that Western ideologies and stereotypes are present in the Los Angeles Times news stories about Egyptian women before and after the Egyptian uprising. The overall depiction of Egyptian women is a mixture of negative and positive stories, with more positive stories occurring around the time of the uprising. Overall, the analysis shows that Egyptian women are depicted in a very homogenous way and almost always as victims of a backwards culture or religion. However, as Eltanaway (2007) notes, “portrayals of Muslim women are far more complex than mere distortions and stereotyping.” During the uprising, the voices of women protesters in Egypt were not ignored by the Los Angeles Times, possibly because of their particular prominence. Depictions of Egyptian women as modern, strong and educated were most common around the time of the revolution. As Williams’ theorizes, the Los Angeles Times’ “structure of feeling” did seem to deteriorate most during social change in Egypt. Perhaps this was because journalists brought themselves closer to their subjects, some gaining information directly from correspondents in Egypt.

The overall homogenous depiction of Egyptian women is likely due to the socialization of western journalists. According to Eltantawy, the cultural upbringing of Western journalists often involves the socialization of myths that lead to their unconscious use of stereotypes in news stories. She argues that journalists are “highly influenced by an ideological and cultural framework that conditions his/her reporting on the ‘other’” (Eltantawy, 2007, 378). When information passes through a medium such as a news story, it is translated through the writer’s experiences into symbols (Ott, 2010, 12). It is because some symbols are “selective, privileging some aspects of the thing being represented at the expense of others, they function as filters.” Ott suggests that mass media, as our key source for information, “filters virtually every aspect of our world, shaping both what we learn and how we learn” (12).

Because biased media content socializes us “to care about some issues and not others, to see those issues from some perspectives and not others, and to adopt particular attitudes toward the perspectives it presents,” analyses such as this are important to point out the ideologies, myths, and stereotypes that we internalize as media consumers. In the case of Egyptian women, this study shows that we are overwhelmingly subjected to the stereotype that all Egyptian women are the same—weak, oppressed, and dominated by their male counterparts. On the other hand, during times of revolution and uprisings, we are told that women in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East put away their cultural traditions for a more “civilized” approach, even removing their veils—the West’s symbol of their difference.

This analysis of Los Angeles Times articles illustrates that there are deeply-rooted ideologies, or doxas, that have become part of journalistic conventions when reporting on Egyptian women. Perhaps these women appear to be so different from women in the West; therefore, we have created symbols and stereotypes to help us understand them, rather than truly seeking understanding. The reality is that Egyptian women do have commonalities, but they wear as many different hats as Western women. Future research would benefit from examining how the Western media representation of Egyptian women may be hindering their progress within Egyptian society. If Western media representation has influenced news coverage within Egypt, and if our own myths and stereotypes have socialized Egyptians to Western ideologies, it could perhaps mean advancing the very problems American journalists are keen to write about.

 

Bibliography

Eltantawy, N. M. “U.S. newspaper representation of Muslim and Arab women
post 9/11,” PhD diss., Georgia State University, 2007.

http://search.proquest.com/docview/304876086?accountid=10920.

(304876086).

Eltantawy, N. M. (2013). From Veiling to Blogging: Women and Media in the
Middle East. Feminist Media Studies Special Issue: Women and Media in
the Middle East, Vol. 13, no. 5 (2013): 1.

Fahmy, S. Picturing Afghan Women: A Content Analysis of AP Wire Photographs
During the Taliban Regime and after the Fall of the Taliban Regime.
International Communication Gazette, Vol. 66, no. 2 (April 2004): 91-112. http://gaz.sagepub.com/content/66/2/91

Manley, Marci. Framing the Foreign Feminine: Portrayals of Middle Eastern
Women. American Television News, Vol. 10 (2009): 60-69.

Ott, B., and R. Mack, Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Blackwell
Publishing, 2010.

Spitulnik, D. (1993) Anthropology of Mass Media. Annual Review of
Anthropology, Vol. 22 (1993): pp. 293-315.

Los Angeles Times Articles Cited

Abdellatif, R. “Fear and loathing in Egypt.” The Los Angeles Times, February 10,

  1. http://articles.latimes.com/keyword/egyptian-women

Hassan, A. (2010, July 18). “English-language radio Nile FM gaining popularity

as shows deal with once-taboo issues.” The Los Angeles Times, July 18,

  1. 2010. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2010/07/egypt- english-language-radio-nile-fm-gaining-popularity-as-shows-deal-with-

once-taboo-issues.html

Hennessy, M. “Egypt: General admits protesters subjected to ‘virginity tests’.”
The Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2011. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2011/05/egypt-general-
admits-protesters-subjected-to-virginity-tests-.html

Johnson, A. “Egyptian women confront sexual harassment.” The Los Angeles
Times, April 5, 2009. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/05/news/adfg-egypt-harass5

King, L. “Egypt girl’s death after genital excision leads to unprecedented trial.”
The Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2014.
http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-egypt-genital-excision 20140422,0,1294758.story#axzz307sigrp7

King, L. (2011, February 2). “Protests raise hope for women’s rights in Egypt.”
The Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2011.

http://articles.latimes.com/2011/feb/02/world/la-fg-egypt-women-20110203

Murphy, K. (1993, March 22). “Egyptian Society Shaken by the ‘Husband
Killers’.” The Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1993.

http://articles.latimes.com/1993-03-22/news/mn-13912_1_lady-killer