In unequal Middle Eastern societies, women face great barriers to enjoying their human rights. SAT-7 ARABIC recently asked women a vital question: How do they feel about this? Their answers were striking – and inspired by their words, Needle and New Thread is helping viewers bring about change.
Violence in the home. Discrimination in job markets. Harassment in the streets.
Women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) experience restrictions and threats in many areas of life. But in a region where human rights are often routinely disregarded, how do women themselves feel about the pressures they face?
In preparation for the new season of the popular women’s show Needle and New Thread, SAT-7’s researchers decided to find out. They conducted a survey into the perception of women’s rights across Arabic-speaking countries. Of the 14,289 respondents, 9,674 were women, 3,537 were men, while 1,078 did not reveal their gender.
Yearning for freedom
In the replies from women there was a clear desire for progress to triumph over tradition.
A resounding 73 per cent said that they wanted to see changes in society so that women could enjoy greater freedom. Only 35 per cent said they were satisfied with the opportunities they currently have in their lives.
However, the percentage of men who felt they had a duty to control their women’s behaviour – 72 per cent – almost exactly mirrored the percentage of women wanting to see change. For the men, the major concern was that women should conform to community norms and values and protect their and the family’s reputation. Some 56 per cent thought that women should keep their bodies covered, and 46 per cent thought that men should control women’s social lives.
Many of the women’s responses also showed a surprising gap between the desire for progress and their views on common, real-life situations.
For example, although 42 per cent had experienced domestic violence from their husband or a male relative, only a third said they would report it. Instead, they felt that women should be patient and not risk a family member going to prison or bring dishonour on the family.
Less than a third of women felt it was unfair for a daughter’s inheritance to be half the size of a son’s. (This is a ruling within Islamic law that originally improved women’s rights but today contrasts with more egalitarian rights that women have in secular countries.)
Learning and sharing
The latest series of Needle and New Thread again aims to live up to its name by helping its female and male viewers examine and unravel inherited views. By raising awareness of a range of human rights – including freedom of religion and belief – it seeks to help women find new threads by which to live fuller lives.
However, says SAT-7 Development Manager Nicoletta Michael, the programme does not dictate to viewers. “Rather, it shares with them the true stories of how people have overcome challenges,” she says. “It gives them the strength and the power to advocate for themselves.”
Needle and New Thread itself gives women a powerful platform through which they can share their own experiences. In the latest series, the team is increasing its on-location interviews with women in their homes and its reports from more isolated, rural areas. The aim is to share as wide a range as possible of women’s experiences, be as practical as possible and give a voice to women of all social classes as they address issues together.
Over four previous seasons of the programme women have courageously shared their deepest feelings and most difficult truths.
“Every time somebody ventures to call us and tell a personal story, I am amazed at how brave these people are,” says Maggie Morgan, the show’s producer.
“We have such a big responsibility to respect people’s stories and to speak truth to them,” she continues. “And the truth is that everybody has value – women and men, young and old … and everyone has potential.”
Individual episodes this season are covering topics like a woman’s right to freedom of movement, to make choices without coercion and to work in an environment free from discrimination.
Special segments will cover domestic violence, the right to choose a marriage partner and the freedom to choose what to wear.
The seeds of change
“We want to contribute to changing people’s attitudes and opinions,” says Nicoletta. “It’s not that we are trying to break social laws, but some common practices, such as FGM, are harmful to women, so we need to inform our viewers.”
Nicoletta also acknowledges that programming such as Needle and New Thread is no “quick fix”.
“We want to plant a seed,” she says. “We are working on the individual level, enabling women to feel they have a safe place to hear this information. If the women of today, the mothers of today, are able to raise their boys and girls with a different mindset – that will be a huge achievement.”