Denouncing media insufficient to combat Orientalist stereotypes

Author's Note: Asmaa and Naji are fictional characters epitomizing the victims and perpetrators of arranged child marriages. Underage Asmaa’s arranged ...

Author's Note: Asmaa and Naji are fictional characters epitomizing the victims and perpetrators of arranged child marriages.
Underage Asmaa’s arranged marriage to a man four times her age makes the evening news once again in Copenhagen, Zurich and Antwerp. Sensationalized, emphasized and capitalized, Asmaa’s unfortunate predicament transcends the level of the personal and amasses a political weight. And it is already clear who the perpetrator is: it is not Naji, the 58-year-old pedophile seeking to consummate his harem quadrumvirate with a minor; nor is it her father, who has married a second wife with the sizeable dowry he received for Asmaa. No, the answer is clear: the Arabs are at it again.
Meanwhile, the intelligentsia of Arab nations are furious and steaming, writing angry letters to editors of Western media outlits, trying to contain their rage within the character limit of a tweet and raising their voices on international news shows. Protesting the racial profiling that was set in motion by extensive coverage of what they call an isolated case. They argue that the news stories seek to bring forth the most unflattering aspects of their society in an effort to besmirch the reputation of their culture, creating a link of causation between evil and their ethnicities. They argue that ultimately, it is all a Eurocentric conspiracy to legitimize the occupation, exploitation and destruction of the Arab World by desensitizing Western audiences to the foreign evils inflicted on Arab society; while the savagery of Arab Society has been consolidated thanks to media coverage.
And here I must interject with a question: Are certain evils caused by social factors?
If an underage girl can be married against her will to a man due for retirement in two years, to be joined by three other women who have encountered a similar fate, and if all this can be silently accepted by her neighbors and friends, then it must be concluded that something is deeply flawed in this society. Is this an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the Arab world? Absolutely not. I do not wish to say that the occurrence of such evils is determined by the shape of one’s eyes or the tone of one’s skin but instead by social norms, which are dynamic. Take slavery for example. Once accepted as a legal and acceptable motor for the Southern U.S. economy, slavery evokes feelings of contrition and indignation from most U.S. Americans today. This brings me to an obvious conclusion: culture is not timeless, but malleable.
The news coverage of Asmaa’s forced marriage is certainly not conducive to a favorable image of her society and may even serve as a ‘pep talk’ for bigots and racists to uphold their mission civilisatrice in the Middle East. But must she be silenced for the good of her society like the eight engaged girls she gathered with before her wedding?
This silencing has been done too often. It appears to me that there is a certain lethargy to the approach of subaltern journalists addressing this issue, for they respond with irrelevant articles that seek to portray lifting this taboo as an act of flagrant xenophobia. These voices disappoint me because they are too afraid to stunt the growth of injustice at its root, scared of the repercussions that might ensue by transcending the taboo. Perhaps these sensationalized accounts are exactly what our society needs, since the few voices that have the forums available to speak up are too occupied with the threat of an injured reputation to voice their condemnation. These injustices thus become Oriental evils because we perpetually miss the chance to denounce them, delegating this task to foreigners, who label them as Arab evils, as they often find insufficient self-criticism on our behalf and assume that we find these injustices acceptable. What allows such injustice to thrive is the lacuna of self-reflection and criticism, the bases of all reform.
Though I agree that media coverage of Oriental evils will often appear like a matter of naming and shaming, which is mostly the case, it has an eye-opening effect. Only with a strong flow of negative feedback can we correct the abuses of human dignity inflicted upon innocent individuals on a quotidian basis. Certain social paradigms have become normal, and it is only through emphasis that we can scrutinize them, denounce them and, hopefully soon enough, eliminate them.
The accounts of injustices occurring in the Middle East that are propagated in the mass media often seek to sensationalize the events rendered, however to denounce their role in reinforcing stereotypes, while ignoring the underlying issue, does little to solve the problem at hand.
For too long have we been intimidated by the taboo. Perhaps now it is time to confront our inner demons and question our morality, rather than defending that which we have blindly accepted and avoided for generations at a time. I hope to see a day where we no longer lower our heads in the face of foreign admonishments and condemnations but can find the courage to make heard our indignation at acts we find repulsive.
Ashraf Abdel Rahman is a contributing writer. Email him at
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