Changing the story for Arab women

A new SAT-7 TV series is part of a major five-year project that aims to help women and girls in the Arab world enjoy the freedom and dignity they deserve as people made equally with men by God.

It’s “a huge and humbling undertaking,” admits SAT-7’s Project Lead, Maggie Morgan, but the Gender Equality and Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) initiative is rooted in grassroots research and the experiences of women living in Egypt today.

“Throughout the first year, our team has worked hard on project activities to ensure we involve and listen to people in the communities,” Maggie explains. “We also engaged theologians on the issue of women in the Church and interviewed many women who have ‘everyday stories’.

“Through our television programme and targeted social media campaigns, we then ‘scale up’ these activities and research – to reach more women and girls.”

The project’s first activity focused on gender-based violence and education. Theatre workshops were held with teenage schoolgirls in Cairo. As they reflected on their experiences, many spoke of regular beatings or verbal abuse from their parents for bad grades and being made to undertake domestic work instead of study.

“Pain is good for me”, shared one participant. “When Baba (Daddy) hits me, he wants me to be a better person.”

These stories fed into a follow-up social media campaign, Trivial Not Trivial, which focuses on seemingly small tasks that girls and women are either forced to do, for example making tea when they should be studying, or shamed for doing, for example, wearing tennis shoes.

Religious dimension

The project recognises, sadly, that religious beliefs – in church and mosque – can play into the restrictions women face.

“I have come to realise that Freedom of Religion and Belief is much more important than I had thought in the lives of the women and girls,” Maggie continues. “Women often accept unjust life situations and practices (FGM, domestic violence, lack of education, lack of free speech, limited freedom of movement, high restrictions on what to wear) because they are sanctioned by their respective religious beliefs.

“Some of the women we interviewed defended oppressive practices saying that ‘this is what God wants’. It is important to tell people that the most important questions they can ask themselves are: ‘What do you believe? How do you see God? Have you ever examined the beliefs passed down to you?’”

Engaging leading theologians, thinkers and Christian content producers from different church denominations was a priority for the project. Participants made recommendations including strong encouragements to focus on the life-changing way in which Jesus treated women and on the sharing of biblical texts that champion women.

Life stories

The new SAT-7 series, Today Not Tomorrow, is a central tool in the project – one that Maggie, director of the previous long-running show Needle and New Thread, is ideally equipped to translate into compelling television.

The programme includes powerful stories of women of different ages and backgrounds that prompt discussion. Maggie says they “exemplify the breadth of how women and girls in Egypt and arguably, across the Middle East and North Africa, are living restricted lives, stemming from beliefs and practices that have never been examined and rarely challenged.”

Lamia Sayed is one of the women who tells how she broke with the normal practice in her community and allowed her daughter to continue her studies. She explains how an encounter with God on Mount Sinai made her realise that the creator of such beauty could not be one who oppresses women.

Audience responses to the show are telling. Amal, a viewer from El Minya, said, “I really enjoyed the programme. I’m getting in touch because I know many ladies who are struggling and contemplating suicide because of how they perceive themselves and how the community has conditioned them to see themselves.”

On location

A novel and important aspect of the series is that much of it was filmed with a stage set on the back of a truck, located in a different village or town each week.

“Filming in local communities has drastically changed the work that we do, Maggie explains. “When we are filming in a village, lots of calls come in from that village. Some villagers said that the presence of the crew, presenters, and project team was a catalyst for villagers to rethink practices. There have been surprises too, such as meeting Youstina, who has now become one of our presenters. Despite her restrictive religious and village community, she has stood up to oppressive traditions. She is awesome!”

New elements of the project this year include community screenings of the TV series, social media spaces for women, and social media content for men that encourages positive masculinity in the Arab world. Please pray that God will use this initiative to change attitudes in ways that will help both women and men to flourish.

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