Project’s impact “beyond our expectation” in first two years

When SAT-7 launched its Gender Equality and Freedom of Religion or Belief (GE & FoRB) project two years ago, it hoped that a few hundred Arab women would engage with its activities. But a recent evaluation has highlighted much greater demand for the on and off-screen support the project is offering.

GE & FoRB is a five-year project that comprises television and social media programs, online campaigns, and follow-up activities including support groups and counselling referrals. It aims to help women and girls in the Arab world identify and explore how their lives are restricted by cultural and religious practices, and promote their freedom and dignity as people made equally with men by God.

Its flagship program, Today Not Tomorrow, is aired weekly on SAT-7 ARABIC and social media platforms. The show, which is now in its second season, has tackled topics including discrimination, relationship challenges, male roles, mental health, and various questions about faith. One social media segment featuring Palestinian theologian Dr Grace Zoughby attracted a million views on Facebook.

Feedback from viewers indicates that the program is helping Arab women to challenge the status quo. Hanaa from Egypt said, “I learned that circumstances can change; there are a lot of people who fought and were able to change their lives.” Another viewer from Egypt, Dua, said that the program features “realistic stories that encourage us as women to overcome difficulties”.

OFF-SCREEN IMPACT

But it is GE & FoRB’s off-screen impact that really stood out to the SAT-7 Egypt women’s team leading the project. A spokesperson for the team said that it was “beyond our expectation” how many women were engaging with the issues and connecting with others for mutual support.

A closed Facebook group was launched that female viewers were invited to join, with a membership target of 350. But the group has so far attracted 6,500 women from across the Arab World, including Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, and Syria.

“We didn’t expect that there was such a need for this conversation and that people would interact so much,” the team said. “Our Viewer Support team has got many, many requests and referrals, and they continue to help people who grapple with these issues.”

The project goes deeper in its off-screen support by offering workshop-style support groups and one-to-one counselling. The target set for counselling referrals in 2023 was 150, but the actual number was more than tenfold at 1,604. Many of these women receive informal counselling from SAT-7’s Viewer Support team, while some who are in need of specialist help for issues such as domestic violence are referred for professional counselling. SAT-7 also has relationships with two refuges in Egypt to which they can send women who need to escape abusive homes.

“It is often a really long journey for women in these kinds of situations, but for us, it is a success that they are having regular counselling,” the spokesperson added. “Counselling is a relatively new idea in Egypt, but it is becoming more popular and there is less stigma than there used to be. It is harder to access for women who are less educated and who are from more closed communities, and that is why we visit these areas – and they often ask us to come back.”

SUPPORT GROUPS

In 2023, support groups, both online and in-person, were held with qualified counsellors and attended by a total of 220 women from countries including Syria, Yemen, and Morocco. The in-person sessions were held in different places in Egypt as contacts were picked up on the ground while Today not Tomorrow was filmed on location.

The groups are mostly about Freedom of Religion or Belief and how it relates to a woman’s place in society and the family. A lot of the discrimination women experience is based on religion; the discussions help women to explore this, to ask questions, and to challenge accepted practices.

As a result of the support groups, Christian girls in Egypt started to challenge the discrimination they experience at school, which includes being forced to cover their heads, having to sit at the back of the classroom, and being excluded from religious studies.

It is clear from women’s feedback that there is much more work for the GE & FoRB project team to do. The spokesperson said, “When people meet the presenters on the street, they ask them, ‘Why don’t you tell us what to believe? Sometimes the program messages are confusing.’ But that’s exactly what we’re trying to do: we’re trying to get people to think for themselves.”

 

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