New Media and Social Change in Rural Egypt
Issue 12, Winter 2010
One of the thousands of mobile phone outlets that dot the Egyptian townscape (picture by D Lisbona)
This ethnographic audience study investigates the complex intersections between the dynamics of social change in the village of Kafr Masoud, close to the city of Tanta in the Egyptian Delta, and the transformations in the media arena in the same village, with the intent of assessing the numerous implications of these intersecting transformations on Egyptian rural women’s lived realities, including their familial and social relations, and, most importantly, their media reception and consumption experiences. In doing so, the study explores the complex paradoxes that these transformations have introduced in these women’s lives and the new challenges they have created on multiple levels, including: challenges to governmental ideologies, traditional religious authority, male domination, and parental control.
In analyzing the dynamics of the shifting social landscape and the shifting media landscape in the village of Kafr Masoud and their multiple implications for women’s complex media consumption experiences, the study takes into consideration these women’s construction of their own gendered identities, as an active media audience, based on a wide array of variables, including age, marital status, education, socio-economic level, and employment.
It is worth noting that this is a follow-up study to an earlier ethnographic audience research which was conducted in the same village ten years ago, between 1989 and 1999, which analyzed Egyptian rural women’s exposure to televised governmental public awareness campaigns dealing with family planning and literacy, and how and why their interpretations diverged from, or overlapped with, the original intended meaning of these televised messages. Taking into account the impact of the gradual ongoing process of social change on women’s media reception experiences, I decided to return to the village of Kafr Masoud in 2009 to conduct a follow-up study ten years later to find out what has changed in the village, in terms of the intersecting factors of social change, on the one hand, and new communication patterns, on the other hand, and how these factors are continuously and effectively shaping the women of Kafr Masoud’s media experiences as an active, interactive and dynamic audience.
The Importance of this Study:
This study attempts to answer a number of important questions, such as: Why and how has the village of Kafr Masoud changed over the last ten years? What kind of implications have these changes had on women’s lived realities in the village? What kinds of new media have been introduced into the village in recent years? How has the introduction of these new media affected women as media consumers and as communicators? What kinds of implications, challenges, and paradoxes have resulted from the introduction of these new media?
The fact that the study was conducted on Egyptian rural women has special significance, since it allows the investigation of the impact of different values, traditions, and beliefs and the complex processes of media reception and social change in a culturally specific, non-western context, and among a non-western audience, which has been largely invisible in previous audience research that has mostly been conducted in western contexts by western scholars and focused mainly on western audiences (Bausinger, 1984; Gray, 1992; Lull, 1990; Morley, 1986; Press, 1989). Although there is a growing trend in recent years to extend media research dealing with women to non-western contexts, most of these studies mainly focused on women’s representation in the media, women as communicators, or the effects of the media on women, rather than on women as an active and interactive media audience. The few studies that tackled the theme of women’s interpretation of mediated messages (Bissell, 2004; Press & Cole, 1995; Weaver, 2004), or how girls and women make meaning out of cultural experiences (Acosta-Alzuru & Kreshel, 2002), are still largely conducted in western contexts and on western audiences.
Moreover, the theme of social change and its interaction with the processes of media reception and consumption is still largely overlooked in many of these non-western studies. The few studies which tackled this theme dealt with how the process of social change has been portrayed in the media (Yunjuan & Xiaoming, 2007), rather than how it interacts and overlaps with women’s own lived realities and their media reception and consumption experiences. Only a few of these studies were conducted by women researchers on women audiences and tackled the issue of ‘gendered identities transformation and media reception, within the context of social change’ (Sakamoto, 1999, p.173), and even fewer of them tackled this theme using an ethnographic methodology (Kim, 2006), which highlights the fact that ‘Ethnographic studies of television in everyday life are still relatively rare, and mostly conducted in a western context’ (Kim, 2006, p. 129). The value of using ethnography in media studies lies in the fact that ‘the very diversity of modes of reception, reception contexts, uses of media content, and the performative and creative relationships that audiences develop suggest that media ethnography is a highly complex, multifaceted endeavor’ (Murphy and Kraidy, 2003, p. 5).
Therefore, this study contributes to audience research and feminist media theory through focusing on an underrepresented audience, angle, and methodological orientation. This is particularly important in light of Dow & Condit’s (2005) remark that ‘The growth of feminist scholarship that pays specific attention to race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and globalism is a heartening sign, although there is a need for much more of it, as well as a need for it to spread across methodological and content categories’ (p. 467).
The study employed a qualitative, ethnographic methodology, which relied on two data-gathering techniques, namely: in-depth, natural field observation and in-depth personal interviews. The in-depth participant observation covered various aspects of women’s everyday lives, their family relations, and their habits and patterns of media consumption, which yielded very rich, deep and comprehensive data. Although this was an arduous and time-consuming data collection technique, it turned out to be very useful in providing a solid background of naturalistic observations against which the findings of in-depth personal interviews could be checked and validated. It was certainly through my extended period of stay in the village, and my immersion in village life, that I was able to ‘document spontaneous, genuinely unselfconscious talk in naturalistic settings, rather than talk generated by interview alone’ (Gillespie,1995, p.66). Also, the reliance on in-depth field observation in this study augments qualitative audience research, which has been often criticized for ‘the lack of sustained engagement in the field and the focus on letters of interview transcripts at the expense of the numerous details, events and observations that anthropologists are trained to record and interpret in ethnographic fieldwork’ (Murphy and Kraidy, 2003, p. 302).
The fact that this is a follow-up study to my earlier research in the village ten years ago was of particular value and significance, since in-depth field observation is certainly a continuous and cyclical process, rather than something which only takes place in the early phases of conducting fieldwork. This reminds us that the reliance on ‘longitudinal ethnography’, which allows for the comparison of past and present social settings, as well as significant changes and transformations in the fieldwork site, is a very valuable, but massively underutilized, methodological approach, which reveals a wealth of important, in-depth data over an extended period of time and, thus, enables the researcher to come up with more meaningful, comprehensive and comparable findings.
In-depth personal interviews also proved to be a very useful and strong method of data collection, taking into account that ‘in-depth interviewing is the most popular method in feminist media studies and cultural studies, particularly in research on audiences’ (Van Zoonen, 1994, p.136). The interviews helped in shedding light on complex aspects of women’s lives. They provided rich life-narratives, personal histories, and testimonials. They also provided a very useful background about some of the aspects of social change in village life, in general, and women’s changing roles and identities, in particular. This was especially important in terms of making comparisons and contrasts between past and present beliefs, attitudes and practices, among different generations. Each of the in-depth, semi-structured interviews, which lasted between two and three hours in average, was mostly conducted in the respondents’ homes and included questions related to the respondent’s personal characteristics and social life, as well as daily habits and patterns of media usage. I was always keen to start each interview with an informal introduction, which highlighted my kinship ties and family connections with one of the most well-known families in the village. Taking into account the importance attached to family ties and interpersonal relationships in this small village community, where most people are either related by blood or marriage, this created the desired degree of rapport and trust, which was of crucial importance in terms of improving the quality of the interview and ensuring its success.
The combination of these two data gathering techniques increased the depth, comprehensiveness, and validity of the collected data, through enabling the comparison of women’s responses across multiple contexts. The use of more than one method of data collection ‘will modify the weaknesses of each individual method and thus greatly enhance the quality and value of interpretative research projects’ (Van Zoonen, 2004, p.139). The reliance on this feminist, ethnographic approach allows members of subaltern, marginalized groups, such as the women of Kafr Masoud, to talk and to be heard. Therefore, I am keen to give the women in my study a ‘voice’, through allowing them to narrate their different experiences with media consumption, within their own discursive frameworks, and in their own words. This implies the adoption of a ‘feminist insight that suggests a need to recover previously silenced voices’ (Acosta-Alzuru &Kreshel, 2002, p. 141). Another advantage of this ‘commitment to multivocality’ (Murphy and Kraidy, 2003, p. 303) lies in the fact that ‘including as much as possible the ‘voice’ of the researched balances the power of representation vested in the researcher’ (Murphy and Kraidy, 2003, p. 303).
This attempt to increase the visibility of this group of women was made possible through the process of ‘TV talk’, which, according to Marie Gillespie (1995), ‘is a crucial forum for experimentation with identities…Common experiences of TV supply referents and contexts for talk…about identities and identity positions.’ (p. 23). It is also possible, according to Gillespie (1995), to say things through ‘TV talk’, which would be otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to say, bearing in mind that ‘ “TV talk” – the embedding of TV experiences in conversational forms and flows – becomes a feasible object of study only when fully ethnographic methods are used in audience research.’ (p.23).
The research sample that has been included in this study consisted of 30 women representing different age groups, marital statuses, and diverse educational, social, and economic backgrounds. This was not the case in my previous research study in the village ten years ago, where all the participants were married women and mothers in their childbearing years, due to focusing on the theme of family planning and contraceptive use, which is much more relevant to this particular group of women (Khamis, 2009). However, the present study covers a wider umbrella of topics, such as social change, media usage, and communication patterns, which are relevant to different groups of women representing varying demographic characteristics.
In this study, as well as in my previous research (Khamis 2004; 2009), the women were all selected using a ‘snowball’ sampling technique, which was facilitated through my distant relatives and their connections in the village. These connections helped in granting me the needed legitimacy, rapport, and access into women’s homes and, most importantly, into their lives. This is especially true in this small, conservative rural community, which respects kinship relations and blood ties, and where people are always ‘afraid of opening up to strangers’, as one of my research participants puts it.
The Shifting Social Landscape:
Although when I first visited the village of Kafr Masoud in 1998 I noticed that it retained some of the features of traditional rural Egyptian villages, such as the existence of mud-brick houses, traditional garments worn by both men and women, conservative moral codes of behavior, and a sex-segregated social environment (Cooper, 1914), yet I was careful not to misperceive it as a stagnant community resistant to change and untouched by social transformation. In other words, I avoided what Timothy Mitchell (1990) described as the ‘ahistorical method of explanation’, which falsely portrays the Egyptian villager as a ‘timeless, primitive creature’ (Mitchell, 1990) and fails to take account of how and why s/he is changing.
It is for this reason that I revisited the village of Kafr Masoud a decade later to document the various aspects of social change that took place in it in recent years and the effects they had on life in the village, in general, and on women’s lives, in particular. However, in discussing and analyzing these waves of change, I avoid the view of modernization ‘in which villagers who have ‘never changed their way of life’ in more than six thousand years are forced to adjust to modernity in less than a decade’ (Mitchell, 2002, p.127). Rather, I adopt an ethnographically sensitive and culturally informed perspective which views social change as a dynamic, gradual, and comprehensive process encompassing various aspects of life in the village, such as education, employment, family relations, household structure, and the simultaneous two-way processes of moving into and out of the village.
One of the major aspects of social change in the village, which had multiple implications, is the decline in agricultural activities and farming. In explaining the causes behind this phenomenon, however, we have to move beyond the ‘peasant-blame’ mentality, which attributes it to the shrinking area of agricultural land, because of peasants who build houses on their own land, or the shortage in working hands, because of peasants migrating to Gulf countries or to urban areas. Rather, instead of seeing it as a ‘decision’ on the part of peasants to stop farming, we have to look at the broader picture, through considering the Egyptian government’s economic policies, including its latest neoliberal policies, which have had the most devastating effects on the Egyptian peasantry. These included significantly increasing the costs involved in planting and cultivating the land, such as farming products, materials, and machinery. This, in turn, made agriculture much less profitable. The seeds of these economic governmental policies, however, were planted in the 1970s under President Sadat, whose plans for rural Egypt, according to Mitchell (2002), ‘included switching to ‘high-value cash crops’ and investing heavily in agri-industry’ (p. 126). One of the major implications of this policy has been ‘transferring farmland out of village control into large commercial hands’ (Mitchell, 2002, p.126).
The resulting decline in agricultural productivity has led many peasants to start looking for other jobs to supplement their income and to support their families. This new trend, according to Reem Saad (1994), led to the birth of the new category of the ‘part-time peasant’, the ‘rural-dweller’, or the ‘rural-inhabitant’, as a substitute for the traditional category of the peasant, or the fellah, which refers to someone who depends on farming as the main source of living and income-generation. One of the social implications of this new phenomenon has been the shift from collectivism to individualism, since farming is a collective activity which requires people to work closely together in large groups and to be interdependent. The decline in agricultural activities has led many young people to start looking for other jobs, either instead of or in addition to farming, which has given birth to a more individualistic trend and a more independent orientation among the new generation.
This shift from collectivism to individualism, which accompanied the decline in agricultural activities, has been clearly manifested in the shift from the extended to the nuclear family household structure. Most of the young couples in the village today live in independent homes of their own away from extended families. This could be partly related to the wave of Egyptian labor immigration to Gulf countries, which started to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s (El-Abd, 1983), since most of the peasant migrants who returned to their villages managed to buy pieces of land and to build new red-brick houses on them. However, there are other reasons behind this phenomenon, such as the death of the elderly parents or in-laws that the young couple used to live with. I found this to be true in a number of cases during my new round of data collection in the village. Most importantly, however, there is a strong preference among young, educated, and employed women in the new generation to enjoy their autonomy and independence. One of these newly married young women, 21 year old Farida, remarks:
‘I made it very clear to my husband when he proposed to me that I will not be living with his family in the same household, and he agreed. It’s true that this means I have to do everything all by myself, without any help from other women in the family…but it also means that I will have more freedom inside my own house and much less interference from others in my affairs.’
The previous quote has been echoed by other young women in my study, for whom moving to a nuclear, independent home of their own meant changing the household power dynamics in their favor, since they do not have to worry about interference, domination, or manipulation from other family members, especially dominant figures in the husband’s family, such as the mother-in-law and the husband’s older sisters and aunts.
Naturally, this view was not shared by women in older generations. The fact that the village of Kafr Masoud, like most rural communities in Egypt, has always been a small, largely homogeneous community, where people were closely linked to each other by blood and kinship ties, meant that this new trend towards more autonomy and independence among the new generation, has been bitterly criticized by older people for being a form of social disintegration and for bringing about the threat of family breakdown. As one older woman laments:
‘People in this village have always been one big family, and we were always proud of our social solidarity and strong family ties. In the past, people used to eat from the same plate and live under the same roof, but now I see my children once or twice a week only, just like strangers’ ( 55 year old Gamalat remarks sadly).
Another factor behind the decreasing level of social solidarity in the village is the process of ‘two-way population flow’, whereby young people are constantly moving out of the village in search of better working opportunities, whether in the neighboring city of Tanta, in Cairo, or in the Gulf, while strangers are simultaneously moving into the village, particularly from Tanta, in search of more affordable housing. These two parallel, albeit contradictory, waves of population mobility have had their impact on reshaping the village community and changing its social profile. As one older woman, Om Abbas, 63 years old, comments sadly:
‘In the past, we used to know everyone in the village…my children always called all the men in the village ‘Ami’ (my uncle) and all the women ‘Khalti’ (my aunt)…today we see many strangers…many new faces…we don’t even know who they are…it is just not the same.’
Overall, the village of Kafr Maoud has witnessed a relative improvement in women’s status in recent years, since they started to receive more equal treatment and more rights, such as choosing their own husbands and having access to education and employment. More girls in the new generation in the village now have access to school education and, increasingly, to university education. The employment of both sons and daughters is now regarded as an additional source of economic support for the family, which can no longer rely on the profits of farming alone. Therefore, many young women in the new generation are now seeking formal employment through paid jobs, both inside and outside the village. Obtaining a job is not only a necessity in terms of contributing to the families’ income, it is also the only way to cover some of the increasing costs of marriage. In fact, a number of young women pointed out that getting a job is the only way to cover their marriage expenses, taking into account their families’ poor financial situation and the fact that everything is becoming much more expensive. Interestingly, a woman’s educational level and her job are becoming the key ‘status symbols’, which can attract suitable suitors today:
‘In the past, a girl would get married depending on how much land her family owned…it was the wealth of the family, especially as measured by landownership, that determined the girl’s social status…now it is different…the girl will get married if she is educated and employed, because her husband can be sure that she will help him by contributing to the family’s income, just like him’ (48 year old Om Magda explains).
Ironically enough, however, the growing rate of education and the desire to seek formal employment among young people in the new generation has been equally matched by a growing rate of unemployment, leaving many of these young people with university degrees, but a lot of unutilized time. This, in turn, led to the increase in the number of coffee shops (kahwa), where young unemployed men, along with retired men, spend considerable amounts of time chatting, drinking tea, and watching soccer games and movies on both local and international television channels. It also meant that many young women spend vast amounts of time watching different television channels and/or visiting their favorite websites, as will be discussed later. This is, of course, a major source of disappointment for the parents who invested in their sons’ and daughters’ education:
‘We sold a piece of land and I sold most of my jewelry so my two sons and two daughters can finish their education successfully. My older son and my older daughter both graduated from the university more than three years ago, but they are still looking for a job. Both myself and my husband are always sad and brokenhearted when we look at them…my son spends most of his time in the local kahwa and my daughter is either watching television or on her computer ’ (46 year old Om Said remarked with a sigh).
One of the most ironic phenomenon I noticed in the village of Kafr Masoud when I returned to it ten years later is what I call the process of ‘superficial urbanization’, whereby symbols of modernization, such as hairdressing salons, stores selling urban clothes, electric household equipment, and new media are infiltrating the village, while basic, essential infrastructure, such as clean tap water and a modern sewage system, are still missing. In fact, they were being promised by governmental officials when I was there ten years ago, and they are still being promised ten years later. This signals a gap between people’s own agenda, i.e., their desire to improve their own standard of living, and the government’s agenda, which is not free of ‘urban bias’ (Riano, 1994), i.e., the tendency to focus on developing urban areas in terms of basic infrastructure, mostly at the expense of neglected, rural areas, which are underserviced or left out of most development efforts. Moreover, to add to the irony, some of the recent projects in the village have taken place on ‘paper only’, and have been no more than ‘de facto’ projects, such as the youth center, the public library, and even the literacy class.
The above mentioned ironies led to a paradoxical situation whereby the village of Kafr Masoud could be said to host the ‘combined disadvantages of ruralization and urbanization’, i.e., the drawbacks of a rural community, such as weak infrastructure, limited employment opportunities, and low income levels, and the drawbacks of urban areas, such as declining social cohesion, increasing overcrowding, and lack of domestic self-sufficiency, since most women are not baking their own bread or making their own home-made products as before. To put it differently, it could be said that the village is starting to suffer from the ills and troubles of urbanization, without reaping its fruits or enjoying its advantages.
After providing this overview of the changing social landscape in the village of Kafr Masoud, it is especially important to focus our attention on its changing media environment.
The Shifting Media Landscape:
When I visited the village of Kafr Masoud ten years ago to conduct my earlier round of data collection, the communication landscape in the village was characterized by a strong oral tradition, as is the case in most of rural Egypt. Despite the presence of modern mass media, such as radio and television, face-to-face, interpersonal communication has always been the most effective and powerful form of communication. This was clearly manifested in the effect of rumor, gossip, peer group pressure, and the influence of informal opinion leaders, such as family members, neighbors, and friends, as well as some popular, formal opinion leaders, such as the imam (religious preacher) in the mosque on shaping women’s views, attitudes, and decisions (Khamis, 2004; 2009). Nowadays, interpersonal, face-to-face communication still has an impact, but it is not as powerful as it was ten years ago, due to the previously discussed factors of social change, especially the decreasing level of collectivism and social cohesion and the changing population profile, as a result of strangers and newcomers moving into the village community, on the one hand, and young people moving out of it, on the other hand.
Print media were, and still are, very marginal and limited in their penetration and their effect, due to high illiteracy rates in the village, as is the case in most of rural Egypt. Broadcast media, mainly radio and television, have always been the dominant media in the village, due to their ability to overcome the barrier of illiteracy.
Interestingly, modern mass media, especially television, were found to be firmly embedded in these women’s traditional, oral culture, since most women in my earlier study reported watching television with the rest of their families (Abu-Lughod, 1995) and engaging in discussions with them about the televised themes and programs. This collective pattern of television viewing provided an excellent forum for influencing women’s opinions and attitudes, whether through male figures in the family, such as fathers or husbands, or dominant female figures, such as mothers-in-law or aunts, especially pertaining to sensitive and controversial issues, such as combating illiteracy (Khamis, 2004) or using contraceptives (Khamis, 2009).
Ten years ago, the sweeping majority of houses in the village had only one television set, which was usually black and white or, in the case of some of the more affluent families, colored. The existence of one television set per household, along with the prevailing extended family household structure at that time, reinforced the pattern of collective television viewing. This is no longer the case, since it is now common to have more than one television set in the same household and, with the growing shift to the nuclear family household structure, there is now a gradual decrease in the pattern of collectivism and an increase in individuality in terms of media consumption. This is evident in the fact that young people in the new generation watch their own favourite programs on their own television sets, which have became extremely affordable, thus posing the risk of escaping parental domination and control.
Back in 1989, only one person in the village had a satellite dish. This person was viewed with a high degree of suspicion, since most people were skeptical about his intentions and motivations. Some of them whispered that he ‘must be watching pornography’ or that ‘only God knows what he might be watching…but it couldn’t be something good!’ Ten years later, a good number of houses in the village have their own dishes, which have become increasingly affordable over the last few years, and the sweeping majority of people in the village, including the poorest households, watch hundreds of satellite television channels through a wired connection (wasla) leased to them on a monthly basis through one person who has a receiver. This was found by many to be the most economical way to watch hundreds of their favorite satellite channels without overburdening themselves financially, since it only costs around 10 Egyptian pounds (about $2) a month.
Likewise, when I visited the village ten years ago there were no computers and no Internet connection. Nowadays only one person in the village has a high speed ADSL Internet connection, but most houses in the village, especially those that have young people, obtain a wired connection through this person, again for as little as 10 Egyptian pounds a month.
The previous discussion reminds us that in Egypt, as in the Arab world at large, the media landscape changed significantly after 1990, with the emergence of media privatization, the introduction of private satellite television channels, and growing Internet accessibility, which marked the end of the era of Arab governments’ total monopoly over all media outlets and signaled the beginning of a new era characterized by diversity, plurality, and competition (Sakr, 2007; Rugh, 2004).
Additionally, when I first visited the village ten years ago, there were no cell phones, but nowadays the sweeping majority of people in the village, from different social and economic backgrounds, as well as different genders and age groups, have their own cell phones, which became very affordable and widespread. This is in line with the results of recent research reports that estimated the number of cell phone users in Egypt at around 55 million, out of Egypt’s population of 80 million. Indeed, this is a very significant figure, taking into account Egypt’s severe economic challenges (Arab Advisors Group, 2010).
The important transformations that have swept the media scene in the village recently have given birth to a number of paradoxes and challenges on multiple levels.
Transformations, Paradoxes and Challenges:
While television was, and still is to a large extent, the number one medium for the people of Kafr Masoud in general, and the women of Kafr Masoud in particular, the nature of television viewership and the patterns of television consumption have changed drastically over the last few years, thanks to the increasing availability of satellite television channels, the increasing trend towards more individuality, and the availability of more than one TV set in most households. Ten years ago, it was very common to see all family members gathering around the only available TV set in the household to watch the 8 p.m. Arabic soap opera, which was the favorite genre for most family members. This was seen as an opportunity to ‘get together and chat over the soap opera and also talk about our long days’ and ‘a chance to have everyone around and feel the warmth of the family’, as some of my respondents remarked back then.
Today, the picture is very different. The process of ‘audience fragmentation’, which characterizes most modern societies today, has certainly reached the small village of Kafr Masoud. It is now very common to see adults gathering around the main TV set in the center of the household to watch their favorite shows, mostly from various satellite television channels, while youth and children are gathered around another TV set, usually a smaller one located in their bedroom, to watch different types of programs on other channels. This separation was hailed by the younger generation as a ‘chance to break away from the parents’ imposed programs and preferred shows’ and was seen by them as ‘an opportunity to enjoy more freedom and independence’. However, it was criticized by some parents who ‘miss the opportunity to have a warm family gathering with the children around the same TV set and the same show’ and was even frowned upon by others who feared that their children ‘may be watching the wrong shows’ and thus felt the need, as one mother puts it, ‘to keep a close eye on them while they’re watching their own shows in their bedroom.’
This breakaway from the collective patterns of television consumption, coupled with the transition from the extended family household structure to the nuclear family household structure, also had implications in terms of limiting the influence of some informal opinion leaders within the family, such as the mother-in-law, for example, on shaping the wives’ views on key issues, such as family planning and contraceptive use. In my earlier research in the village, many young wives reported that influential figures in their husbands’ family, who lived with them in the same household, always captured the opportunity of watching television together to comment negatively on some of the televised announcements advocating contraceptive use and promoting the image of the small family as ‘the ideal family’. I received remarks from some of my respondents at that time complaining from this ‘interference of the mother-in-law in the most private decisions regarding childbirth and contraception’, which was enabled and facilitated through collective television viewership (Khamis, 2009).
This is not the case anymore, not just because of the shift from collectivist to more individualistic television consumption patterns, and the shift from extended to nuclear family households, but also because of the shift in women’s viewing choices and preferences after the introduction of satellite television channels. This is evident in the fact that when I first conducted my fieldwork in Kafr Masoud ten years ago most women were still watching the televised governmental family planning, literacy, and health awareness campaigns on the local, national television channels, which are controlled by the Egyptian government and, therefore, reflect its overall policy and ideology. However, this was not the case when I returned to the village ten years later, as I discovered that almost no one was viewing these public awareness advertisements anymore. Instead, they became loyal audiences to a wide array of religious, social, political, and entertainment channels, not just from within the Arab world, but from all over the world. This clearly signifies an increasing exposure to competing ideologies, trends, views and lifestyles, which can easily clash with, or even undermine, the predominant governmental position on various issues.
This could best be interpreted in light of the fact that the introduction of satellite television channels offered an uncensored alternative to otherwise government-owned and regulated media, through opening the skies to information from virtually everywhere in the world (Sakr, 2007). The increasing access to hundreds of private satellite channels signified a shift away from the ‘monolithic’, government-owned and controlled national television channels, through opening the doors of competition and limiting the level of exposure to televised content on local, national television channels dramatically. This, in turn, shifted the center of power away from monolithic governmental authority and enabled challenges to dominant, hegemonic governmental ideologies (Hall, 1980). This is prone to increase the already existing gap between the government’s agenda, on one hand, and these women’s agenda, on the other hand, regarding sensitive and controversial issues, such as family planning and literacy, as evidenced in my previous research in the village of Kafr Masoud (Khamis 2004; Khamis, 2009). In other words, the picture which emerges from the previous discussion is that of a shift from national to international television channels and from collectivist to more individualistic patterns of television viewership, which enabled challenges to hegemonic, monolithic governmental ideologies and to authoritarian family figures and their interference simultaneously.
Interestingly, despite the change in television viewership patterns and reception modes, the same pros and cons of television, as a medium, remain unchanged from the women of Kafr Masoud’s perspective, over the last ten years. On one hand, it is still perceived as the ‘best window to the outside world’, through which they can find out what’s happening in the rest of the world; the ‘best babysitter’, which can keep their children busy, while they are doing their household chores and taking care of their everyday tasks; and the ‘best entertainer’, which can keep them amused. On the other hand, however, it is still viewed with skepticism, as the number one ‘moral corrupter’, ‘time waster’, and ‘social disintegrator’, especially with the new tides of social change which have swept the village community, such as the decline in farming activities, the increase in the rate of unemployment, and the growing trend towards more individualism and nuclear family structure.
The new shift in women’s television viewing preferences is clearly expressed in the following statement:
‘Once people get the wasla, they stop watching local Egyptian television channels…they start watching many other channels instead…my kids even watch English programs and movies…and I depend on them to explain to me what they are watching’ (Om Mohamed, 60 years old).
The previous quote indicates a number of important points that deserve special attention. First, it shows that the new shift in television viewing preferences cuts across various age groups and different categories of women in the village. This is clear from the above quote from a 60 year old mother of four and grandmother of three, who acknowledges watching these new satellite channels. Similar quotes were received from other mothers and grandmothers. Second, it also shows that these Egyptian rural women are capable of inventing their own ‘coping strategies’, in order to overcome language barriers, and even illiteracy barriers (Khamis, 2004), during their television viewership, through relying on their educated children to help them out. I also received similar responses from other women in the village, one of whom proudly remarked that ‘once a woman has an educated son or daughter, she shouldn’t worry about not understanding programs in other languages’. Third, it refers to the reliance on the wasla (the wired connection) which is obtained at a very low price, as previously mentioned, and, thus, allows the most economically challenged households in the village the opportunity to view hundreds of international television channels for as little as 10 Egyptian pounds ($2) a month.
The same is true in case of the Internet, where the Internet wasla (wired connection) enables access for those who would like to use the Internet, but cannot afford to subscribe to high speed Internet, due to the high cost of subscription. Therefore, they pay the low cost of 10 Egyptian pounds a month, just to get some form of Internet access, even if it is not really fast or too reliable. As one young woman puts it: ‘Although the connection is usually slow, it is the only thing we can afford’. Another young woman remarks: ‘Many times the Internet connection is not very reliable, but it is certainly better than nothing’. This phenomenon of ‘backdoor users’ of new media, through Internet connection sharing and satellite signal sharing, is starting to spread in economically challenged countries, like Egypt, due to people’s desire to find ways which are affordable and feasible to access new media (Arab Advisors Group, 2010).
Ironically, although these patterns of ‘backdoor usage’ of new media may be regarded as a form of ‘media piracy’, which violates legal requirements and official regulations, the fact remains that they increase the exposure to these new forms of media significantly and, therefore, they add to their consumption, expand their popularity, and increase their advertising revenues. In that sense, these new forms of media usage could be regarded as a ‘double-edged sword’. The paradoxes surrounding these new patterns of media usage certainly pose the question of whether the government is deliberately turning a blind eye to their increasing proliferation and widespread consumption, especially during these exceptionally tough economic times, which is certainly an issue deserving further investigation.
In every case, the spread of the Internet wasla in the village is a clear indication that the other most significant new medium that has revolutionized the media landscape in the village of Kafr Masoud, beside satellite television channels, is the Internet. The introduction of the Internet, as a new medium in the village community, also broadened the scope of women’s exposure to new messages, trends, lifestyles, and ideologies, which diverge from both the hegemonic, governmental ideologies and policies, as well as the authority of traditional symbols of power in the village community, such as husbands, mothers-in-law, or other extended family members, in the case of married women, and parents and older male siblings, in the case of unmarried women. This is evident from the following quote from 19 year old Zohra, a student in the Faculty of Medicine in Tanta:
‘Before I had my own computer and started to browse various websites on the Internet, I always listened to what my father and my older brother had to say blindly, and I never questioned their knowledge on various religious, political, and social issues. Today, although I still respect both of them, of course, I can have my own independent ‘channels’ of finding out other views and digging for other pieces of information on my own.’
The above quote signals one of the important challenges which were enabled through the proliferation of new media outlets in the village, namely challenging parental and/or male monopoly over knowledge. The fact that many of these young, educated women are now capable of having their own television set, or at least having access to another television set other than the one that is always used by their parents, as previously mentioned, as well as having access to a wide array of Internet websites with different orientations means that they can now have the freedom to choose the type of content they would like to expose themselves to, with a relative degree of freedom and independence that was not possible in the past. This was seen as a huge advantage from the point of view of these young women, as the above quote indicates, but was regarded as a major disadvantage from the perspective of many mothers, who fear the negative moral and ethical consequences of these new media outlets on their daughters. The following comment from a mother of three adolescents exemplifies such fears:
‘Foreign television channels and the computer can teach young people a lot of ‘bad things’ by showing dancers, romantic love scenes, and indecent types of dress…such things do not match our own values and traditions’ (Fakiha, 45 years old).
I received similar comments from other mothers in the village who feared that much of the entertainment materials on satellite television channels and Internet websites can pose potential moral threats to their daughters and can, therefore, interfere with what they consider to be ‘the best way to socialize children and to bring them up’, as one mother in my study puts it.
Interestingly enough, however, although many of these young women did expose themselves to entertainment content, via both satellite TV and the Internet, their favorite websites and blogs displayed either political or religious content. I heard comments from many educated, young women in the village community indicating that their access to Internet websites offered alternative avenues for ‘checking what’s really going on in Egypt and abroad’ and ‘finding out the ‘truth’ from other sources, other than official, governmental newspapers and TV channels’. For these educated, young women, the Internet was not only a way to keep themselves amused and entertained, but, most importantly, it was also a means of increasing their awareness of counter-governmental views and opinions, through visiting websites and blogs belonging to oppositional political and religious groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. One of these young women commented:
‘I’m not one of those girls who simply spend all their time listening to music or watching movies on the Internet…I like to visit the websites and blogs of different human rights activists and oppositional voices that speak out against any form of corruption, human rights violations, or wrongdoings in this country. Many young men and women in this village do the same thing all the time.’ 21 year old Shereen, a student in the Faculty of Law in Tanta remarks.
These comments are in line with Aouragh’s (2008) statement that: ‘As a form of grass-roots media the internet may escape state control and dominant ideologies. The shift from state control to decentralized access [means that] the media in this counter-public sphere is able to contest dominant ideologies.’ (p. 114). This has to do with the nature of the Internet, which, according to Fraser (1992), with its deterritorialized, transnational, and egalitarian qualities, opened the door for multiple and alternative voices to be heard and expressed in cyberspace.
Another challenge which has been made possible through the exposure to both private satellite channels and Internet websites is the challenge to male-monopoly over religious knowledge, as well as challenging traditional, formal religious figures, in favor of a number of rising religious stars, who gained enormous popularity in recent years, especially among young people, in the Arab world, mainly through their programs on religious satellite channels and their postings on Islamic websites, such as the famous young Islamic televangelist Amr Khalid (El-Nawawy and Khamis, 2009). Many of the young women in my study, just like their peers in many parts of the Arab world, were found to be loyal audiences to Amr Khalid’s shows on a number of satellite channels, as well as regular visitors to his website. As one of these young women puts it;
‘If I watch any of the traditional religious programs on TV, I hardly understand what the Sheikh is trying to say, because he uses classic Arabic (fusha) and he talks on a very advanced level, which makes it very difficult for me to understand. That’s why I prefer to watch Amr Khalid on TV or through the Internet…he makes everything in religion a lot easier for me to grasp and he clarifies a lot of the difficult and confusing points for me….all my sisters and female friends feel the same way too.’ (Ghada a 15 year old high school student).
The same opinion was echoed by Ghada’s sister, 16 year old Hanan, who said ‘The good thing about Amr Khalid is that he talks directly to us…he understands our language…our generation…our needs…and our concerns’. Similar comments were received from other young women regarding Amr Khalid, as well as some of the other new religious figures who have become popular through satellite television channels and in cyberspace in recent years.
This shift in the domain of religious authority is also evident in the fact that ten years ago there was only one mosque in the village of Kafr Masoud, which was restricted to men only, since there was no praying area for women inside it. At that time, women entirely relied on their husbands to ask the imam in the mosque questions on their behalf and to give them a fatwa (religious advice). This, of course, opened the door for shaping women’s positions and affecting their point of view on sensitive and controversial issues, such as family planning (Khamis, 2009), since a good number of women echoed the point of view that contraceptive use is believed to be haram (religiously forbidden) based on what their husbands told them. Whether this was the opinion of the husband himself, or that of the religious preacher (imam), or both, the fact remains that this male-dominated and female-restricted domain of religious knowledge did not give women an equal opportunity to seek first-hand religious advice directly from credible sources or to explore, compare, and contrast different sources of religious knowledge. This is very different from the situation ten years later, as the following quote suggests:
‘Although there are now five mosques in the village, and there is a special place for women to pray, I really prefer to watch Amr Khalid, Sheikh Mohamed Hassaan, and Khalid El Gindi on satellite television and the Internet, rather than listening to the imam in the mosque. I always take their words seriously and do what they say’ (So’ad, 18 years old).
The above quote clearly signifies the replacement of traditional, formal religious authority with new mediated religious figures, especially among young women, which was made possible through the spread of new media outlets, such as satellite television and the Internet. It also highlights the high degree of trust and credibility which is assigned to these new mediated religious figures versus the declining credibility of formal, traditional religious figures, who are often times referred to as the ‘TV Sheikhs’, as a symbol of their total loyalty to the Egyptian government and its state-controlled television channels (El-Nawawy and Khamis, 2009). This clearly signals a shift from the traditional, formal authority of the ulama’ (traditional Islamic scholars), who for a long time were the only source of fatwas (religious advice), but have since lost much of their credibility and popularity because of their deference to authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. In their place informal, ordinary people have started to interpret their own religion and provide religious advice to their fellow Muslims. This has widened the scope of religious authority within the realm of the contemporary media landscape (Esposito, 2003; Moaddel, 2005; El-Nawawy and Khamis, 2009).
Ironically, we can detect here a paradoxical phenomenon, whereby new media avenues, such as Internet websites, could be said to play a dual, albeit contradictory, role. On one hand, they are widely used to solidify and reinforce religious values and to seek religious knowledge, since the most popular and frequently visited websites among both older and younger women in the village were found to be Islamic websites, which they mainly visit to seek religious advice (fatwa) or to watch, and listen to, their favorite religious preachers. On the other hand, they can also be used for amusement and entertainment purposes, which, as many mothers fear, could imply their potential negative role as moral corrupters and ethical disrupters.
Another paradox that resulted from the introduction of these new media outlets is what could be described as a ‘revolution of rising expectations and rising frustrations’, especially among young people, many of whom are educated but unemployed. This is clearly reflected in the following comment by one of these young people, who graduated from the Faculty of Arts in Tanta three years ago, but has not been able to find a job since her graduation:
‘Many young people in the village are now unemployed…they spend most of their time in the coffee shop watching satellite television channels…and some of them use the Internet Café in Tanta or spend a lot of time using their own computers…they want many things…they want to imitate the lifestyles they see on television and in the Internet, but, of course, they can’t’ (Asmaa’, 24 years old).
Another respondent who was lucky enough to find a job as a teacher in the elementary school in the village laments the fact that she is severely underpaid and, therefore, can not afford to buy anything she sees on TV or in the Internet:
‘Even though I have a job, which is something not every university graduate in this village has, my salary is very low…I spend most of it on transportation…and I can’t even dream to buy any of the glamorous goods and commodities which I see all the time on TV or in the computer’ (26 year old Lamia’ comments sadly).
Interestingly enough, the increasing rate of new media consumption was paradoxically perceived as both a ‘cause’ and an ‘effect’ of the high rate of unemployment, in general, and the decline in farming activities in particular. One of the older women, 62 year old Awatef, a mother of five, sadly expresses her thoughts on this matter:
‘People in this village used to be active and energetic…everyone used to get up very early to start working in the fields and farming the land…not anymore…now most people spend many hours watching television or playing computer games…they go to bed very late, so how can they get up early to go to work? Young people keep complaining that there are no jobs, but how can they find enough time to even look for a job when they are wasting their time like that?’
Another mother, 54 year old Ashgan, a mother of four, echoes the same opinion:
‘My 25 year old son spends most of his time watching movies at home, or with his friends in the coffee shop, and he wastes his time and money in some of the new places where young people get together to use the computer and play games. He always says that he has nothing to do, because he didn’t find a job after graduating from the university, so that’s how he fills his spare time…but I always tell him that if he used all of this free time to search for a job, he would have found one by now.’
Additionally, one of the most interesting paradoxes resulting from the introduction of new media in the village has been hampering, rather than boosting, the acquisition of literacy skills and the desire to learn reading and writing. This could be attributed to a number of factors, such as the widespread use of cell phones, which have become very affordable and are used by almost everyone in the village. The easy use of cell phones has eliminated the need for writing letters and has removed one of the main motives for acquiring literacy skills, which was often mentioned in my earlier research in the village ten years ago (Khamis, 2004).The following quote from an elderly woman, in response to my question as to whether she may consider attending a literacy class in order to remain in touch with her son, who is in Saudi Arabia, clarifies this point:
‘I don’t need to go to a literacy class in order to write a letter to my son who is in Saudi Arabia, because I can always call him through my mobile phone…my other son even bought a small camera and a microphone and we can now see him and talk to him on the computer. That’s the best way to keep in touch’ (Om Ayman, 65 years old).
Another factor behind the lack of interest in seeking literacy is the reliance on the ‘audio-visual’ dimension of new media, which eliminates the need for literacy acquisition as a prerequisite for media usage, as suggested in the following comment:
‘I was thinking before about attending the literacy class in the village to be able to memorize the holy Qu’ran, but now I can see it and hear it all day long through my son’s computer and through one of the Islamic satellite channels’ (Om Nora, 58 years old).
The women of Kafr Masoud always exerted great efforts to invent suitable coping strategies to overcome the drawbacks of their illiteracy, and to deal with it in the most effective way. Ten years ago, these coping strategies included finding someone else in the community to read important documents and letters for them (Khamis, 2004), or, as the following statement indicates, relying on their own educated family members to help them use new media technologies:
‘If I need to watch a program or a movie on my daughter’s computer, I always have her turn it on for me and she helps me to use it…I can then watch, listen and enjoy my favorite stuff as much as I like’ (Atiat, 66 years old).
The previous comment reminds us of the important phenomenon of ‘secondary users’ of new media, as in the case of foreign satellite television channels, which involves using new media indirectly through the help of others, who are more educated and more knowledgeable about these new media technologies.
We can also add to the previous discussion the fact that the literacy class in the village, which used to be active ten years ago, is currently inactive, due to multiple factors. This includes administrative obstacles, such as budget challenges, understaffing, and organizational hardships, but, most importantly, there is the lack of interest and motivation among the village community at large, due partly to their reliance on these new communication technologies, as mentioned above. This reminds us of the process of ‘superficial urbanization’, whereby a number of services and projects in the village have only a ‘de facto’ existence, through empty headquarters and banners only.
The previous discussion leads us to another interesting paradox regarding these new media technologies, which is that they provide appropriate channels for those who are already educated to expand their knowledge and to gain more awareness of everything that’s going on around them, but for those who don’t have the minimum level of education they can provide some easy solutions and additional coping mechanisms that can facilitate media use without acquiring basic literacy skills.
This study explored the interaction and interrelatedness between the complex processes of social change and media reception within the context of a rural Egyptian village. In doing so, it adopted an ethnographically sensitive and culturally informed perspective to analyze the women of Kafr Masoud’s changing lives and multifaceted experiences as media receivers. This was achieved through a feminist investigation of ‘the social constructions of gender’ (Aldoory, 2005, p.680), through women’s personal experiences as media users, and their own explanations of their shifting and complex subjectivities as an active media audience.
In examining how a multitude of factors, including gender, generation, educational level, employment status, and type of family household structure, intersect and contribute to shaping these women’s diverse media reception experiences, I argue that these differing, or sometimes even conflicting, experiences that revealed themselves throughout this study are directly related to the prevailing socio-cultural context of media reception in rural Egypt, and they perfectly mirror the transformations, paradoxes, and challenges in both the social landscape and the media landscape in this local context simultaneously.
The shifting social landscape in the village of Kafr Masoud has brought about a number of important transformations, including the decline in agricultural activities, the shift from the extended to the nuclear family household structure, the increase in individualism, the relative improvement in women’s status, due to the increasing level of female education and formal female employment, and the new waves of two-way population mobility, both into and out of the village. There have been, however, a number of downsides accompanying these new waves of social change, such as the increasing rate of unemployment among university graduates, the decrease in social solidarity, and the process of ‘superficial urbanization’, whereby the introduction of new shops, hairdressing salons, urban dress patterns, and modern media has not been matched by an improvement in basic services or the underlying infrastructure in the village. This has resulted in an ambivalent situation, whereby the village of Kafr Masoud could be said to combine the disadvantages of both urbanization and ruralization simultaneously.
The shifting media landscape in the village of Kafr Masoud was marked by the introduction of a number of modern means of communication, such as exposure to satellite television channels, Internet access, and the widespread use of cell phones. It could be said that the contrast between the very poor infrastructure in the village, as demonstrated in the lack of basic services, on one hand, and the technologically sophisticated new communication environment, as evident in the availability of satellite television, the Internet and cell phones on the other hand, or the fast pace of media penetration and the slow pace of infrastructural development, are a clear reflection of the gap between people’s agenda on one hand, and the government’s agenda on the other hand.
The study revealed that the exposure to modern media, such as satellite television channels and the Internet, brought about a number of interesting paradoxes. First, although they opened new windows for young people to discover the rest of the world, to challenge traditional authorities on multiple levels, and to look forward to a different future, they certainly did not provide them with any magical tools to bring about the much needed changes in their lives, or to make their many dreams and aspirations come true, since this requires a much more comprehensive change in every aspect of life. This gap between what these young people are exposed to through these new media venues and the harsh realities they have to deal with in their everyday lives creates the ironic phenomenon of ‘rising expectations and rising frustrations’.
Second, the newly invented forms of media consumption through ‘backdoor usage’ methods, as in the case of Internet connection sharing and satellite signal sharing, constitute a form of ‘media piracy’, on one hand, since they are not legally permitted or officially approved, but they also increase the level of exposure to these new media and, therefore, they increase their consumption, popularity, and advertising revenue, on the other hand. In that sense, they could be considered ‘double-edged swords’.
Third, these new forms of media had a counter effect on women’s willingness to seek literacy, since they provided them with alternative means of communication, such as relying on cell phones, instead of writing letters, in addition to depending on the audio-visual qualities of these new media. Some women also invented their own ‘coping strategies’, such as relying on their educated children, to overcome the barrier of illiteracy, while enjoying these new media. This signals the new and interesting phenomenon of ‘secondary users’ of new media.
Fourth, there is the contradictory, dual role of new media as posing potential threats to morality, indigenous values, and traditions, as feared by many mothers, due to their entertainment content, on one hand, while acting as very effective vehicles for spreading religious knowledge and awareness, as evidenced by women’s heavy reliance on these media for religious education and information, on the other hand.
Beside these perplexing paradoxes which have been posed by this new wave of media, a number of equally interesting challenges on multiple levels have also been created. Some of these challenges were found to cut across various age groups and different generations, such as challenging traditional religious authority through exposure to a wide array of new mediated religious figures, via both satellite television and the Internet, and challenging the male monopoly over transmitting and filtering religious information, through women’s increasing access to their own channels of acquiring religious information.
Other types of challenges, however, were specific to particular groups of women, depending on their age, educational level, or even family household structure. For example, the younger women found in these new media possible channels to acquire independent knowledge on various issues that is not necessarily filtered or restricted by their parents or male siblings. In that sense, it could be said that these new media provided them with some tools to challenge parental domination and monopoly over knowledge transmission. Also, for the educated young women, these new media offered endless possibilities to expose themselves to counter-hegemonic trends and views, which challenge the government’s agenda, priorities and hegemonic ideologies (Hall, 1980). This was especially evident in these young women’s interest in oppositional political websites, and the fact that many of them indicated interest in visiting the websites that expose human rights violations and corruption in Egypt.
For the older, married women who have moved into nuclear homes and became exposed to the content of satellite television channels, this signified a challenge to the authority of dominant figures in the extended family household structure, which was made possible through the collective patterns of televisions viewership in the past. It also meant that they became exposed to alternative, counter-hegemonic views, trends and ideologies regarding sensitive issues, such as family planning and literacy, which could challenge the Egyptian government’s official position and hegemonic ideologies on these issues (Hall, 1980).
It is important to bear in mind that the transformations, paradoxes and challenges created by these new media mirror the new ‘transformative Arab media landscape’ in the post-1990 era, where citizens of Arab countries are currently enjoying the privilege of being exposed to alternative avenues of receiving news and information ‘beside’ the official, governmentally controlled media, which marks a clear shift from the pre-1990 era, where most of the media ownership lied largely with governments and most media functioned under strict governmental supervision and control (Boyd, 1999; Rugh, 2007). This signaled the end of an era which was characterized by monolithic media content, governmental control, localization, and audience isolation, in favor of a new era characterized by plurality, diversity and exposure to global trends.
Finally, it is worth noting that the cyclical and dynamic nature of the two continuous processes of social change and the proliferation of new media require an equally continuous effort to conduct in-depth audience research, especially through relying on a longitudinal ethnographic approach, which is capable of truly capturing the complexity, interrelatedness, and intersectionality of these phenomena over an extended period of time. It is only through such an approach that a detailed and comprehensive picture of audience media reception habits and media consumption patterns could be captured through a local lens and their narration of their own experiences with new media and social change could be heard in their own voices.
Dr Sahar Khamis is assistant professor in the Department of Communication,
University of Maryland, College Park email: email@example.com
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