Manar TV: Hiding the Unveiled

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In news bulletins and reports, unveiled women are allowed to appear. They are also allowed in reports where people on the street are asked for their opinion. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Maha Zaraket

Published Friday, May 18, 2012

Restrictions have been imposed at Hezbollah’s Manar television to avoid the appearance of unveiled women on the station’s programs. Is the resistance channel backtracking on years of openness and now moving in a more conservative direction?

The decision by Manar TV not to host unveiled women on its programs is no secret, although the management seems to be dealing with it as such. The media PR manager, Ibrahim Farhat, politely declines to answer questions on the subject, promising “to talk about it later.”

He says that the “information is not accurate,” while refusing to explain where the inaccuracy lies. “When the (inaccurate) information is published, we will issue a response,” he adds.

However, what seems to be inaccurate to the manager, is very clear to the station’s employees, who were informed of the decision more than a year ago and have been implementing it.

Manar employees are often embarrassed when their contacts lead them to a guest who would be informative on a subject under discussion, but who does not fulfill the new condition: “She has to be wearing the hijab.”

Lacking an explanation from the management, Al-Akhbar had to go to the employees at the station. Some refused to talk “out of respect for the institution,” while others agreed on the condition they not be named.

How did the decision come about? One employee recalls that the management held a meeting with the employees about a year and a half ago and informed them of a series of decisions, one of which was to not host unveiled women.

The employees do not know at what level these decisions were made, but they suspect that they came directly from the general secretary of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.

However, there was some disagreement about the issue. Some claim that Nasrallah said: “If there is a choice between a veiled and an unveiled guest, you should choose the former.” Others are convinced that he asked for unveiled women not to be hosted at all.

Whichever it is, the result was that management took the decision, without discussing it beforehand with the journalists. It was made clear at the time: “If it is difficult to implement in a certain program, then cancel the program.”

With time, however, some exceptions began to appear. In news bulletins and reports, unveiled women are allowed to appear. They are also allowed in reports where people on the street are asked for their opinion. So the standard is “what can be controlled.”

The background to this decision is that Hezbollah is reworking the image it wants to convey to its audience, and which it wants its audience to, in turn, reflect — a sort of mutual influence. It has coincided with the “reform” movement launched by the party in all its sectors, with the media being one of the most important and influential of these.

There is evidence that the management imposed restrictions on what headscarves can be worn by female presenters, insisting that the headcovering had to be a dark uniform color.

The reason behind this was that many among the channel’s audience were buying colored silk scarves, just like those worn by Manar’s presenters, bearing prices that are often “astronomical” in relation to people’s incomes.

Even the “beauty” of the presenters was part of this approach. For example, the management got rid of a number of female presenters because they had had plastic surgery.

These measures sealed a series of (economically) “daring” decisions initiated in the advertising department, which operates under strict conditions. The station, for example, does not show advertisements for products on the Israeli boycott list.

Most of the commercials shown are also “made by Al-Manar.” This means that advertisements have bits taken out of them and are repackaged in a way to suit the station’s restrictions. Such decisions could cost the station approximately 20 percent of its advertising.

It is worth noting that these decisions come in the wake of a policy of “openness” practiced by the station for many years. The old hands at Manar talk about the relaxation of restrictions imposed by the station. But the issue at the moment is restricted to women.

Many recall the day that presenters Imad Marmal and Amr Nassef appeared on air in neck ties. That was part of Manar’s attempt to open up to “other cultures.” The move also coincided with the studios opening their doors to unveiled women appearing as guests on social, educational, and cultural programs.

This “openness” did not succeed in changing the image in people’s minds of it being the station of the resistance. Every time Marmal and Nassef or an unveiled woman appear, they are still considered an exception to the rule diligently applied by devout employees at the station.

These exceptions were criticized by many Hezbollah members, who resented Manar’s search for expertise outside its own milieu.

The context of this criticism is that those who are making it do so because they feel a sense of ownership when it comes to the station, and believe that they have the right to be the ones on screen, giving their opinions.

These decisions take us back to the debates that first erupted when the station was established in 1991. From the beginning, Manar has tried to intermarry its party affiliation with the conditions of objectivity imposed by the journalistic profession, safeguarding their beliefs while being open to a wider audience.

Restrictions here are numerous, unlike the Hezbollah’s Al-Nour radio station, which is always held up by the Hezbollah leadership as being a successful model. It is true that the radio station is successful on more than one level, but it does not face the same challenges as television.

The professionals working at Manar realize that they face a daunting task. On the one hand, they work for a station that belongs to a political and religious party. On the other, they work in television, which is based on images, and beautiful images at that.

This is where the problem lies. It is true that beauty is a value, but it is not the value that the station wants to concentrate on. The station has its own identity and image, but it also has its own aims.

Manar was pioneering on many levels. In addition to its experience in resistance media, it offered us female journalists wearing the hijab. They even showed some wearing the full black chador, worn by thousands of Lebanese women.

The station succeeded in portraying a model image of itself. It presented a Muslim resistance society.


Playing by the Rules

There are many divergent opinions on this decision at Manar. Some reject it because “it makes our work more difficult and obscures us from the wider audience we deal with every day,” as one employee put it.

Some view it simply as a management decision, similar to a company imposing a uniform. But they forget that Lebanese women, who are supposed to have a voice, are not Manar employees.

The argument is that all the other Lebanese stations allow women to appear unveiled.

If those stations ever allow a veiled woman to appear, it is because they are “playing it right.” So why does Manar not play it right too?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Good article thanks man.

Al Manar definitely needs a serious brush up, to the exception of Marmal, Nassef and Batoul, who offer a dynamic, articulate, intelligent journalism, the whole channel should be shaken up, and yes definitely allow unveiled expert women to appear on TV. Plus, they have to remember that the 'resistance' movement is not exclusive to 'veiled' women and if they really want to represent and appeal to the diversity that is the resistance, they should take account of the fact that a great majority of the supporters of the resistance and viewers of Al Manar are not veiled. In these particular circumstances reaching out to a wider audience to counter 'sectarianism' calls for those changes. The latter should not be perceived as a threat to their values but rather an opportunity to modernise and make an impact in the society they help represent.

Properly speaking, a veil refers to a garment that covers the face. Manar TV apparently requires that women's heads be covered, as is customary for the ladies of Hezboallah and, indeed, was customary in, yes, America until the 1960's.

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