'She' TV gives voice to Arab women

Television talk-show host Matilda Farjallah shifts forward in her chair and looks the white-bearded Sunni sheikh sitting across the table directly in the eyes. "Tahzeeb al-mara ["instructing the woman"] is discussed in the Koran. Does it allow instructing a woman by beating her?" she asks.

Men, the sheikh responds, can instruct women - but "only with words."

Yet, the sheikh adds, if the woman doesn't seem to get the message, the husband can strike her.

"But only lightly with a ruler," the sheikh says, "and only on the rear end."

Ms. Farjallah grows animated, her elbows lifting from the table. "Some men," she says, "take advantage of the Koran and say: 'It is written, We can beat women. It is within our rights.' "

Dialogue like this isn't common in the Middle East, but it's being dished out every day by Heya (Arabic for "she") satellite television station, broadcast to an estimated daily audience of 15 million women, from illiterate denizens of remote villages in Egypt to Prada-clothed fashionistas in Beirut.

Tune in to Heya during the day, and you'll find shows on fashion, cooking, or home decoration. But the station, carried on the digital Nile Satellite television channel, is bent on more than just entertainment.

"Our goal is to empower women," says Heya's founder, Nicolas Abu Samah, who launched the station two years ago. "We want to question taboos and provoke controversy."

Repression of women was listed as one of the Arab world's three "deficits" in the United Nation's 2002 Arab Human Development Report, along with a lack of political freedom and illiteracy.

Mr. Abu Samah, who spent 15 years in England with the Filmali Production Co., says his station does not make political statements or take stances on religious matters. It simply raises tough questions.

Heya's potential audience is 100 million women across the Middle East, nearly 70 percent of the region's TV viewers, according to Abu Samah.

Illiteracy is high among women in the region, and Abu Samah says satellite TV is an important way of reaching them.

The station boasts a staff of about 60, with correspondents in Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and North Africa. Studios are in Beirut and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

About 70 percent of staff members - and all of the top managers - are women, Abu Samah says.

Farjallah's show, "Al-Makshouf" ("The Uncovered"), is one of a number devoted to political and social issues for Arab women, from domestic violence to workplace discrimination to sex before marriage. "We try to tackle all the core issues," she says. "We're involved in contentious legal or religious issues all the time."

For the episode on domestic violence, Farjallah invited a young mother named Rola Heidar who said she was regularly beaten by her husband and her father.

On the air, Farjallah usually rests thoughtfully on her elbows, but can play hardball. She is direct and forceful even with Ms. Heidar, demanding: "Why didn't you leave him?"

Heidar, wearing a black mask to conceal her face, says her children - babies at the time - "would die if I left, because he doesn't bring food home."

That episode was particularly heated, with the sheikh bearing much of the ire from the all-female panel.

"Is there a law that says that if a man beats a woman, she can leave the house?" asks one panelist, an Algerian writer.

"Every problem has a solution," the sheikh answers. "If a law separated her from her husband, are her problems over?" He urges Heidar to inform the authorities about the beatings.

Another panelist, representing a women's rights group in Lebanon, responds: "If she goes to the police, they'll laugh at her and not take her seriously."

The sheikh says the beatings Heidar faces are the result of "a bad education and a misunderstanding of the religion."

Farjallah insists her show isn't just talk. "We try to take action on these issues," she says, adding: "We invite guests to share their problems, but we try direct help as well - not just raise awareness."

She set up a hot line so viewers could call to offer Heidar help and also listed the phone number for a women's rights group.

"In part of another episode we hosted 20 poor families on the show and got [Lebanese Industry Minister] Leila Solh and [Saudi billionaire] Prince Al-Walid bin Talal to help them," she says.

Farjallah's show, however, isn't the only one on Heya that's been pushing buttons. The station's "Morning Show" addresses issues such as prostitution, divorce, HIV/AIDS, and so-called honor crimes.

Even the news is geared toward women's issues. "From Day to Day" examines news related to women from around the globe. The news is a springboard for discussion between the anchor and a commentator, both women.

A recent episode tackled depression among mothers after childbirth, the pros and cons of invitro fertilization, and an employer who asked female applicants to send in "sexy" pictures.

While the channel aggressively tackles social issues, it never directly criticizes religious authorities or political leaders in the Middle East. For that reason, Abu Samah says he's never faced censorship.

"Sometimes we have to choose our words carefully, but we can still get the issues across," he says.

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