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Arab women's group 'Khateera' dares to defy, one narrative at a time

Khateera’s content ranges from misconceptions about women’s intelligence in society and women's unpaid labor, to heavier topics such as sexual rights and honor killings, toxic masculinity and the shame around periods in Middle East society. 
A sneak peak from season two of Khateera’s Smatouha Menni which is expected to release in March 2023.

DUBAI — The Arab women-run media outlet Khateera, which is the feminine form of the word "dangerous," says that it's creating what’s lacking in the region: Arabic media content for women that is progressive, authentic and purpose-driven on mainstream media platforms.

The platform’s flagship program is "Smatouha Menni," or "You Heard it from Me." It is a one-woman show on Khateera’s YouTube channel starring Maria, who presents facts but also offers comic relief as she addresses topics not commonly discussed in the Arabic-language news. 

Topics range from misconceptions about women’s capabilities, gender discrimination in the medical field and unpaid labor, to heavier topics such as sexual rights and honor killings, toxic masculinity and the shame around menstruation in Middle Eastern society. 

Viral content challenging the mainstream

Season one’s popularity has already engaged about 20 million viewers with a pan-Arab audience between the ages of 18 to 35. Of that number, 30% are men predominantly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria, according to Khateera’s analytics. 

Rana Askoul, the co-founder and co-CEO of Khateera in Dubai, attributes the growing viewer engagement to the platform's content starring intelligent and capable women taking on issues rarely seen in the mainstream media. 

“We’re creating characters that represent what women have in their heads but maybe are not able to fully embody on a day-to-day basis,” she said, referring to the feedback she received from focus groups about the first season.

Some of the characters like Maria on the platform are perceived as imaginary given that they are so bold, outspoken or powerful to exist in mainstream Arab society, said Askoul, and it gives them a tangible figure to aspire to, following the philosophy that seeing is believing. 

Since its 2019 launch, the outlet has been producing articles, video series programs and comics to fill the void of Arabic-language content online. 

Arabic is the fourth most used language online but only makes up 1% of content, according to a 2018 study by Dubai-based marketing consultancy Red Blue Blur Ideas. Content on topics relevant to or representative of women is even more scarce. 

“What is common now is the portrayal of an educated, seemingly empowered woman who is written such that her sexuality is still treated as her main virtue and value, which is still patriarchy,” she told Al-Monitor.

Major regional networks are realizing the narrative is changing and that authentic female content is gaining appeal with an untapped audience and revenue stream as the industry struggles to engage viewers, explained Askoul. 

Netflix’s 2021 all-girl high school drama, "AlRawabi School for Girls," was a major hit, she said, because it showed a more authentic representation of what teenagers in Jordan face and content viewers are hungry for. 

Also from the kingdom came the film "Banat Abdul Rahman," or "Daughters of Abdul Rahman," which she said is a powerful women-led story about the known but silenced struggles familiar to female audiences.

“It’s resonating, but it’s not popular. It’s the exception,” Askoul told Al-Monitor. However, major networks are becoming more aware of this potential. For example, the Dubai-based Orbit Showtime Network has OSN W, which features women-focused shows, documentaries and movies.

Women in the Middle East region had the worst representation globally in print, radio and television news between 1995 and 2020, according to the Who Makes the News: 6th Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) 2020. The report surveyed media representation in 10 Middle Eastern and North African countries including Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, South Sudan, Tunisia and Turkey, but did not include any Gulf countries. 

Women made up a global average of 25% of news coverage but only 17% in the Middle East and had the second weakest growth in news media representation over the past 25 years at 3%, ahead of only Africa, which saw no growth. 

The GMMP report found the voice and visibility of women in Middle Eastern economic stories “dismal.” This characterization mirrored the state of their inclusion in stories reporting on crime and violence, which was 19% for Middle Eastern women and the lowest compared to regions globally. 

Giving up on Western campaigns

Western campaigns to help women in the Middle East tend to fail, said Askoul, due to a lack of understanding and imposing solutions at arm's length to an issue that is multilayered.  

“I am a brown, Muslim and Palestinian refugee woman,” she said, adding that her identity cannot be separated, nor does it represent the reality of all Middle East women

“We've seen campaigns trying to import Western movements to the Arab world, like Me Too, to stand up and expose your harasser. But for a significant portion of women in the region there are real consequences that could put their lives in jeopardy,” she explained. That’s why Khateera is determined to offer a homegrown Arab woman and feminist narrative. 

“We are all Arab women who live and breathe in the region,” said Askoul of Khateera’s team of seven who work with different communities to find out what content and resources viewers want. 

For season two of "Smatouha Menni," which is set to be released this month, Khateera worked with the Muslim feminist organization Musawah to review scripts about an episode on religion. 

Similar to how they researched masculinity in season one, Abaad is a group that counsels men and boys on masculinity issues in the region. Khateera worked with them to research their episode about masculinity in season one of the program. 

When looking at Western feminism in the region, Askoul said one cannot separate patriarchal resistance from other social resistances that define Arab women’s identity.

This includes Palestinian resistance and Khateera's creation of the first Palestinian female comic superhero Yafa, who was developed as a direct response to Marvel's announcement of the 2024 movie, Captain America: A New World Order.

The movie is set to introduce Israeli superhero Sabra, whose name is a nickname for Israeli Jews born in Israel but also part of the name of a Palestinian three-day massacre, Sabra and Shatila, that occurred during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when Christian militiamen allied with Israel massacred between 800 and 2,000 Palestinians.

The fictional character Sabra develops a hatred of Arabs after her son is killed in an attack by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Her arch nemesis is the Arabian Knight, an angry and misogynistic anti-Semitic figure who transforms into a diplomatic character after meeting Sabra.

“When we look at Western feminism, you can't stop at the Palestinian question. You can’t ask Arab women to fight patriarchy and not occupation movements against them. Feminism has to be practiced across the board,” Askoul said. “As Arab women, we’re calling it out.”

Yafa, the first female Palestinian super-hero, is perched on an olive tree manifested by her nature-based powers in a comic series that is set to release in November 2023.

Yafa is a character created to represent Arab women in their struggle of cultural resistance while battling the occupation and the dehumanization that Palestinian women, and men, face. 

Yafa, whom Khateera dubbed "Daughter of Earth," will wield nature-based powers such as growing trees, digging tunnels and swimming through soil, in addition to a shield made from woven olive branches that can morph into different shapes to protect her people from bullets and missiles. 

The cover photo created immediately after the 2022 Marvel announcement was viewed more than 250,000 times on its combined media platforms. The first issue of the raven-haired defender is set to debut in November this year.

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