The politics of “filming every moment” in the Arab world

Each year, Ramadan TV series provide a springboard for discussion on a range of social issues, from the mundane to the controversial. This year, the 15-episode Egyptian drama “Taht Al Wasaya” (in English “Under Guardianship”) attracted widespread attention as it portrayed the challenges a widowed mother faced after the death of her husband. The themes of the show – evident in the poignant portrayal of a woman suffering under a patriarchal society and legal system – are simply political. The enthusiasm for the series even prompted at least two members of Egypt’s parliament to call for a review of guardianship laws.

Apparent oppression, as experienced by the series’ protagonist, has broadly – and rightly so – political dimensions, but family life in general – even in the happiest families – reflects and contradicts politics on multiple levels.

A baby is born, a video is uploaded

In a YouTube video that has racked up 22 million views since it was uploaded in early 2021, a young father named Anas takes viewers to the birth of his second child, a son. When the video starts it is around 9pm and Anas and his wife Asala are preparing to go to the hospital. Sharing his feelings about the momentous day before Asala shows up, heavily pregnant and visibly exhausted, he tells the couple’s millions of subscribers, “Honestly, I want to film every second.” Anas agrees, “We’re not going to hide anything from you. . . [it will be] as if you were with us.” There were many spectators; One of the couple’s only uploads to outperform the Labor and Delivery vlog is a video documenting the event where the gender of the same baby was projected onto the Burj Khalifa.

Arab YouTube stars – including those from countries affected by conflict or economic crises – have made their mark in the UAE, even granting a number of influencers and YouTube personalities their “Golden Visa” for talented people. In fact, Asala and Anas are just a couple in Dubai’s family-oriented YouTube milieu, which also includes Azza Zarour and her husband Nour Yassin, Essam and Nour, Shahad and Siamand, and others, forming the slightly amorphous ‘lifestyle’ category. These YouTubers, whose content focuses on everyday happenings in their homes and families, enjoy great popularity.

Typical videos include holiday celebrations, shopping trips, vacations, and various pranks and challenges. Regardless of the content, the more interesting element in videos in this genre is the on-camera negotiation of the husband-wife collaboration – and often, as a result, husbands’ active participation in childcare and their openness in portraying the qualities of a caretaker.

In a video recently posted by Shahad and Siamand, entitled “A full day in our new house with two kids,” the couple split up the day’s organizing and childcare chores, even writing the various tasks on sticky notes and assigning them to each other. Likewise, in their annual Ramadan series, Essam and Nour explain how they intend to rotate cooking duties each night throughout the month. Saudi Youtuber Mohamed Moshaya maintains one of the region’s top-performing channels, focusing on his daily activities with his four children. In a 2020 interview, Moshaya emphasized that he’s received messages “from people saying that after their husbands start watching our videos, they’re going out more as a family because that’s what we do.” . The fact that our content makes people more loving is something very special to me.”

Yet while the depiction of marital collaboration in family vlogging videos can be considered remarkable, the roles played by the creators remain traditional – at least in part. In fact, some wives of popular husband-wife duos, including Shahad from Shahad and Siamand and Nour from Essam and Nour, maintain their own successful spin-off channels centered around women’s lifestyle issues such as beauty, fashion and lots of cleaning. In a way, therefore, these families are monetizing rather than subverting traditional roles — a trend also evident in the experiences of Arab women hosting celebrity cooking channels on YouTube. The decision to create content aimed at women is a strategic decision, and the focus of that content on cleaning is – perhaps coincidentally – evidence-based.

politics, home

What Arab vlogging families are arguably proposing is a more open model of family life that challenges the stereotypical depictions of an authoritarian husband and households characterized by strictly gendered responsibilities. While this type of agreement is clearly an integral part of family vlogging content creation, it is not necessarily the standard in the Arab world.

The distribution of housework in the Arab world is alarmingly unequal. According to a 2020 UN Women report, the region has the highest ratio of women to men in time doing unpaid care work: women spend between 17 and 34 hours a week on these tasks, while men only spend 1 to 5 hours expend , on average. (It should be noted that this is a gap that persists globally, a fact made even clearer by the COVID-19 pandemic.) This inequality is directly related to women’s participation in the outside economy Haus: According to estimates, the proportion of women in the region is around 20 percent.

In addition, the results of the 2022 Arab Barometer survey on attitudes towards family life suggest that views are slowly changing in favor of women’s equality, but that traditional expectations still prevail. In half of the Arab countries surveyed in 2021, at least six in ten agreed that a man should have the last word on all family decisions. In addition, the IMAGES (International Men and Gender Equality) survey found that only one-tenth to one-third of men in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon (the four Arab countries surveyed) said they had recently conducted a traditionally female-coded study to have chores such as cooking, cleaning or bathing children. With this in mind, it was perhaps predictable that, according to the same survey, a majority of men believed that a woman’s most important job was to look after the home.

Politics, beyond the home

The nature of parenthood — and fatherhood in particular — became a hot topic in early 2022 when the Egyptian-Lebanese film Perfect Strangers sparked controversy across the Middle East, particularly for featuring a gay character and a woman engaged in an extramarital relationship affair (which happens to be portrayed by Taht Al Wasaya star Mona Zaki) and for portraying a conversation between a father and his daughter about her relationship with her boyfriend. Georges Khabbaz, who plays the father in question, said in an interview that the film “encourages openness and transparency between parents and their children,” adding that “in the Arab world, communication between the two generations is somewhat closed.” Despite the controversy surrounding the film – which included a member of Egypt’s House of Representatives calling for Netflix to be banned – it went to the top of the streaming company’s charts in the region.

Established rulers in the Middle East have long had concerns about the transmission of perceived alien cultural values ​​through technology and globalization. The United Arab Emirates, for example, banned the 2022 Pixar film Lightyear on the grounds that the same-sex kiss featured in the film violated the country’s media standards. The film was also not screened in Saudi Arabia, which has faced issues with a number of new releases depicting or alluding to LGBTQ+ issues.

In comparison, and at first glance, there is nothing explicitly controversial about the content Family Vloggers produce, and no topic presented is taboo enough to warrant more than a chastisement in the comments section (of which there are many). However, these content creators are extremely honest and invite viewers into their personal lives and relationships. It is not clear what impact these vlogging channels will have, but they could lead to changes in attitudes among subscribers, since it is theoretically assumed that views on social roles and issues in the region are at least partly influenced by the perceptions of one’s social peers will believe and do. Perhaps such videos simply make more visible the gendered dimensions of household chores and the choices that affect those chores—both in the private and public spheres.

In the post-Arab Spring era, regional governments have certainly recognized the subversive potential of social media platforms like YouTube. But in the long run, the family vloggers’ urge to “film every moment” might be the most politically significant piece of content of all. One wonders if any parliamentarians are watching, clearly attuned to the real-world implications of fictional stories.

Kaitlyn Hashem is the Associate Editor of Sada. Follow her on Twitter: @KaitHashem.


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