Authors: Noora Sharrab, Social Media Coordinator, "Be 100 Ragl", and Antonella Notari Vischer, Executive Director, The Womanity Foundation, May 13 2014

Harnessing the power of fiction to talk about social change

In Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan, thousands of listeners daily tune in to their radios these days to follow the story of Noha, a young female radio journalist, played by the brilliant actress Mona Zaki. The radio fiction series entitled "Be 100 Ragl" - meaning "Worth 100 Men" - boldly tackles problems faced by women in the Middle East and beyond. In her work and private life, Noha is confronted with sexual harassment, domestic violence, gender-based discrimination and chauvinism. As a journalist, she intrepidly investigates corruption scandals and social problems. [Editor's note: Click here for a summary of this project on The CI website, which includes links to further ways to learn about it online.]

Noha's adventures and her heroic personality are sparking debates on air and on social media. Women and men are sharing their opinions on important but sensitive issues affecting Arab societies. The "radio novel" is shedding light on taboos and opening up much needed conversations about the role of women in society, both in the private and public spheres.

No protection, no safety, no respect

The online engagement around "Be 100 Ragl" particularly rose when the discussion turned to sexual harassment, with a significant participation from Egyptian listeners. Part of the debate was around "whose fault" it is and "who is to blame", with questions on whether it is what women are wearing or how they behave in public that provokes men. Other groups discussed how a woman should respond to sexual harassment.

One captivating strand of comments, mostly coming from women, spoke out on the lack of protection and on the absence of authority to stand up against sexual or physical violence directed towards women in public spaces. A female commentator from Egypt noted: "The really sad thing is how our girls can be exposed to harassment even in the presence of safety and security police officers." Another women remarks: "Whom do I ask to protect me? The men from the army [are] flirting and policemen [are] harassing us. Or do I seek protection from the people who, even if they were to see a woman being raped in front of them, would say: it's none of my business?"

These views are confirmed by a recent study, indicating Egypt as the worst Arab country for women to live in, with statistics noting that 99.3% of women and girls in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment in their life. Ironically, some men have responded online questioning the validity of the study. Some contributors explored the reasons for such widespread sexual harassment and drew relations to the different ways girls and boys are raised, and to how differently they are judged by society. One comment read: "(The reason for sexual harassment is) the difference in raising boys and girls. Boys are brought up with the notion that they're able to do anything simply because they're men; while women are told that for them, (many things) are considered rude, or haram (something God forbids) and people will start talking about you. Before we judge boys or girls, we should first learn how to raise them correctly." And again: "A guy sees a beautiful woman with her head uncovered and thinks 'if only I could marry that girl!' But if his sister applies eyeliner, he will beat her down. The honor of a woman is directly related to her virginity, while a man's is only judged based on his financial capability."

Finally, one Facebook follower said, "if we carefully ponder the reasons justifying sexual harassment, we won't find anything beyond sick-minded people. There's no such thing as teaching a lesson, nor an excuse of revealing clothes, there's only shortage (in ethics and morality) on the part of those committing the act.

Are men and women equal?

The online audience also debated the title "Be 100 Ragl", which revealed deep-rooted views on women, men and their (expected) role in society. "Be 100 Ragl" ("Worth 100 Men") in Arab culture is said of women that are seen to be independent, courageous and assertive leaders. Some women felt that a woman should not be compared to men. "The discussion on equality can't work if we continue to compare genders". This comment was followed by a post that read: "Behind every great woman, there is nobody. God has created her great: is it necessary to have someone behind her greatness?"

Other commentators wrote that comparing women to men in the meaning of a woman being 'worth of 100 men' was positive because 'men' are seen as the symbol of power, superiority, strength and independence. Alternatively, "if you [a man] consider women as [your] competitors, then to say 'Be 100 Ragl' of a woman is problematic; but if you [a man] consider the woman as your daughter, sister or mother then you'll be proud of her and seek ways to protect her against any harsh comments or acts."

Many more debates are emerging as new episodes of "Be 100 Ragl" are aired daily. The radio fiction series is proving to be a fertile ground on which to cultivate conversations about controversial issues around women's role in society with the participation of both conservative and liberal voices. The hope is that it will allow for a lively and fruitful exchange of views that will ultimately drive positive change towards more egalitarian and safer societies.

Cross-posted at: Blog for Womanity