Thursday, June 9, 2011

Another Pretty Arab Face Seduces the Media

During the Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, massive demonstrations erupted in the streets of Beirut. As I read about these demonstrations in newspapers and watched events unfold on television, I was struck by the obsessive media coverage of what I now can only describe as the “hot girls of Lebanon.”

Without fail, television cameras turned their attention not so much to speakers and rally organizers, but beautiful women — their faces painted red, green and white — waving Lebanon’s flag. One respected American with an expertise in Middle East issues couldn’t help himself and posted a photo gallery on his blog of only female Lebanese protesters.

Now we have a new hot face for the uprisings in Syria: Amina Abdallah Arraf, also known as, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” As AnonymousSyria recently twittered to his or her 3,300 followers, “#Amina is beautiful, hot & brave.”

A group of men, presumably Syrian security forces, allegedly abducted Arraf and is detaining her somewhere. She had gained considerable attention for her blog entries challenging the Syrian government. She reported on the violent clashes with police and the military.

Arraf’s kidnapping quickly elevated her to celebrity status. Activists mounted the “Free Amina” movement, much like the “Free Manal” campaign for Manal Al-Sharif following her arrest in Saudi Arabia for driving a car.

Now there is speculation that Arraf doesn’t exist and her abduction was a hoax. Journalists once enamored with Arraf are now considering that she may be a fraud. Not a single person has come forward to claim a face-to-face relationship with Arraf. Her parents have made public no statements. And there appears to be no documentation to support Arraf's claims that she is a Syrian-American raised in Virginia.

Still, Arraf possesses the key elements that make her the perfect image of a revolution. Arraf is a young pretty, non-hijabi woman who writes provocative blog posts. She does not have that otherworldly Middle East appearance and does not wear Muslim garb. Throw in the fact that she’s gay and has dual citizenship, and you’ve got a sexy story that appeals to the Western media.

Manal Al-Sharif never represented herself other than a hard-working single mom making a statement about the Saudi driving ban. Her life and her brief campaign are well documented. Arraf, or the people behind her blog, can make no such claim. Enough time has passed that proof of her existence should have surfaced by now.

Yet these persistent questions apparently have not dissuaded many journalists and rights activists that Arraf deserves to be the poster girl for the Syrian uprisings. One women’s rights activist went so far to say that Arraf’s identity doesn’t matter because she represents all Syrians imprisoned by the government.

Really? Amnesty International reports that Syrian authorities have jailed 10,000 people and killed as many as 750 since the uprisings began. Among those detained are children, including 13-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who was tortured and murdered.

It’s offensive that a fictional character, if indeed the alleged hoax turns out to be true, becomes the face of the uprising. Meanwhile, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who disappeared on April 29, fades from view as the media lose interest. Apparently, Hamza’s story pales in comparison to Arraf’s situation.

I hope that Arraf is an actual person and I pray for her safe return to her family. I want her to be real because if Arraf is a fake, then it’s simply cynical manipulation of the emotions of the Syrian people. It’s the last thing Syrians need. The media is responsible for perpetrating the fabrication through lazy reporting by not establishing her identity in the first place. Pro-democracy and women’s rights activists also share the blame for their eagerness to embrace a cause that was suspect. They, too, did not check their facts.

If indeed Arraf turns out not be real, then we all have been duped by a pretty face that managed to distract the world from the grievances of the Syrian people.


The Linoleum Surfer said...

I have to admit that I didn't pay much attention to this woman's story. But it seems to me that if she is a fabrication, it's not about "manipulation of the emotions of the Syrian people". The Syrian people already have plenty to be emotional about, assuming it's true that so many have been killed and detained. Even if the numbers are exaggerated, there is no question of how disturbed the situation is. Syrians don't need the image of this woman to be feeling alarmed.

What strikes me about this story is how suitable it is for manipulating the emotions of Americans and Western Europeans (Eastern Europeans have yet to think of homosexuality as glamorous...) The faces of the Hama uprising in the early eighties were men with beards shouting religious slogans. I imagine that, just as in Libya and Yemen, the most popular revolutionary chant in Syria is "Allahu akbar", not "rainbow rights".

But what if these media faces of revolution reflected the actual sensibilities of most of the "Arab Spring" uprisings? Would they show a conservative, religious people (by Western standards that is), all with different ideas of what they are fighting for? Would they show that the few organised elements, for instance in Syria, have been armed and funded by outsiders as admitted by the US a few weeks ago? Would they show the Al Qaida elements in the Benghazi-led insurgency of Libya, that again the US has had to quietly acknowledge?

If they did, the simplistic notion of "people fighting for freedom against oppression" would be a much harder sell to a western public. These uprisings and protests are multi-faceted, inchoate, chaotic. But the political soundbites are so clear and simple: the people want to be free and democratic, and the bogeyman is stopping them. It seems to me that Miss Amina Arraf, whether or not she is real, is the perfect human embodiment of a western-friendly, Islam-free, democracy-loving peaceful revolutionary.

But whether or not she is real, her image as a simple, single face to represent the Syrian people, is a false one. The Syrians will not love her, nor need to. But the western media will.

Sabria Jawhar said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

you've probably seen the news already...

Sabria Jawhar said...

Yes, another cautionary tale that the news media will ignore.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article though I have not heard much about Syrian lady other than the announcement of the American guy who declared fake story ... care & screening certain stories before we jumb blindly into its support ... like certain fabricated stories about Iraqi soliders in Kuwait to gain world sympathy thru media .

best regards

ibn Bilal said...

Salaam alaikum wa rahmatallah; you are one of my heroes, dear sister...