Monday, 26 January 2015

Morocco - First female Muslim leaders lead quiet revolution

This is a little gem I’ve found on the Frontline Club website: Casablanca Calling, a documentary about women leading a quiet revolution in Morocco. I love this story because it shows strong women taking control and making changes in their own terms. They are neither following Western dreams nor accepting their country's repressive views of Islam.  It reminds me of the Queen Mothers of Ghana, who are reinventing their traditional roles to improve the lives of girls and women in their communities. I am going to Ghana in June with filmmaker Dominique Chadwick to report on that story.

Casablanca Calling, by documentary filmmaker Rosa Rogers and triple BAFTA winning producer Hilary Durman takes us into the heart of this quiet social revolution in Morocco through the lives of the women at its forefront.  It is  the story of a society in transition and a mission to educate a nation.

In a country where 60% of women have never been to school, a new generation of women have started working as official Muslim leaders or Morchidat.  The Morchidat, the world’s first female Muslim leaders, are setting out to change their country: empowering women through the teachings of Islam and challenging the attitudes which breed extremism. 

They work in some of the poorest communities in Morocco to separate the true teachings of Islam from some of the prejudices emanating from a largely conservative culture. They work to support education for girls and campaign against early marriages.  And they encourage young people to build a more progressive Morocco, as opposed to pursuing the agenda that many young people in the country do, which is aspiring to a life in the West.

Through personal stories, family dramas and everyday lives, Casablanca Calling gives a unique perspective on women’s lives in contemporary Morocco. It tells the story of committed people, social change and a sacred mission.

The film will be presented at theFrontline Club on Friday 30 January 2015 at 7:00 PM. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Rosa Rogers and producer Hilary Durman.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Lebanon - Media in a polarised country

Talking with students from various universities in Beirut

I wonder how my Lebanese colleagues manage to do any meaningful work.  How do you cover the news in such a polarised country? How do you report on other views, on other religious and political convictions – especially when you work for media which are themselves so polarised? 

I went to Beirut recently with the wonderful Milica Pesic, executive director of the Media Diversity Institute (MDI), a London-based international organisation promoting and researching media diversity.  During our weeklong visit, we discussed with top Lebanese journalists, as well as journalism faculty and students from five universities, how their media could try to ease tensions rather than fuelling hostility and violence.  Our visit was part of a two-year project called “Toward an Inclusive and Responsible Media in Lebanon” run by MDI and its Lebanese partner the Maharat Foundation, an organisation working on building a more democratic society through freedom of expression.

Byblos/credit: Veronique Mistiaen

The first thing Milica and I did when arriving in Lebanon was to visit the ancient city of Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited city is the world. Created 7,000 years ago, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, some 40 km north of Beirut is a true microcosm of the various civilizations which have populated Lebanon over the centuries.   We thought that regular visits to Byblos should be mandatory for students, political and religious leaders, journalists and anyone in danger of forgetting the rich, diverse past of their country.
Walking through the coastal city, you can see layers upon layers of ruins from previous civilisations. Here are walls built by the Phoenicians, there a tower erected by the crusaders and everywhere are traces of the various cultures, ethnic groups and languages that have made the richness of this small country.

Sadly, because of its geographical location and the brutal civil war, which was fought along religious fault lines, Lebanon’s pluralism has long been replaced by ferocious polarisation.
The influx of more than one million refugees from Syria is further threatening this fragile country, where one out of every four people is now a Syrian refugee. 

And over the past few years, the media have exacerbated the sectarianism and have become more polarised themselves.  Journalists we spoke with explained that newspapers and TV stations – even universities – are increasingly in the hands of political, religious and business leaders who use them as their mouthpieces and instruments of control. 

Not surprisingly, the polarisation between media has in turn reinforced Lebanon’s social and political polarisation.

In that context, the work of Maharat Foundation and partner organizations like MDI is crucial. The Foundation has designed a Reporting Diversity module to help journalists, students and academics improve their skills in reporting on religious intolerance, sectarianism and extremism. Maharat is also trying to make the media industry acknowledge their part of responsibility for this polarisation and offering guidelines for a more inclusive, ethical and responsible coverage.