Reaching Out to Women Through the Airwaves in Palestine
BY ERIN BIEL
Cruising around Ramallah in June 2010, Yazan Samara, a thirty-two -year-old music and production supervisor, was fiddling around with the dials on his radio. “I felt like listening to some other genres of music than the ones that I have on the CDs in my car, which led me to check the local radio stations. Surprised, I heard one of them stand out with the name ‘96 NISAA FM!’” Samara recounted.
NISAA FM’s radio sweeper, the pre-recorded promotional used by radio stations as a segue between songs and programs, lilted across his radio [in Arabic]:
Wherever you are (female “you’ ’)
We shall talk about you
extensively and in details
So you won’t say
We have forgotten you
We have thought a lot about you
Nisaa means “women” in Arabic, and NISAA FM is the first and only radio station in the Middle East solely dedicated to women’s issues. “It grabbed my attention that we have a women’s radio station in Palestine, which is unique, and from that point I started listening to it,” Samara recalled. A month later, Samara heard that NISAA FM was hiring. The US-trained information technology specialist left his job at the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation and joined a team of what is now six women and three men, plus a number of volunteer stringers, who compose the staff at NISAA FM.
While his gender may make Samara seem an unlikely candidate for a radio station focused on women’s issues, Samara does not view his job in gendered terms—and neither does the station. As Maysoun Gangat, the director of NISAA FM, explained, “we recognize the importance of men as partners for change, rather than enemies or partisans.” As such, the radio station commonly interviews both male and female experts on a given program topic, and the daily segment Eileh (“Family”) caters to both husbands and wives.
However, the radio station does not gloss over the evident gender disparities in Palestinian society. A 2009 study published by the Gaza-based Palestinian Women’s Information and Media Centre found that 67 percent of Palestinian women reported being subjected to verbal violence on a regular basis, 71 percent to psychological violence, 52.4 percent to physical violence, and 14.5 percent to sexual violence. Aware of the hurdles that women face in society, NISAA FM aims to project a discourse of women’s empowerment, rather than victimization. Gangat believes that by focusing on women’s stories of achievement, female listeners will realize their own potential as well: “NISAA FM is all about inspiration and empowerment. Inspiration is very important in our society. Through [the] airwaves we can share our experience and knowledge, and support women to realize themselves.”
The radio station first began as a web radio station in December 2009 with the support of the Womanity Foundation, a Swiss non-governmental organization that launches women’s empowerment programs around the world. Yann Borgstedt, founder and president of the Womanity Foundation, decided to test the concept in the Palestinian territories after starting a similar radio station for women in Afghanistan. Through personal contacts, Borgstedt was introduced to Gangat, then the managing director of RAM radio station, the first English radio station in the region. Funded by a South African businessman, RAM sought to connect Palestinians and Israelis on issues that concerned both parties through a neutral language. Having caught the “radio bug” while working there, “I came to NISAA FM with a spirit to create a station [that would] connect Palestinian women together…[and] engage more women in senior positions in media and empower them through media,” Gangat explained.
Borgstedt, impressed by Gangat’s experience and entrepreneurial spirit, provided her with the seed money necessary to officially launch NISAA FM in June 2010. Now the radio station can be heard in the central, northern, and southern regions of the West Bank, and can also be streamed online. While most of the listenership comes from the Palestinian territories, there is also significant listenership among European nations, the United States, and Egypt. In 2011 the station ranked as one of the top five most popular stations in the central West Bank, according to Jawal Telecommunications Company.
NISAA FM is markedly non-political and secular in a region commonly characterized as otherwise. As Gangat asserted, “Personally, I do not believe that religious beliefs fuel gender inequality. Islam as a religion has called for the equality between men and women… We still see some Christian families in Palestine who are more conservative than Muslim ones.” Only during the month of Ramadan are issues related to women and Islam tackled extensively.
During the rest of the year, the station runs three live programs that span 7 am to 6 pm on Sundays through Thursdays. The NISAA FM audience is diverse, reaching a blend of listeners based in urban, rural, and refugee camp areas, along with Palestinian diaspora communities throughout the world. As such, the programming is equally varied. The morning show, called Qahwah Mazboot (“Coffee Moderately Sweetened”) remains the most popular and commonly utilizes NISAA FM’s volunteer reporters who provide stories from the rural villages. Segments range from Turath, which seeks to unite the Palestinian community by highlighting various aspects of Palestinian culture, to Tamkeen, a daily segment that hosts women from rural and marginalized areas who have started projects through microfinance loans. By noon, the station transitions to heavier issues, such as domestic violence, poverty, and early marriage, targeting the housewives who tend to listen in at this time. The late afternoon show addresses issues related to Muasassat (NGOs), Eileh (family), and Iktisadiyat (economics). Topics include women’s rights in the workforce and how to launch social enterprise endeavors. Listeners are even encouraged to call in and explain ideas that they would like to develop.
Despite NISAA FM’s rapid success, the radio station has had to work hard to sustain itself. As Gangat explained, “there are 43 radio stations in the West Bank, so you can imagine the competition for the listenership and for the market share…. The economy is donor dependent and very volatile.” In an effort to reach out to even more women and augment their programming, NISAA FM has secured grants from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other international organizations operating in the West Bank. Last year, with the additional UNESCO funding, NISAA FM was able to train four community reporters who now work at the station on a volunteer basis. Going forward, NISAA FM would like to hold focus groups with women to discuss their radio content. The station also hopes to extend their daily programming to 7 pm and add a Saturday weekend program.
Gangat was recognized in 2011 by the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs for helping to place women’s issues on the national agenda. As just one marker of women’s increasing empowerment, the proportion of women in Palestinian universities has been growing, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, such that there are now more women than men pursuing post-secondary degrees. Maysoun wants to see that trend continue, and she believes that radio is the answer: “Radio is a cheap, accessible communication medium for all socioeconomic groups; it also has a personal approach, [is] mobile…and reaches remote areas.” Just as education has long been viewed as the “great equalizer,” Maysoun views the radio, and the wisdom that it can bestow, as the new great equalizer for women— whether these women reside in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank or the more urban neighborhoods of Ramallah.
Erin Biel ’13 is a Global Affairs & Ethnicity, Race, and Migration double major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at email@example.com.