Qatar: Quarrel over dress code at al-Jazeera indication of ideological conflict

The Guardian

Al-Jazeera's Arabic channel takes pride of place among Middle East's satellite news outlets. It was the first of its kind, broadcasting – ostensibly with an unprecedented level of editorial independence – to a pan-Arab audience. It broke taboos and shocked audiences by hosting guests on debate shows who attacked the hitherto unassailable: the Saudi royal family, the Palestinian Authority and the Muslim clergy. In 2006, the channel even helped launch the infamous Wafa Sultan's career when she was a guest on The Opposite Direction.

The channel is no stranger to controversy. In the latest instalment, five of its most high-profile female presenters have resigned in an apparent dispute about the dress code. The five are reportedly among a group of eight women working for al-Jazeera who had filed a complaint about "repeated offensive public remarks" about "clothes and decency" from a senior al-Jazeera employee.

Al-Jazeera's female broadcasters always rated highly on the fashion stakes. Their style may not be to everybody's taste, and it's certainly not conservative, but the Levantine standard of beauty, coiffure and maquillage has become the norm. The women are mostly highly capable, chairing debates on difficult issues in classical Arabic, interviewing powerful men in politics and religion with gravity and aplomb, and generally providing a welcome change to the surfeit of hyper-sexualised images of women in mainstream Arabic media.

Before the advent of al-Jazeera and MBC (the region's other major satellite broadcaster) female presenters were mainly on Lebanese channels such as Future TV and LBC, which took over the airwaves in the mid-1990s showing thinly clad women to woo an audience unaccustomed to anything but dry state-controlled content.

Al-Jazeera's senior management seems unrelenting, accepting the resignations and stating that the channel had the right to "set conditions and criteria for its employees' physical aspects in line with the spirit, values and images it wants to disseminate". All ostensibly reasonable enough, and not an issue confined exclusively to Arabic media. The BBC's Emily Maitliss and Kirsty Wark for example, have had their share of criticism over their hemlines, which some think are too short for women presenting serious news content. However, when the women in question are at an Arab or Muslim channel, the link between female attire and the agenda of the institution takes on extra significance.

A committee set up to investigate the mass resignation stated that "arguments with the head of the make-up section were the result of different professional approaches and linguistic and cultural differences", which suggests a clash of cultures between the Gulf management of the channel, and its mostly Lebanese/Syrian or Arab Francophone broadcasting staff.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it is highly unusual to see an Arab newscaster wearing hijab on any of the more prominent news channels. As a percentage of the Arab population, the under-representation of hijab-clad women on private Arabic TV channels (apart from "cause" channels such as al-Majd and national ones in the Gulf) is obvious. When al-Jazeera's Khadijah bin Qinnah donned the hijab a few years ago, she was commended for her bravery in the face of a media industry which is reluctant to imply any religious influence. She has not resigned, but has lent her support to her outgoing colleagues.

The whole affair seems to smack of the IslamOnline debacle earlier in the year when changes in management led to the imposition of a more hardline approach. The quarrel over dress code at al-Jazeera appears to be the first precipitation of ideological and political conflict. It is a worrying sign that a channel which has been a pioneer in many ways could be falling victim to the very patterns of behaviour it made a name for denouncing in the Arab countries.