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Setting the record straight: When research is misinterpreted

“Taharrush” (“sexual harassment”) is an Arabic word, not an Arabic phenomenon.
ASU doctoral student combats gender violence with grassroots fieldwork.
March 16, 2016

ASU doctoral student in Cairo finds her work on sexual harassment in Middle East misrepresented in media; gender violence is not an Arab issue but a human one

On Jan. 11, Arizona State University doctoral candidate Angie AbdelmonemAngie Abdelmonem is a doctoral student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as a faculty associate in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. was headed to a flight to Cairo to participate in a collaborative research project when she received a request for an interview from a journalist in Italy.

The journalist was writing a piece on the wave of sexual assaults that took place in Germany over the New Year and was hoping Abdelmonem would be willing to comment on the concept of “taharrush” — literally “sexual harassment” in Arabic — which was the subject of her doctoral dissertation research and which she had recently written about for Kohl: Journal for Gender and Body Research.

In the days following her arrival in Cairo, Abdelmonem received more media requests from journalists in Russia, Sweden and other European countries. Much to her dismay, she discovered the Daily Mail had published an article days before that grossly misrepresented her article, fueling the media frenzy for more information.

“While the phrases they use[d] are directly quoted, the way they have positioned my quotes and the discussion hugely misrepresents the issue,” said Abdelmonem.

In an age when news can be repeated as easily as clicking a “share” button and when worries about refugees and immigrants dominate headlines, it’s a stark reminder of how swiftly information — whether right or wrong — can spread.

Rather than recognizing that “taharrush” was simply a translation for “sexual harassment,” media outlets were presenting it as an Arab concept, a cultural phenomenon, not just an Arab word for a situation that exists in many places around the world.

And that had not been the purpose or the spirit of Abdelmonem’s research.

ASU doctoral candidate Angie Abdelmonem Originally interested in archaeology, Abdelmonem’s focus shifted to socio-cultural anthropology as she become increasingly concerned with contemporary social problems in the Middle East. After receiving her master’s in 2004, Abdelmonem (pictured at left) spent time exploring civil society, activism and women’s rights issues in Egypt.

Her interest in gender-based violence evolved out of her experiences working for the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR), where she dealt with issues ranging from women's political participation to female genital mutilation.

During her time at ECWR, Abdelmonem witnessed the implementation of a new program on sexual harassment offered by an NGO.

“It was through this work, observing the way in which NGO workers engaged with the population and sought to change perceptions about sexual violence and, honestly, the resistance that many people had to the information being conveyed by the NGO, that I became interested in how it is that social change around sexual violence occurs,” she said.

That experience eventually led Abdelmonem to choose sexual harassment in the Middle East as her dissertation topic, something most academics hadn’t been looking into. And in writing about it, as she did in the Kohl journal piece, she often used the word “taharrush” in place of “sexual harassment” because of its contested use as a word meaning the sexual harassment of women in public space.

When some journalists — who were already comparing incidents in Germany to the violence that had occurred in Tahrir Square and promoting it as a cultural phenomenon — came across the Kohl piece, they picked up on the term and began to use it to describe the Germany events. For Abdelmonem, this was deeply disconcerting considering the use of the term “taharrush” by European journalists was meant to imply that those who committed the acts were Middle EasternRecent reports have stated that the men were not all Middle Eastern and were not all, unlike some heated claims, refugees. and that sexual harassment did not also exist in Europe. Add to that Europe’s current refugee situation and you’ve got a tinderbox.

“In this case, misrepresenting my work helped the media to portray sexual harassment as a particularly cultural phenomenon prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa that was being imported into Europe by its migrant and refugee populations, which made it possible to call for a closing of borders. This has serious implications for refugees fleeing for their lives,” Abdelmonem lamented.

Correcting the direction of media reports can be especially challenging, said Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“In the age of the Internet, it’s impossible to put something back in the box once it’s been opened,” he said. “Once the media starts picking up on something, it gets wings of its own and it becomes very difficult to correct or change it. That’s one of the real difficulties of the digital age. You can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle.”

“Misrepresenting my work helped the media to portray sexual harassment as a particularly cultural phenomenon prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa that was being imported into Europe by its migrant and refugee populations. ... This has serious implications for refugees fleeing for their lives.”
— ASU doctoral candidate Angie Abdelmonem

The misrepresentation also has implications for how people the world over view the issue of sexual harassment and gender-based violence altogether, Abdelmonem said. Locating it in just one culture obscures that gender-based violence exists everywhere.

“Gender-based violence is generally an issue that cuts across nations, culture, class, race, etc. …” she said. “To locate gender-violence in culture is to deny that women as a group globally experience sexual violence and makes it possible then to focus on culture itself as the problem. Gender-based violence is an expression of patriarchy, which is a problem that exists in all human societies.”

As for her part in addressing that problem, Abdelmonem’s research has centered heavily on community-based, grassroots approaches to mobilization. She has interviewed activists working on sexual harassment and gender violence across numerous organizations, and also conducted surveys of the population at-large in three neighborhoods across Cairo. What she hopes is that her work will provide useful insights to groups about what may or may not help them in their own activism.

“I can't say that I believe my work will end the problem of gender-based violence,” said Abdelmonem, “but my approach to fieldwork and writing has been to include my activist colleagues in the process of knowledge building, which I hope not only gives them a voice in the way scholars understand their activism but also gives them a chance to receive critical feedback or ideas that are to assist in the work they are undertaking.”

To read an article Abdelmonem co-authored on the Germany situation for the magazine Jadaliyya, click here.

Top photo by O H 237 (own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

 
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Putting Zika fears in context

Our imaginations can jump to the scariest scenario with Zika, ASU prof says.
Straightforward Zika videos aim to provide fact-based context.
March 16, 2016

ASU professor's straightforward, engaging video — available in three languages — explains the risks with microcephaly

One of the scarier aspects of the Zika virus is the suggested correlation between microcephaly — a birth defect in which a baby’s head is significantly smaller than normal — and an infected mother.

Arizona State University professor Andrew Maynard was concerned that people were treating microcephaly as a “scary monster,” dehumanizing people afflicted by it and overlooking the fact that the disability “in many cases is less important than how we respond to it, and how we show our humanity through it,” he said.

So he decided to create a video called  “Five Things Worth Knowing about Zika and Microcephaly,” putting the birth-defect risk into context in a straightforward, engaging way.

Maynard knows about risk. He’s the director of the Risk Innovation Lab, a unique center focused on transforming how we think about and act on risk. He has created a number of “Risk Bites” videos on subjects ranging from measles to vaping to tanning beds.

This time, his team has produced the Zika video not just in English, but in Spanish and Portuguese as well — key, as South America is the hardest-hit area.

Watch the video below, and read on as Maynard, a professor in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, explains his approach.

Question: What prompted you to make this video? In particular, what prompted the calm, “let’s dispel some worries” approach? Were you seeing people overreacting or responding through fear?

Answer: As someone who makes videos about risk, I thought that Zika, and microcephaly in particular, were important topics for us to address through Risk Bites. However, I didn’t want to make a “this is the science behind the risk” type of video, as this would be totally useless to women grappling with the real possibility that their child could have microcephaly because of a mosquito bite. Looking at the information that’s available, there seemed a lot about the science (what we know and don’t know about Zika and microcephaly), some about risk perceptions (and how people are exaggerating the risk) and quite a bit on cold, medical advice (like “don’t get pregnant”). But nothing that seemed that helpful to women who lived in Zika-infected areas, or who were visiting them, and who needed clear information that would help them make sense of their personal risks in a way that was personally useful.

The result was a video that didn’t provide an education on the science, or direct medical advice (because we’re not qualified to do that), but does hopefully put the risk in a context that will help people make sense of it from their personal perspective.  To do this, it’s important to recognize that this was a team effort, drawing on health-based students and faculty at ASU and at George Washington University.

Q: Why was it so important for it to be available in English, Spanish and Portuguese? Do you routinely do your Risk Bites videos in multiple languages?

A: This is the first time we’ve produced a video in anything other than English. However, because we wanted this one to be useful to people directly grappling with the threats of Zika and microcephaly, I wanted to make sure that it was accessible to as many affected people as possible. And to be frank, a video on five things worth knowing about Zika and microcephaly that was only understandable to English-speaking populations would have seemed inappropriate, given the areas where the issue is.

Fortunately, we’ve had a great team working on the non-English versions of the video to make this possible.

Q: Do you think the — as the video put it — large stack of questions compared with the small supply of answers is feeding the fear? What do people need to remember in such situations?

A: Certainly this imbalance between questions and answers can increase anxiety and leave people feeling powerless. A lack of answers also leaves the door open to people filling the gap, sometimes with explanations that aren’t supported by the science, but make people feel more secure anyway, or in the case of some theories (such as microcephaly being caused by genetically modified mosquitoes — a theory with no scientific basis, by the way), give them something concrete to be angry about. It’s a “monster under the bed” sort of situation, where our imaginations too easily fill in the blanks.

This is where it’s helpful to provide some context to a risk such as the possibility of your child getting microcephaly — essentially shining a light on the issue so it stops being the worst monster imaginable, and starts looking like something that, while it’s still very worrying, is handleable.

In situations like this, it’s important to realize that even though there’s a lot that’s not known, a risk that you have some understanding of is easier to deal with than one that you are completely in the dark over.

Q: The video mentions that condom use can also help prevent getting Zika from someone who is already infected. This is a less-reported way to get it; most of the media focuses on transmission by mosquito. You say that experts are still working out the risk, but does this also mean there’s a potential risk from other bodily fluids? (Cuts, saliva, etc.)

A: There’s a lot we don’t know about how Zika can be spread, other than through mosquitos. We know the virus can appear in blood and saliva, and there are possible indications that these might be viable exposure routes, but there are not currently indications that these are high-risk routes of exposure. More research is needed here. However, what we do know is that mosquitoes are the most likely way that the virus is spread.

Q: Do you see these videos as not only quelling fear, but acting as a public service announcement?

A: I’m not sure I would see these videos as quelling fear, but as empowering people to take control of the risks they face. And part of this is to provide people with understanding that’s rooted in science, that they can make use of. I’m not sure I would use the term “public service announcement,” but I would certainly hope that people find them useful to make better-informed decisions that protect their health, and that of others.

Q: What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of the Zika outbreak?

A: Certainly, the rumors that have circulated about what might have caused the sudden outbreak — including the release of genetically modified mosquitoes and the use of a certain pesticide — don’t stack up when you look at the evidence, and potentially undermine efforts to control the infection.  But what stands out to me personally is the implicit assumption that microcephaly is a severely disabling condition, that sentences sufferers and their parents to a hard, harsh life.  Certainly, severe microcephaly is very difficult to deal with. But there are levels of microcephaly that aren’t nearly so debilitating, and that do not stop people with the condition living full and active lives. 

Q: This is part of your Risk Bites video series. What is the mission of these videos?

A: The aim of the series is to make the science behind risk — what causes it, how it affects us and how to make sense of it — relevant and accessible to as many people as possible. Risk is a reality of being alive, and surprisingly, there’s a lot of cool science associated with it — the videos certainly cover that. But they are also aimed at helping people make sense of risk in ways that are useful to them personally in the decisions they make.

Penny Walker

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

480-965-9689