Maysoun Odeh Gangat is a Palestinian social entrepreneur who persevered to start the first commercial Arabic language women’s radio station and website in the Levant, called 96 NISAA FM (meaning women). Maysoun is empowering women in and through the media, by providing a platform for all actors (public, private and government) to discuss women’s issues and by engaging both men and women in solution-oriented discussions concerning pressing women’s issues.
The New Idea
Maysoun uses the media to transform how women see themselves and how they are viewed by and presented in regional and global media. She also works from within her radio station to inspire role models of women media professionals to increase the number of women working as top professionals in the media field. Thus, Maysoun is empowering women on all fronts and addresses all stakeholders to work on advancing women in society and improving their image. Maysoun’s systematic and inspirational approach to women’s issues gradually changes the perception of Arab women amongst themselves and within society, by highlighting the positive role of women in their community and presenting a fresh image of the multifaceted Arab woman, who has always been a strong pillar of support in the community, but can also make a profound difference for herself and those around her. Maysoun eliminates the common stereotype of women as victims. As one of the few female, top media professionals, Maysoun established 96 NISAA FM as the only station run by and for women. The streaming is also available online making it accessible to listeners in the MENA region and Diaspora; connecting people together in one comprehensive platform focused on one goal, improving women’s quality of life and dissolving the gender gap in the political, social, and economic participation of women.
Maysoun’s media platform combines interactive entertainment programming with social and informative journalism to engage both men and women alike and involve both in the process of transformative change. Improving women’s status in society betters the lives of everyone. Maysoun reaches men and women at different social, educational, and economic levels through radio because of its wide reach and affordability in all communities, including refugee camps and remote areas. Maysoun also informs and inspires Palestinian women in the media sector by providing successful role models—including herself and her staff—and offering training opportunities for female journalists. She will be hiring more women media professionals as she expands geographically, covering Gaza and elsewhere. Thus, Maysoun gives a new face to women and cheerful voice to Palestine, much needed inspiration and upbeat programing to relieve the stresses of living under military occupation. She exposes the richness of Palestinian culture and the diversity of women in the region, which are the positive counterparts of conflict.
The image of women in media is often negative, discouraging women and adversely affecting the way they are viewed by the local and global community. Arab women are commonly portrayed in the media as victims of violence, abuse and oppression, undermining their major contributions and successes. Misperceptions and misrepresentation of women have been embedded in regional and international media for decades. Critics confronted the focus on women’s bodies prevalent in the media and called for new images of women as mothers, wives, and active participants in society. Most of the Arab media institutions don’t present—directly or indirectly—women as equal to men. Women are often presented in images that reflect daily life by featuring women in the Arab world as submissive wives “happily” using the products being sold. There is too much of a focus on housewives and too little attention given to women community leaders, politicians, professionals, scientists, and experts.
Women in the Arab world face a number of serious problems. One is their limited mobility. The reasons for this vary from territory to territory, being Palestine’s endless checkpoints, roadblocks and separation wall, or in other Levant countries due to cultural and social norms. This limited mobility makes it harder for women to communicate, access information, network, and seek job opportunities.
Even though women in the Levant constitute a large percentage of the student bodies of schools and universities, increased educational opportunities for women have not translated into higher numbers in the labor market. Women are attaining higher education, but are still unable to access as many jobs as men. The unemployment in MENA region is alarming, and it particularly affects women. Only 25.2 percent of region’s female population aged 15 and above participates in labour market. Except in low-income economies where women work primarily in agriculture under conditions of poverty, they tend to find jobs in the services sector, which in the Arab world is characterised by low productivity and low remuneration.
With few women participating in society, the public sphere, and in the media, there are fewer opportunities and less decision-making power for women. This causes a vicious circle where women are even more marginalized and voiceless, which is emphasized by the low visibility of existing role models and successful female figures. The subliminal message that women are taught and have internalized over decades is a major impediment to advancing women’s status. Thus, Maysoun’s positive reinforcement of women’s success stories in the region is extremely useful to reverse this negative trend. By increasing the number of professional women working in the media field and in Maysoun’s own station, she creates role models that inspire more young women to do the same. Usually, women are given inferior assignments on less serious topics compared to men, who are chosen to report on political changes and conflict zones. Maysoun’s radio station shows that women are equally capable as men at producing, reporting, and presenting difficult issues.
In order to achieve her goal of a Levant region that is proud and inclusive of women—giving them equal rights and opportunities to participate fully in civic and political life—Maysoun chose radio as a focus medium because of its accessibility to a large audience at a low cost. Maysoun presents inspiring female role models from all sectors, women in refugee camps, both young and old, housewives, students, and working women. NISAA FM started in Ramallah, Palestine, and then expanded to further locations, including the Northern Territories, to the most marginalized communities. Maysoun’s comprehensive strategy is systematic both in geographical expansion as well as its diverse programing; bringing all stakeholders to one place to bring about real change from within the community and through government support.
Maysoun designed her interactive programming to include a mix of talk shows, investigative reporting, entertainment, and practical information, which enables the station to fulfil its social mission whilst engaging its audience in a professional and attractive manner. The morning shows are produced and presented by a young female graduate, Nesrine, who is from a refugee camp. Through her work in the station she has become a role model for young women in Palestine. The show includes, five community reporters, who provide content for the show, and cover marginalized communities, women’s issues, and cases of economically successful women from different villages and cities. Once a week there are also interviews with various diaspora women and citizen organizations (COs). The morning show is concluded by an entertainment segment that reviews books and films related to women. The afternoon show is a discussion of women’s economic status, women COs, and various topics such as travel, trivia, family, and men & health tips. The noon show is a platform for various stakeholders to shed light on pressing social issues, such as domestic violence, polygamy, divorce, and women’s access to the labor market.
Through the show, women get legal advice and relevant support for situations that might arise at home, work, or elsewhere. Maysoun is altering traditional views by presenting the news and other programs to the community in a new light. She does this through the lens of women journalists addressing issues from their perspectives as women. For example, after honor killings were discussed on Maysoun’s radio station with the presence of a religious figure, a sociologist, a CO representative, and a government official, government actors were convinced that the penalty for such a crime should be strengthened.
Maysoun also plays an important role in responding to a hunger for knowledge and the need for information that can truly help transform the lives of women by helping to them flourish rather than simply survive. NISAA FM serves as a platform that connects listeners with COs to support them in different areas of their lives, such as counselling for domestic violence, how to file for welfare, educational opportunities, and job training.
While there are two other women radio-led stations in Egypt and Iraq, Maysoun’s station is the only station operating on a commercial model, airing both online and on-air, while addressing women’s issues from a non-traditional approach and including men in the process of change. Furthermore, Maysoun’s radio station is unique in its non-confrontational approach when talking about serious issues, which diffuses criticism and covers all facets of the issue—catering to local needs and beliefs. After only 15 months on-air and online, Maysoun’s NISAA FM ranked number 3 of 20 stations according to the Ministry of Interior across the Ramallah Governorate, and number 5 according to a ranking by PALTEL. The website gets about 600 hits per month and the radio’s Facebook page has around 946 fans and the station receives 20 SMSs and calls per hour, which reflects a high rate of interaction and engagement from listeners.
Maysoun is continually developing partnerships with government bodies to increase her level of impact and change. Officially, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs that is in charge of policy changes within the government for issues related to women is a main partner. Maysoun has formed an extensive network of partners including local COs such as Filistaniyat (meaning Palestinian Women), the Human Rights and Democracy Media Centre, Women’s Affairs Technical Committee, and the Media Development Centre at Birzeit University. Maysoun also offers the Business Women’s Forum her expertise for their advertising and PR campaigns and connects them to women professionals through her radio station.
Maysoun had to overcome a series of challenges before building such an extensive network of partnerships. She faced concerns from the community claiming that female dedicated programming will alienate men. She successfully provided counter arguments showing how instead of excluding men, she is actively engaging them on relevant topics like family life and men’s health, inviting them to participate in the discussion, and including them in the process of change for women that will have positive ramifications on their lives as well. Another obstacle for Maysoun was to find the proper frequency for her radio, since settlers in the West Bank are not subject to Palestinian law and have set up pirate and illegal radio stations. She conducted many field visits to ensure her reach.
In the next five years, Maysoun will continue to diversify her funding sources, strive to generate income, and become self-sufficient, which is why she chose a commercial model rather than a non-profit. In the first year, Maysoun generated US$25,000 in revenue followed by a big jump to US$80,000 in the 2nd year, a great success she hopes to build on until she reaches full sustainability, covering her expenses and hiring more journalists to expand her coverage. Funding sources include cash, in-kind donations, pro bono services, advertisements, and program sponsorships from private sector companies, public announcements for government agencies to support station operation expenses. Maysoun is working on a monitoring tool to assess the extent of her impact.
Growing up in occupied Palestine without her father, who was killed in the 1967 war, Maysoun has little recollection of him. She was raised by a strong mother who refused to remarry and opted to raise her four children alone. This could be the experience of any Palestinian family or child, but Maysoun was taught to defy all obstacles and find creative ways to overcome them. Failure was not an option in her upbringing. With her mother’s example as a pillar of strength, Maysoun learned to believe in the power of women, what they are capable of, and that education is the starting point for a successful public and private life.
After childhood in Jerusalem, Maysoun pursued university studies in France and the U.S. She then worked at the South African Representative Office in Ramallah and learned from South African’s experience and struggle. After marrying a South African diplomat, she began a career in media in South Africa, while raising a child, Adam, now 10-years-old.
Though Maysoun could have continued living abroad, she chose to move her family to Palestine so that she could give back. In 2005 she started RAM FM, the first English radio station in Palestine. Unfortunately, it was closed down in 2008 by the Israeli government and Maysoun along with five other colleagues were arrested. After her release, Maysoun continued her work and founded 96 NISAA FM in 2009.
Maysoun is not only a courageous woman with exceptional passion and a strong set of ethical values, she is also a successful media professional who has won the attention of many in the field. Maysoun was honored by the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs and invited to several regional and international events to present her radio outlet and its achievements, including the Women’s Forum Global Meeting in Deauville (2010) and the International Conference of Women Media Leaders in Washington D.C. (2011). Maysoun was also selected as a Synergos Arab World Social Innovator (2011) among a small group of social entrepreneurs.