Thursday, 24 March 2011

The glossy revolution: 'Cosmopolitan' launches in the Middle East.

The glossy revolution: 'Cosmopolitan' launches in the Middle East

Women are the same around the world – well, that's what the publishers of the new Middle East 'Cosmopolitan' hope. The magazine is famous for its lipstick-and-sex-tips format, but Joan Smith argues that despite appearances, it has also been an enduring engine for social change

Thursday, 24 March 2011 

Over the past couple of months, a wave of popular protest has shaken the Middle East. Regimes have been overthrown, towns have been seized from dictators and repressive regimes have reacted with escalating violence. In the middle of such tumult, it might not seem the ideal moment to launch a Middle East edition of one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of Western sexual freedom. But in an extraordinary accident of timing, Cosmopolitan will go on sale in half-a-dozen Middle Eastern countries next month.

At first glance, it's not easy to see the relevance of an American-based magazine full of fashion and sex tips on the streets of Manama or Riyadh. Some Western commentators have poured scorn on the idea, with The New York Observer recently dismissing Cosmopolitan as a "recycled sex-tip repository". That hasn't stopped the magazine's publishers preparing to sell a new edition in Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Lebanon, as well as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But it's an under-statement to suggest that the Saudi authorities would find the British edition of Cosmopolitan a challenge. A recent cover offered "Explosive Sex Secrets!" and an interview with a transsexual who has the same name as Prince William's fiancée.

Cosmopolitan's publisher insists that the magazine's format varies from country to country to take account of local sensibilities. If the Middle East seems a potentially tricky market, especially in the light of unfolding events, it's worth recording that Cosmopolitan has long been an international brand, launching its 61st edition in Mongolia last year. The deciding factor, I suspect, isn't a mission to sell Western ideas about sex and fashion, but the publisher's judgment that there's a sufficiently large middle class with similar aspirations to women in Europe and the US.

At the same time, it's undeniable that the issues which persuaded Western women to buy Cosmopolitan, Ms magazine and The Female Eunuch four decades ago are rising to the surface in the Middle East. Earlier this month, demonstrations to mark International Women's Day were marred by violence in several countries. Women demanding gender equality and an end to sexual harassment were attacked in Tahrir Square by angry men.

If Cosmopolitan's message is more mixed today than it was in the past, its arrival in the Middle East may raise fewer eyebrows than might be expected. These societies were in flux even before the popular uprisings of the past couple of months, and relations between men and women are changing along with everything else. It would be a mistake to imagine that the lifestyle featured in Western women's magazines is unfamiliar to Middle Eastern women, or that they don't discuss intimate subjects to do with sex with sometimes startling frankness. Across the region, young people especially are being pulled in different directions, invited to embrace Islamist ideas on the one hand and globalised consumer culture on the other.

The fact that Cosmopolitan is moving into the Middle East, even on a small scale, is further evidence of that process. We're all participants and observers of a global civilisation where individual aspiration – for consumer goods, democracy, affluence and sexual freedom – is increasingly difficult for autocratic regimes to resist.

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