Making a new media mold

Saudi Arabian women are increasingly overcoming traditional stereotypes to work in journalism.

Muna Abu Suleiman 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Muna Abu Suleiman 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Samar al-Mogren is a Saudi print journalist who shot to fame earlier this year upon publication of her book The Vice Women. Mogren worked for four years at the Saudi daily Al-Watan, enjoying a top-notch position where she supervised both men and women at the paper's social affairs desk. Late last year, the editorial board changed hands, and from that point her skills were called into question. "I was totally marginalized," she says. "I wasn't consulted as an editor; I'd go home at six or seven in the evening after writing out the pages only to find that when the paper came out the next day, nothing I'd done was published. "I started to witness real discrimination against women. Women weren't wanted there, except for a handful who were needed for administrative work. If there was a woman who was capable of making a decision, it wasn't welcome." Loath to capitulate to the whims of her new boss, Mogren decided to leave her job while she was ahead. "If I'd stayed there I'd have been buried," she says. During her field work as a journalist, Mogren has interviewed countless Saudi women and documented their plight as second-class citizens in Saudi society. Mogren, who has since begun contributing to the Kuwaiti Awan, has revealed some horrific stories of violence against Saudi women and hopes to raise more awareness about this issue around the world, in particular in the Arab world. "My job as a journalist is to investigate these matters and bring them to light," she says. Mogren is not alone in her quest and is part of a group of pioneering women who are trying to break the Saudi media mold. Up until a few years ago, women were a rarity in the Saudi media. Few ventured into the world of communications in a kingdom where the sexes do not mix and women are expected to stay within the confines of their homes. This is slowly changing as more Saudi women are being welcomed into the media industry. But challenges remain rife. Wajeha al-Huweidar, 47, a Saudi journalist and women's rights activist, who has been banned from writing in the kingdom, says women are being accepted more into the media today, but adds that Saudi society is not quite ready to admit them into the workforce as equals. "Women are facing discrimination," she says. "It's still a male-dominated society. In America they say there's a glass ceiling. Well, here we have a ceiling made of iron. It's not easy for a woman here to get to a good position of power unless she's well connected." THERE IS general agreement that when comparing the different media fields, the print media is the most accessible for Saudi women, because it gives them plenty of leeway with minimum exposure. Sabria Jawhar, former bureau chief at the Saudi Gazette, says she met some resistance among her male colleagues when she was given a higher position, but the administration was happy to find a female who was professional and qualified enough for the job. However, the handful of female editors who did work at the paper did not stay for long and did not get the recognition they deserved, she says. Jawhar notes that when it comes to women in the Saudi media, a distinction has to be made between the Arabic media and the English-language media, which tends to be more open and flexible. "Women in general are usually a subject of discrimination," she says, "and I cannot deny that discrimination does exist in the Saudi media industry. Women are kept in separate departments and in most cases don't have access to the newsroom. This in itself deprives them of their right to learn." In addition, she says, there is also disparity in the salaries female journalists get compared to their male peers. "In many cases women are hired on a freelance basis," she explains. "This opens the doors to more abuse and discrimination. They can be fired at any time, they have no rights and some don't even have press cards." Jawhar, who is currently completing a doctorate in applied and educational linguistics in Newcastle in the UK, has participated in two forums in Riyadh to address these problems, but says there was very little NGO activity in this respect. "The only NGO in the media industry, the Saudi Journalists' Association, has two females among nine board members, and they're not doing much about women's issues," she says. "On the governmental level, the Ministry of Information has no women at all, so how do they expect women to be treated better if they don't exist at the decision-making level? They're doing their best but their efforts aren't very influential." There have been improvements with regards to women in the Arabic language media, Jawhar notes, but adds, "I'm not sure whether it's recognition of women in the media or whether it's a fashion to show there is openness." Many of these women face restrictions in terms of the level of their job, the range of topics they cover and problems of access due to segregation. During her work as bureau chief, Jawhar said fighting for some stories to get in was almost a daily war. "I was responsible for the local pages, which are the most sensitive and censored pages," she says. "We could run a lot of stories considered taboo in Saudi Arabia, such as addiction among Saudi women and the ill-treatment of expatriates even by some officials. We visited prisons and wrote about women's rights inside prisons and the relationship of women to society or women's rights in the courtroom." Samar Fatany, a radio presenter who has been in the media business for more than 20 years, recalls one story in particular that resonated strongly among Saudi and Arab audiences. "There was a story of a female broadcaster who was brutally beaten by her husband. She allowed the media to take pictures of her bruised and scarred face and to show how domestic violence was an issue that needed to be addressed by the media and taken up by human-rights organizations." The story of the well-known presenter, Rania al-Baz, was widely reported in the Arab world and in the Western media when it broke in 2005, and Fatany believes the coverage marked the start of a freer press. The fact that women are expected to put their domestic duties as their highest priority presents a challenge for these professional women, who often have to juggle a demanding career with being a mother. "I think most working women give more to their children because they feel they've been working and have been away from them, so they try to compensate by giving more quality time to their kids," Fatany says. Majda a-Suwayyah, a journalist with Al-Jazira newspaper, makes an effort to organize her day so that she can also tend to her house and spend time with her daughters. "I haven't forgotten the role of the family. My time studying is outside my time of being a mother and a housekeeper," she says. Saudi King Abdullah was praised by most of the women interviewed as a major driving force in improving the status of women in the kingdom. Recently, there have been continuous calls from the king to open more doors for women in the private and government sectors, Jawhar says. NOT ONLY are there more women working in the media field, but the kingdom now also offers two university programs where women can pursue media through higher education, an unprecedented move that could change the media scene entirely. Journalism education is key to improving the quality of the profession, says Saudi television presenter Muna Abu Suleiman. "Journalism is not as it's seen in the West, where you go to Columbia and get a master's in journalism," she says. "We don't have a lot of investigative reporting, but they're trying to change this. A lot of real journalists don't even have high-school education. Many don't speak English, so they're not updated about the world. You don't have a very high quality of journalists and people know this." Imam Muhammad Ibn Sa'oud Islamic University in Riyadh has been running such a program for the past two and a half years and is now witnessing its first batch of graduates. The strategy was to start with the graduate level and then pave the groundwork for an undergraduate degree in media for women, explains Muhammad al-Heezan, one of the initiators of the program. Saudi women have been in the field of media for several years, but what they lack is both knowledge and knowledge-based skills, he says. What the university has to offer them in this respect is essential, he adds. "There are more students applying now, so this means they recognize that this would give them the opportunity to find good jobs in the market." With an initial enrollment of 80 female applicants, 40 have completed the course studies and will be graduating shortly. Some were already working as journalists or in the PR industry beforehand, but none had a degree in media. This program gives them both theoretical knowledge and practical experience in TV, radio, print, electronic media, public relations and marketing. The thinking was both to meet a growing demand for media professionals, and to improve the skills of women already in the field. The Saudi Journalists' Association said it had no data with which to compare the number of Saudi women working in media to past data, but the association confirmed a "huge increase" in the numbers. The university program is likely to contribute to this surge. "To be honest, when we were about to start the program we were a little hesitant because we were taking on a challenge and we didn't know what the outcome would be," Heezan says. "There was an initial impression, which later proved to be wrong, that people would oppose a media program for women. But many women applied and the media reacted positively to the initiative." Heezan said there were concerns that there would be opposition from among the faculty members of the university, but these worries also proved to be unwarranted. In a university that is entirely backed financially by the government, Heezan found overwhelming support on campus. A graduate of two American universities, he sees a gap between the American and Saudi higher education systems and aims to narrow this difference using US programs as a paradigm. "I found that we had stayed with the same courses for 20 years, while the American universities had rapidly moved on. We changed the curriculum of our department to the extent that we canceled 95 percent of undergrad courses and replaced them with courses from American universities," he says. The fact that no female teachers were available to lecture in the program - and nearly all the students were women - presented a challenge for the university in a kingdom where segregation between men and women is the norm. Majda a-Suwayyah, a student in the pioneering journalism program, says all lectures were taught through live broadcast, via a screen. "At first it was a bit hard because the lecturer isn't in front of you, but we got used to it," she says. "I studied for my BA degree this way as well, so I don't think it's odd. While the professor is explaining the material, I write it down, so I don't look at the screen so much. "When we studied design, I had some difficulties using the screen because it was all new to me. In the practical work, we were watching through a screen while the lecturer was explaining how to use the program, and it was a bit hard. But I had no problem with the theoretical material." While segregation is adhered to in governmental institutions, the private sector occasionally shows more flexibility. Jawhar said there were mixed training courses at the Saudi Gazette, her former workplace. "I was a graduate of a mixed course," she says. "I was taught by male teachers with male students. It wasn't difficult to cover male issues and I deal with men on a daily basis. But it's difficult for other female journalists, especially in the Arabic-speaking media." Suwayyah, the student in the master's program, was already working at Al-Jazira before beginning her studies. She does not find the segregation at her workplace particularly impeding. For a recent article, all the people interviewed were male. "Now, with modern technology, it's easier for us to reach men. I can contact them by e-mail or conduct a phone interview," she says. "I can contact my colleagues and sources in my journalistic work; it [segregation] doesn't stop me from doing my work. I can work in a way that doesn't contradict Islamic law." Espousing strict gender separation in the workplace might seem abnormal to Westerners, but Suwayyah says whether it is good or not should be judged by the end result. "If there was no segregation, would the end result be different? Would the newspaper be any better? Journalistic work isn't office work; it's totally about being out in the field. We attend press conferences that have men but there are special seats for us." In a way, she feels that as a hijab-clad woman, having a segregated area means she can remove her scarf and feel comfortable in a strictly women-only area. "I find it very convenient. Segregation doesn't mean I never meet any men. In my field work there is no getting away from the fact that I will meet men, but these meetings follow Islamic law principles; I won't meet them when I'm not wearing a hijab, but I prefer to meet people so that I can do my job and I'm comfortable." IF THE WRITTEN media offer some flexibility, there was general agreement that Saudi women working in broadcasting have a harder time. Samar Fatany works for the English service of Radio Jedda, where she presents the news and has a radio magazine about current challenges in Islam. Being the daughter of a diplomat made it easier for her to pursue media studies abroad, as there was no place for a women to study media in Saudi Arabia at that time. Lately it has become popular for women to enter radio, but it was not always the case, Fatany says. "I was among the very few to be employed in radio. I started with TV and I remember I was among the first to read the news on TV in English. We've come a long way. "The media has always been a mixed environment," Fatany says. "They don't practice segregation because it's impossible, especially with television and radio. You need to have technicians and studio managers around you, and journalism involves males and females working together. It was never a segregated field, just like in the medical profession." Unlike some of her colleagues, Fatany feels the segregation is detrimental to progress and development in the media field and believes this practice should be eliminated rather than accommodated. As an example, she says at press conferences the female journalists cannot simply approach the male officials. "They're more accessible to the men than to the women because of the segregation issue. We have to make an appointment and we have to call. It's difficult to reach any officials." However, Fatany is well aware that changes in this respect are unlikely to be implemented soon. "We have to admit that a large portion of our society is resistant to change. We need to be united in our vision toward acquiring a knowledge-based society, a more progressive attitude and to be part of the international community," she says. One female journalist who has made her mark is leading Saudi media personality Muna Abu Suleiman, who stumbled into television unintentionally and has since become a role model in her field. In keeping with Saudi practice, Abu Suleiman appears on MBC TV's popular social affairs program Kalam Nawa'im (Sweet Talk) wearing a religious scarf, something she says was not often seen on Saudi television screens. "Most Saudi women do wear the veil, but you don't see that reflected in the media," Abu Suleiman says. "The other women don't wear the head veil, which is usual for media personalities and that's common from the places they come from, such as Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt." The segregation is not as burdensome as some may think, Abu Suleiman says. "In the age of the Internet, when people no longer need to be in the same room, when people do video conferences which we've been doing in Saudi Arabia for many years, it's not as big an issue as it was maybe 15 years ago." The face of the media in the East is traditionally seen as a feminine rather than a masculine job, she says. However, one of the problems with segregation is that while it does not stop women from climbing to relatively high decision-making positions, they are barred from getting right to the top, Abu Suleiman notes. "In the Saudi Arabian media, we haven't had women in decision-making positions but more as presenters." The Saudi-run MBC, she says, is different in that the person in charge of program development is a woman. "So there are changes occurring everywhere." Another point she stresses is that Saudi Arabia has a diverse population and not everyone espouses the same level of religiosity. Eighty percent of the Saudi population inhabits three of the kingdom's 13 provinces. It is only in the central region, a desert tribal area, that traditions run deep and interaction between men and women is a problem, she says. Several of those interviewed said that the reluctance of women to get involved in a job dominated by males had nothing to do with impositions from above but stemmed more from a feeling among the women themselves, who preferred not to get involved in media. MANY BELIEVE the role women are playing in the Saudi media is growing in a positive direction, but it still has a long way to go until women are comfortable and fully integrated into the field. Heezan, who helped initiate the first media education program for women, believes the glass ceiling is being broken as more women are getting jobs as journalists and editors. The Internet has become an important tool for educating about the rights of women, which has opened many doors for them, he says. "Not only that, society itself is more educated than before and everywhere in the world, education is making a very important impact on changing societies." Small steps, such as a new law that allows women to rent a room in a hotel, may seem trivial for Westerners, but are very significant for Saudi women, who are witnessing a budding independence. Mogren says as small as these steps may be, they are significant. "In one year, we've seen greater accomplishments [in Saudi Arabia] in women's rights than other countries can make in 10 years. True, the situation is still not satisfactory for us as women but it's certainly a positive step," she says. "We now have a high level of freedom of expression. I never dared show my face on a satellite channel before the king encouraged us." "People say it's not changing fast enough," says Abu Suleiman. "But social change doesn't happen fast. It takes generations." Jawhar says that with an increasing recognition of women's role in the Saudi media, there must be laws and regulations to protect them and they must be seen in higher levels of representation. "When we talk about regulations we have to empower women first and this should come from the government," she says. "Women should also push for that. Some women want to work on fluffy topics like family and fashion, which is fine with me, but we have to push the borders a bit for those who want to take on more challenging topics." Fatany sees the US media as a model where women can succeed in this field, and hopes that in the future Saudi Arabia can have a Barbara Walters of its own. This vision is not as farfetched as some might think. Last year Walters moderated a New York discussion panel about women, media and the Middle East in which Abu Suleiman was a key participant. The talk show that Abu Suleiman co-hosts is modeled on Walters's The View, and it is not out of the question that Saudi female journalists will one day enjoy acclaim akin to that awarded to their counterparts across the Atlantic.