Hijab stands in the way of Palestinian journalists

Lubna Safiyeh was forced to leave her media job because her ambition did not fit her choice to wear a headscarf.

Press TV Newsroom R370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
Press TV Newsroom R370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi)
RAMALLAH - Lubna Abu Safiyeh was forced to leave her media job and now works in an administrative position in a Ramallah company - all because her ambition to work in the TV world did not fit her choice of wearing a head scarf.
“When I was being interviewed for a job in a new Palestinian television channel, the interviewer asked me if I would be willing to take off my hijab,” she told The Media Line.
After that, she refrained from seeking other job interviews in places where she heard the management was anti-hijab. “Why I should bother?” she asked.
The hijab – the traditional scarf that religious Muslim women wear to cover the hair, ears and neck – has become one of the decisive criteria determining who can be in front of the camera, and usually indicates a television channel’s policy.
Many of the journalists who cannot get their chance in the limelight compromise for a behind-the-scenes role. Reem Abu Laban, a media graduate, was asked by her interviewer to remove her hijab to be hired as a correspondent.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? I don’t need your job,” Abu Laban scolded her potential employer.
Four months after that incident, she was asked to join the television station as a producer behind the camera. “I didn’t want to go there, but I was a fresh graduate and desperate for work,” the 25-year-old told The Media Line.
After earning a Master’s degree in television broadcasting from a Jordanian university, she now works for the Palestinian National News Agency (WAFA) as a correspondent in the multimedia section, but still is not seen on camera. “This is the policy regarding these reports,” she explains. “No one gets to be on camera.”
As more Palestinian women wear a hijab, some admit they do so for cultural and not religious reasons. Nevertheless, the notion of losing the hijab is taken as an offense by many women who consider religion a personal right.
Women who remove their hijab often find themselves criticized more than those who don't wear one at all. This pressure discourages women from taking off their hijab, even if some are considering it. Abu Safiyeh balked at being asked to remove her hijab. “I didn’t know whether I should consider this as harassment or not … In the end, I did not respect the request,” she says.
Her only chance was in radio. “It wasn’t as fulfilling – not in terms of salary, nor the future prospects. I dreamed of becoming famous,” said Abu Safiyeh, who topped her Birzeit University undergraduate class in media studies.
Taking sides
Three television channels currently broadcast from the West Bank: the government-run Palestine TV and private sector channels Mix – Maan of Bethlehem and Al-Falastinia in Ramallah.
On the other hand, Arab and Islamic television stations seeking correspondents specifically ask for head-scarfed women when they have vacancies. One of those channels is Palestine Today, a Beirut-based satellite channel reputedly affiliated with the Islamic Jihad political party.
Farouq Elyat, the head of Palestine Today’s office in the West Bank, told The Media Line that his station has a policy of not hiring bare-headed female correspondents. “We follow a religiously-committed mode where the correspondents should wear a hijab,” he said, adding that the channel does not impose wearing long dresses on the journalists.
Abu Safiyeh, wearing tight jeans, a green shirt and a colored hijab, says that her head scarf was not good enough for the Islamist channels. “From looking at my modern clothing style, [my interviewer] concluded that I could belong to Fatah,” she said.
One journalist told The Media Line that she believes the current split between Fatah and Hamas, and the regional changes, have influenced the media into taking sides.
“Some TV stations think that showing a journalist with a hijab indicates they are linked to Hamas. That’s not right,” said Kenana Issa, a young journalist who does not wear a head scarf.
Nell Burden, a British correspondent for the Iranian Press TV in the West Bank, also does not normally wear a hijab. However, she is often seen in the field covering her hair before speaking in front of the camera as part of the channel’s policy. “I consider it as a part of my uniform. I wouldn’t go to work in my jogging suit,” she told The Media Line.
Burden explained that some people laugh when they see her adjusting her scarf before speaking to the camera, “but I’m comfortable doing it.”
During her hiring process, Burden was asked to cover her hair when she has to be on camera. “My freedom in sending out my stories is more important for me as a journalist – and that is worth fighting for,” she said.
The London-raised and tutored journalist added that before coming to work in the Palestinian territories she used to find the idea of wearing a hijab aggressive. “I still think this is a patriarchal society but I have to admit that I’ve never felt too oppressed here,” she says.
The right to work
A group of young female journalists organized a sit-in last November, protesting not being able to work in Palestinian television, especially the Palestinian Authority’s station, because of their hijab.
Amoon Al-Sheikh, the organizer of the event, told The Media Line that she was hired as a program correspondent after applying for an anchor’s position. “They wanted me not to be on camera as a correspondent because I wear a hijab but I refused.”
In her segment, she appeared on camera for a few seconds in her hijab, only to be fired a few months later for what they said were “restructuring proposes,” she told The Media Line.
However, Abu Safiyeh did not participate in the sit-in because she doesn’t believe all the blame should be put on the media. “Several journalists succeeded with their hijab. For me, my dream to join a competitive institution and become a success seems further away,” she said.
The Palestinian Authority consists mostly of members of the Fatah party, which is known as a secular party. Inside sources at the Palestine TV told The Media Line that previous television supervisor Yasser Abed Rabbo banned head-scarfed women from being on television, keeping the ones who were already in front of the camera at the time: two correspondents, one in Nablus and one in Gaza, and a children’s show presenter.
Sources said that Abed Rabbo comes from a leftist background.
Ahmed Hazzouri, the director general of Palestine TV denied that the station rejects journalists because of their hijab. “We look for talent and professionalism and looks are important as well – after all, it is television. But no one was ever refused because they wore a hijab,” he said, adding that veiled journalists are using the hijab as an excuse for other reasons that they were not hired.
Hazzouri explained that 60% of women working at the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation cover their heads. “The threat that our society is facing is those who are refusing to hire non-hijab wearing women even behind the camera,” he added.
However, the director of the Palestinian Ma’an news agency, Raed Othman, told The Media Line that Mix-Maan TV is a secular station whose staff does not wear hijabs or crosses on camera, particularly in its news broadcasts. “I still haven’t made a decision to appoint a head-scarfed woman, but this may change,” he said.
Othman says the Palestinian audience doesn’t care how the anchor is dressed but rather about the content and correspondent's ability, adding that there is a lack of available qualified Palestinian female journalists, especially as Maan-Mix’s studios are in Bethlehem, making it harder for those who live in the Ramallah area to work.
Both Hazouri and Othman told The Media Line that they are willing to hire a qualified and talented head-scarfed journalist.
“Get us a Palestinian Khadija Bin Qana, and we will hire her now,” Othman said, referring to the famous Algerian Al Jazeera news anchor, who wears a hijab.
More female journalists are appearing on Palestinian screens and discussing hard issues. Three journalists present Palestine TV’s main news bulletins, six correspondents have daily reports from inside and outside the country, and another two work in political talk shows.
Hazzouri did not give specific numbers of women versus men in television, but did say the figures change depending on the programming cycle. He added that hiring in Palestine TV is not based on gender. He also believes that there are some limitations on women’s work, explaining that female journalists don’t usually work during late hours, which means more male news anchors than women.
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