AMMAN, Jordan (WOMENSENEWS)--Freedom of the press and women's equality can be characterized as culturally invasive concepts in much of the Arab world.
The region is dominated by nations that are still ruled by kings and queens and governed by religious leaders who advocate enforcement of gender-specific roles and clothing. Moreover, the region's violent conflicts have taken the lives of 19 journalists and three news media workers so far in 2007, according to reports by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
As the sole media representative from a Western nation attending the sixth annual conference of the Arab Women Media Center for 60 female Arab journalists on press freedom and gender equity within the media, I assumed I should behave with circumspection so as not to offend. I also expected the other attendees to do likewise.
That misapprehension was quickly put to rest by the laughter and voices raised in song that filled the bus one night as it left the conference center, taking us all to dinner at an authentic Jordan open-air restaurant.
A radio journalist from Palestine knew the words of traditional songs and she led the other 20 or so in the back of the bus in one song after another, each one a little bit louder and each one causing a little more laughter. She then began clapping and the others began clapping too, with the sheer joy of being together. Then high-pitched ululating started and all clapped, ululated, laughed and sang for the 30-minute ride to the restaurant.
Nothing was muffled or subdued about this group, chosen from among 450 print reporters, broadcast news producers and on-air talent, and Internet journalists from the 22 Arab-speaking nations. The attendees, mostly between ages 25 to 35, spent three days in late June in Jordan to consider issues rich in complexity for their profession, their nations, their religion and their gender.
Code of Ethics
Often working in male-dominated newsrooms where their opinions are not solicited, these reporters and broadcast producers--some in veils and abayas, others in jeans and T-shirts--were asked to craft a code of ethics for all journalists in the region--not just women--consistent with international conventions.
Without seeming daunted by the cultural, legal, religious, economic or violent barriers that stand in the way, the women came up with their code. Such gatherings of Arabic journalists are relatively rare: Organizations for news media professionals exist in 12 Arab nations, but calls for greater press access and freedom still require bravery. The Arab journalism ethics code, dating to 1972, ignores the context in which news professional operate and focuses more on a narrow vision of the obligation of journalists, including "perform my work honestly and truthfully, keep professional secrets, abide by its regulations and traditions and defend its dignity."
In contrast, the ethics code adopted here stands up to the growing religious fervor, rising controversies over the roles of women and ethnic divides in the Arab world and calls on all journalists within the region "to respect the pluralism, accept the other opinion and not to discriminate based on religion, race, color, sex or culture."
Candid talk in intense sideline conversations about the restrictions they face--both as journalists and as women working in the Arab states--were a major part of the process. Many of these conversations were in English, the language of international media.
"We are only permitted 20 licenses for newspapers. How can there be freedom of the press?" a journalist from Lebanon quietly complained to a colleague during a session.
"All is peaceful and calm where I live. But I couldn't write anything critical of a government minister, because that would be critical of His Highness because he appointed him. And even if I wrote it, my newspaper wouldn't publish it," a print reporter from the Gulf region said with a sigh during a bus trip.
Questioning Their Own Rights
Sessions on gender bias spurred women to question both their professional freedom and their own human rights as female employees and citizens.
Was it ethical for an employer to bar a veiled journalist from appearing on television?
Should the ethics code deal with sexual harassment of journalists or domestic violence?
During a discussion of the rights and responsibilities of journalists, a reporter for a Palestinian radio station, Amal Jumah Khamis, brought up the law in her homeland that regulated women's work hours.
"I am a feminist and I can't work past 8 o'clock," she complained, clearly frustrated.
Another radio broadcaster, Shoaa Al-Kaate from Kuwait, joined in, clearly distraught about a law passed the week of the conference. "Under the new law, I could be arrested if I work past eight," she said with visible resentment and apprehension.
Whenever they got together, the conference participants offered glaring examples of gender discrimination at the hands of employers and colleagues.
Women spoke about not being allowed to leave the office for assignments; men taking credit for the work women do; men being paid travel expenses when they are on assignment, but not women; women being required to wear the hijab--the veil--while at work; men receiving preferential assignments; female journalists being refused a passport to travel for work; female journalists being looked on as less desirable as a marriage partner; and of course, receiving lower pay and being passed over for promotions.
"Women are always thought to be inferior," sighed one.
That may have been true outside the hotel walls, but for three days in Amman, these journalists held the high ground by standing up for women's rights and freedom of the press for all news media in the region.
Mahassen Al Emam Presides
Presiding over this conference was Mahassen Al Emam, a chain-smoking, Helen Thomas like figure who jubilantly read aloud at the closing ceremony the ethics code that was adopted.
In 1994, Al Emam became the first female editor in chief of a newspaper in Jordan, a nation that borders Syria, Iraq and Israel. After Al Emam was elected to the board of the journalists union three years later, she tried to create a path for other women to follow her into journalism. The board rejected her suggestions to set up training courses and scholarships for female journalists. Taking matters into her own hands, in 1999, she established the Arab Women Media Center here in Amman, taking out a large personal loan to renovate the house that was to serve as its headquarters.
The center has continued to grow in influence and recognition. Al Emam was given the 2002 Knight International Press Fellowship Award and this year the center now receives substantial support from Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German political foundation that supports political dialogue, media and the rule of law. She also now operates under the official patronage of Jordan's Royal Highness Princess Basma Bint Talal, the aunt of the current king, Abdullah bin Al-Hussein.
In fact, this conference and the attendees were so energizing that Gaby Lteif, a Paris-based radio interviewer who is revered throughout the region, declared that she had enough fame, enough material goods, that she was now committed to attending each year and serving as a mentor for the women coming behind her.
Her relative security and prominence has not dimmed Al Emam's fierce vision for press freedom and gender equity.
She works closely with the Tunisia-based Center for Arab Women for Training and Research that last year produced a report that said media had "become a key actor" in the field of women's human rights in the region "given their effects and impacts on the world's various societies." The center is now training female journalists throughout the Arab region about avoiding gender stereotypes in news coverage, many of whom attended the conference.
Rita Henley Jensen is founder and editor in chief of Women's eNews.
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