By Iqbal Tamimi
Monday, July 25, 2011
The freak lion attack of a female editor working for the national Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh, underscores the shocking absence of Saudi female journalists in newsrooms and newspapers.
For instance, you can find a photo of Sahar Khan, who worked for Al-madina newspaper. She was admitted to a mental health hospital following a dispute with her family, where she was tied and beaten by the health workers and forcibly transferred to a psychiatric hospital.
You can also find a photo of Rania Albaz, who worked as a television broadcaster for Saudi Television and was beaten badly by her husband.
There's also the occasional photo of female Saudi journalists working abroad whose comments have stirred controversy in the ultra-conservative kingdom. One such journalist is Nadine Albudairy, who published a polemic article in the Egyptian newspaper, Almasry, about polygamy entitled "Me and my four husbands."
Women are also more evident in some types of Saudi media than others.
The openly conservative national newspapers--Al-Riyadh, Al-Madina, Okaz, Al-Watan and Al-Jazirah--target audiences within the kingdom, censor information and cater to ultraconservatives. Men dominate the views, content and staff. Articles portray women as fragile, in need of male protection.
All this changes in media projects outside the kingdom, which are mainly "infotainment" outfits such as MBC, LBCI, Oribt, Rotana and Elaph.com. These have liberal publishing and broadcasting policies established to cater to pan-Arab audiences. Women enjoy better professional working conditions in these outlets and freely mix with male colleagues.
But unfortunately, few Saudi women are working in these places, which have drawn complaints from clerics who say they are contaminating Saudi society with secular and "perverted" ideas.
Saudi female journalists have made some gains though, in part, surprisingly, thanks to Iran. Regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia are the main players in the Arabic-language media market and they are vying to win Arab audiences. Though Iran's official language is Persian, it has established TV stations that broadcast in Arabic such as Alkawthar and Al-Alam.
Iranian media boasts women in many prominent positions, as broadcasters, print journalists, producers and photojournalists. They cover all kinds of beats, according to a 2006 study by Lily Farhadpour, and in some areas 40 percent of the editors were women. When I was recently invited to be on a show for Iranian Press TV, based in London, I found the majority of presenters and some technical staff were women.
All that may have pressured Saudi media authorities to admit more women into the ranks.
Al-Akhbariya Channel was the first Saudi channel broadcasting inside Saudi Arabia to appoint Saudi female presenters. Buthaina Annaser, one of only six women to work there at the time, was the first Saudi woman to read a news bulletin on Saudi television in 2008.
There is still a long way to go though. Women are only about 23 percent of the overall work force in the 12 Saudi newspapers. Among full-time staff, that figure falls even lower, to around 5 percent, according to Abdul Rahman Al-Hazza'a, assistant undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture and Information.
When there is a story about women, Saudi newspapers show photos of Western women or Arab women from other nationalities instead, giving the audience a false impression of women's presence in the public sphere.
I have even discovered photos in the culture section of a Saudi newspaper that at first glance seemed to be of Saudi women, but closer inspection showed they were from neighboring Gulf countries, such as Kuwait and United Arab Emirates.
News reports about activities involving both sexes, such as volunteering initiatives, shows photos of men only, even when female volunteers outnumber men. As a result, the media systematically discounts women's involvement in public life. Women are not even displayed on the wedding pages or acknowledged, creating the odd impression that a man is marrying no one.
All of this means that when a lion attacks a Saudi reporter who turns out to be a woman, her gender hits some of us as more of a surprise than the awful incident itself.
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"Women in Arab media: Present but not heard," Leila Nicolas Rahbani :
"Women and Media in Saudi Arabia: Changes and Contradictions," ResetDOC:
"The struggle of being a woman journalist in Saudi Arabia," Arab News: