LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)–Asmahan Al-Ghamdi, a female editor at the national Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh, based in Al-Riyadh city, was in an amusement park north of Riyadh working on a feature article about the park on July 15 when she was attacked by a lion. She suffered injuries that wound up requiring surgical attention.
"The coach lost control of three lions, when he opened the cage door, the lions rushed towards the media crew and a number of park employees who were present in the area located inside the fence between the cages and the public," a witness told Al-Riyadh newspaper.
One lion reportedly blocked the reporter’s way when she tried to escape and knocked her down while another lion bit into her arm.
The coach managed to back the lions off and saved the journalist’s life. A nurse working at the park gave Al-Ghamdi first aid before she was taken to a hospital. The safety regulations at the park are a topic unto themselves.
As a Palestinian journalist, with eight years of experience living and working in Gulf media, I am well aware that Saudi women are rarely photographed.
Female columnists on Saudi newspapers such as Al-Riyadh are usually depicted by shapes and shadows, void of personal features, unlike male colleagues, who get a photograph.
I have worked for the same newspaper that employs Al-Ghamdi–I helped cover Dubai and the U.K.–so I took a collegial interest in her and couldn’t resist trying to find a picture of her on the Web. There was no match found in a Google search or the newspaper’s own search function. No surprise there.
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has the harshest restrictions on women in the Gulf. Saudi women have to be under the guardianship of men, sometimes including their own sons. Women are not supposed to travel, go to work, go to the hospital or apply for an identity card unless accompanied by a male guardian. Female journalists are segregated from their colleagues.
Saudi journalist Kholoud Alfahad has written about how a police officer refused to investigate a harassment complaint she wanted to file against a man, because she came to the police station without a male guardian. When she turned to the religious authorities for help, they refused as well because they claimed she was not "properly" veiled.
Authorities refused to record Alfahad’s witness’ account as well because she was a woman. Only when her Indian driver came forward to offer his side of the story was her account accepted. The man was not her guardian, not related to her in any way and it was unlikely that he even spoke Arabic or could clearly describe the incident. But he was a man, so that counted for more than anything Alfahad or her female witness could say.
Severe restrictions on photographing is another way women are erased from public life. I have read a number of articles about female guests being searched at wedding parties in case they are carrying camera phones and just might take a photo of one of the guests.
What’s odd about the prohibition on women’s images, however, are the exceptions to the rule. While most female journalists remain faceless, it is possible to find pictures of those who have been "disgraced." The few pictures available online for Saudi female journalists reflect stories of unfortunate and alarming incidents of domestic violence.
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.
Pressuring Saudi Media
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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For more information:
"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: