RAMALLAH, West Bank (WOMENSENEWS)–NISAA FM may be the call letters of the only public radio station dedicated to Palestinian women, but the station’s manager is happy to attract male listeners and also employ them.
"Social change does not happen unless women and men work together," said Maysoun Odeh, whose station employs a staff of five women and three men. "We are a mature society. Both men and women deserve a chance to be free of the oppression we are facing today, so that we earn our deserved roles."
Odeh spoke with Women’s eNews recently at the station, which began broadcasting in June 2010. She said an estimated 40 percent of the station’s listeners are men, but the station’s most sizzling broadcasts are focused on women.
Alaa Shatira, who hosts the radio show Women’s Break, devotes a section of her program to issues that affect Palestinian women and has invited on-air experts on women’s issues to help spread awareness of their rights.
Another popular program, Coffee Mazboot, discusses Palestinian women’s formal and informal work in Israeli settlements and across the Green Line, which marks the boundaries between Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
In an occupied land where men exert overwhelming media control, the station offers a unique forum for such subjects as polygamy, domestic violence, family and work matters, says Palestinian journalist and film producer Saad Aruri.
"Having a women’s radio station in Palestine that touches on issues of concern to women across the Middle East is critical and very positive," he said. "So I hope it will continue to develop."
He added that NISAA FM plays an important role by advising women in the Arab world about their rights and providing an example of the Palestinian community that supports gender equality.
Polygamy Hot Topic
For Palestinian women, Odeh said the topic of polygamy was particularly popular. "It is beginning to surface here more than any other community," she said.
Palestinian women widely believe that the introduction of a second wife into the family home will destroy her life and that of her children. Many nongovernmental organizations have picked up their cause and are calling for an end to polygamy. But the practice is so entrenched in Palestinian culture and tradition that most segments of society, with the exception of educated women, still consider polygamy completely "natural."
While the station pays particular attention to Palestinian women, it also tries to reach the broader audience of Arab women, addressing topics such as so-called honor killings and domestic violence.
Odeh wants to go further though. She dreams of setting up an investigative unit and broadcasts that reach women and men across the Arab world. "I want NISAA FM to be heard in every city and town in Palestine and in other Arab countries."
But already Odeh, who is married and has a 5-year-old son, is facing the typical work-life crunch.
"I feel that my long hours outside the house have started to bother my son Adam, but he understands a bit more now. I often bring him with me to work so that he relates to what I do."
Lubna Ashqar is editor of Voice of Women, a newspaper focused on women’s issues, and head of the Women’s Affairs Technical Committee, a network of women’s groups with offices in Ramallah and Gaza working for women’s rights.
Ashqar said the station had a strong start in its first year. "I think that radio will help increase the presence of women in the media landscape and contribute to raising awareness of women in general," she added.
She said that NISAA FM needs more technical and financial support to continue though. The station came to life thanks to funding from the Smiling Children Foundation, a nonprofit based in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Odeh said the group was completely hands off and never intervened in the station’s goals, programs, recruitment or content.
But now the station is struggling financially, Odeh said, caught in the typical tight spot of many new projects. While existing foreign donors want to see the project attract other funders and be on the road to becoming financially self-sufficient, new donors typically want to support organizations with a longer track record. She said she welcomes more foreign funding but would continue to insist on having no editorial strings attached, a tall order given the politically-charged backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"If used smartly, it can achieve a benefit for Palestinian women," Odeh said, referring to future funding. "Yet, it must not be conditional or coupled with a hidden agenda. If so, foreign funding becomes a problem."
The station has managed to stay afloat by adding income from local ads and sponsors to its main donation. But building commercial partnerships has proven difficult, she said, due to her special profile in the industry.
"Because I am the first woman to occupy a managerial position in the media in general, and in radio in particular, I sometimes get the feeling when I go out there promoting the station and soliciting advertisement that some men don’t take me seriously," she said.
She said it can sometimes take several hours to explain NISAA FM’s vision and goals and get men to warm up to them.
"It’s a challenge that makes me all the more persistent to show them how important our presence is," she said.
Sometimes she is unhappy about her own interactions with male counterparts, or fellow radio managers. "I feel they are mocking me somehow. But I know that my contribution, whatever it is and no matter how small, will always be special. It is a contribution to women, to their voice, and that’s why I don’t let their reactions get to me."
Odeh said the scarcity of women at the top ranks of media goes far beyond her region. "Even in international media, women’s participation is still shy," she said. "But we will, one day, see a woman running a television station or a newspaper in Palestine."
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Imtiyaz al-Mograbi is a journalist and human rights activist based in Ramallah.
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