A long way to go
By Magda Abu-Fadil Posted Jul 1 2001
An Arab woman journalist may be lucky to cover the same news as a man, but she doesn’t expect the same pay and may die if her stories strike a raw nerve.
On March 20, a Kuwaiti policeman shot and killed Hedaya Sultan Al-Salem, a noted female editor, whom he claimed had criticized police and insulted his tribe in an article (see Death Watch, page 9). Such extreme consequences of journalism are common in a region where few women make it as journalists or CEOs.
“As with other fields, women in the media have not reached decision-making positions in the Arab World,” says Mona Khalaf, director of the Beirut-based Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World. “One should keep in mind that in many Arab countries, women do not have access to the public space.” She adds, “Whoever has tried to rock the boat has been dispensed with.”
In the United Arab Emirates, few women appear on TV, and when they do, they’re relegated to women’s shows. In UAE newspapers, women rarely write editorials or cover political, economic or defense news. Women are usually represented in the media on special occasions, such as National Day, says Amina Khamiz Al-Dhaheri of the UAE University’s Mass Communication Department. She told a regional conference on gender and communication policy in 1999 that UAE women “are represented from a male-dominant point of view, which perceives them as sexual objects.”
“There’s a ceiling women can’t penetrate in media and government,” says May Kahale, a veteran journalist and media adviser to former Lebanese president Elias Hrawi. In Lebanon, even media jobs are apportioned according to sectarian and political considerations, she explains.
Kahale is perhaps the only woman to attain a senior media-related position in an Arab government, first working as a newspaper reporter and then for Lebanon’s LBC TV station. Lebanon is noted for its relatively free press, with countless private print media. It is the only Arab country that allows private broadcast media, but it still suffers from the “glass ceiling” syndrome.
Writing for Media Development magazine in London last year, doctoral student Dima Dabbous-Sensening says that in Middle Eastern countries there was “a great discrepancy between the number of women who work in the field and those who occupy decision-making positions.” She says Lebanon is the most flagrant example of the discrepancy, where 85 percent of journalism and communication students are women.
“The number of female news journalists averages the same and sometimes reaches up to 100 percent in some television stations, although top- ranking positions continue to be monopolized by men,” Dabbous-Sensening says.
In Lebanon, men have reached key media positions through politics, commerce or both, and private broadcast media are mostly owned by government officials — many of whom head political parties or were once militia leaders.
In Jordan, women journalists are making strides thanks to their perseverance and professionalism. The daily Jordan Times has a woman editor, and Jordanian satellite TV has a female general manager. Mahasen Al Emam, director of the Amman-based Arab Media Women’s Center, was the first woman editor in chief of a weekly paper and the first female elected to the 10-member Jordanian Press Council. Lebanese journalist Octavia Nasr covered the war in Lebanon for a local station before taking a global leap. She now is an anchor and senior international editor at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, where she’s been for more than a decade.
Sahar Baasiri, the foreign editor of Lebanon’s leading daily An-Nahar, says, “You can’t afford not being the best.” She adds that women are always held more accountable than men in the media and are always being tested.