August 7, 2006

Saudi women journalists battle to overcome hurdles

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH (Reuters) - They are few in number but determined to
make their mark -- women journalists in Saudi Arabia have
fought hard to get where they are and say they have more than
proved themselves the equal of men.

The kingdom is one of the most restrictive places in the
world for women, where powerful clerics say a woman's place is
in the home, raising a family.

Women cannot drive cars, must be accompanied in public by
male relatives, and must cover themselves up in anonymous black
robes lest they incite men's sexual desire.

But despite limitations on women in the workplace, many who
have ventured into the media industry as Saudi Arabia opens up
under King Abdullah have attracted attention for their tenacity
and professionalism.

A young print journalist in the capital Riyadh, who
declined to be named, said female journalists had a lot of
strengths people might not appreciate.

"I want to speak out," she said.

The journalist, who hails from the less restrictive Eastern
Province on the Gulf coast, said her family supported her
ambitions but Saudi society made it difficult to do her work.

"The problem is we don't have media departments at
university for women. But you need to know how to write, and I
don't have the tools," she said in an interview.

"Media means working evenings. You can't do interviews
except in your office, and if you go to a hotel lobby, it's a
crime," she said, recounting how a colleague was hauled off by
the Saudi morality police for interviewing an unrelated man.

"You have to find safe ways. I have to be really careful.
In Saudi Arabia, every one is watching you," she said.


The religious police, who believe women should cover their
entire faces, can cause problems for a woman taking the pulse
of public opinion on the street. Seating arrangements also
separate women journalists from men at news conferences.

Adlah, a photographer and journalist in Riyadh, said she
usually gets a positive response from Saudis she interviews
while walking around malls, although suspicion surrounds these
places since they are seen as fertile flirting grounds.

Sitting down to interview men is a problem.

"Cafes? Oh no! Cafes are closed spaces. It is against the
culture and my family would be very upset. People think coffee
shops are for families and relaxation," Adlah said.

A sit-down interview in the relative privacy of a mall is
no better: "Never! (People) think, 'What's he going to buy

She said women journalists tend to work harder than men.

"The men are careless, they don't want to work at anything
at all. They are very lazy. They come to work at 10 and go home
at 2, while the women will start at 8 and leave at 5," she

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's more liberal second city of 2.5
million people, women have made a name for themselves on
English-language papers as well as some Arabic dailies that are
based in this ancient city on the Red Sea.

"The girls don't have any fears. They were told the first
day that it's not an easy job," says Sabria Jawhar, Jeddah
bureau chief of the Saudi Gazette. "It's a matter of will-power
-- they will find a way if they really want to."

Jawhar's team of young female reporters has gained access
to stories men would be afraid to touch. They have covered
issues like prostitution among foreign workers in a country
where such activities can result in public flogging.

"It was something new, and then we found that what we write
is actually read. You feel proud of yourself when you tackle an
issue people were afraid to talk about," said Shroog Radain,
one of Jawhar's staff of women reporters.

"But we are a tabloid, it's easy for us to write here at
the Saudi Gazette. It's harder in the Arabic press," she said.


Now Saudi television is trying to present a modernizing
face, employing women as newscasters and as hosts of day-time
chat shows -- something unheard-of just a few years ago.

"Ten years ago when I started people used to be surprised
if a woman journalist turned up to report anywhere," said Rima
al-Shamikh, a news anchor with al-Ikhbariya who reported from
the field during the violent campaign launched by al Qaeda
sympathizers in 2003 to bring down the Saudi monarchy.

Shamikh's job is all the more sensitive because she hails
from one of Saudi Arabia's most prestigious clans.

"It was difficult to be a journalist or appear on
television because I am from the Enaza tribe. They tried to say
I was Palestinian or Lebanese, to deny that I was Saudi," she

"The atmosphere is ready now, but women should only get
into this profession if they love it. It's not a profession
that brings a lot of money. I have no social life and hardly
see my children, but I love the profession."

Shamikh said Saudi society was coming to accept that women
often made better reporters than men.

"There is an important point with women of being insistent
and professional," she said. "Sometimes I am very aggressive
and even hostile as a reporter. Society accepts that."