Saudi women journalists are coming out of the closet

Not being allowed to drive or attend press conferences are only some of the obstacles that female journalists in Saudi Arabia face on a daily basis. But more and more women are demanding their proper place in the newsroom, and they are succeeding – slowly.
By Hana’ al-Khamri
Saudi Arabia, Madaen Saleh. © S.M. /
© S.M. /

JEDDAH, Jan. 14, 2008 (MENASSAT.COM) – "One day, about ten years ago, I was informed of my promotion to vice editor-in-chief. After receiving the compliments of the colleagues, the news suddenly took another turn. My nomination was frozen, or to use a better term, it evaporated due to the threats of resignation of the male officials at the newspaper if I was to take this position."

This is the story of Saudi journalist Amjad Mahmoud Rida, as she only recently told it to the London-based al-Hayat newspaper. Her story is typical of the working conditions of female journalists in a country where even the women's magazines are run by men. 

Rida was one of the first female journalists to enter the Saudi media world after her university studies in Cairo, and the first woman ever to be appointed vice editor-in-chief of a Saudi newspaper. She was also the only Gulf Muslim woman to cover the Russian war in Afghanistan.

But Rida has since left the media world and is now concentrating on research, in addition to having published two books, entitled "Saudi Women in the Media" and "Women Cultural Forum in Jeddah."

For the women who are currently active in the Saudi media, Rida's story is a familiar one.

Sabria Jawhar was until recently the editor-in-chief of the daily Saudi Gazette. She is a fluent English speaker, and she wears a veil that only reveals her eyes. We met Jawhar in her old office where she used to work before she resigned her post to travel and to finish her studies.

Jawhar related a recent incident. "I was on my way to attend a press conference by the Saudi Foreign when a guard refused to let me in because I’m a woman. So I said that I wasn’t a woman but a journalist coming to officially represent the newspaper. But he insisted and kept repeating, 'We don’t allow women in.'"

In the end, Jawhar was forced to contact the manager of the conference who ordered the guard to let her in. The minister then allowed her to ask the first and the last question of the press conference, a unheard of privilege.

So is the position of women in the Saudi media improving? There are a couple of facts that point in that direction.

Last year, for the first time in Saudi history, female students were allowed to take courses in media and international relations studies at Um al-Qora public university.

At the same time, female journalists are still compelled to write under a pseudonym, or to use only their first name and the name of their father rather than the tribal family name, in order to avoid harassment from people who still consider it a great shame for a woman's name to appear in print.

It is only one of the many absurdities that female journalists in Saudi Arabia face.

Most female journalists have no diploma in journalism because none of the universities for women had a media studies program, as this was considered an inappropriate field for women. Instead, they took unrelated majors and relied on practice to learn the job.

Working female journalists are not allowed to drive a car, even of their job requires them to do a lot of field work.

Women are absent from the editorial room because they are confined to rooms that are off-limits to men.

Women initially entered the field of journalism to fill the gap caused by the male journalists’ inability to cover women’s activities and issues.

But the female editors worked hard to get out of "the closet" of the women's pages, gradually moving towards writing for all the newspaper sections, from local news to the business pages, politics and culture. 

Other obstacles included female journalists being denied the opportunity to take part in training programs, not to mention their low salaries in comparison with male colleagues doing the same work.

Last year saw the birth of a new controversy after a group of female journalists were forbidden from attending a conference restricted to men.

This is not uncommon because conference organizers always have to provide a seperate room for female journalists, and when one is not available, they simply don't invite the women.

Journalist Loubna al-Tahlawi addressed some of these issues during a workshop last week, entitled "The role of female journalists in supporting charity work."

Al-Tahlawi talked about the challenges female journalists face and reminded the audience of Article 10 of the Media Policy Act in the Saudi Kingdom, which states that "women are considered the sisters of men. [Working in the] media means that they are realizing the special gift of intelligence that God gave women."

But much of Saudi society has yet to catch up with Article 10.

Take the example of Wafaa Baker Junis. Her intervention during the second Forum for Female Saudi Journalists, which was organized early last year in the Saudi capital under the patronage of her Royal Highness Princess Adela bint Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Saud, led to her dismissal from the radio station where she worked.

Junis had harshly criticized how her rights and those of her female colleagues were being trampled on, mentioning that she hadn’t received her salary for four months and that she still hadn't been hired as a full-time employee despite the fact that she had been working for seventeen consecutive years for the same employer.

She also gave the example of a female colleague who was humiliated by a male colleague, and who turned to the media to transmit her complaint to the officials after the radio station management had ignored her.

Radio host Fatima al-Anzi was also suspended from work for the same reasons. 

The official response to Wafaa Yunis and Fatima al-Anzi's transgression was quick: an official letter from the Minister was sent to their employers asking them to immediately stop all cooperation with the two employees because of what was described as harsh criticism of officials in the Ministry without any prior agreement. The reason given was that work problems should not be discussed publicly.

At the Forum, a group of recommendations were stated to improve the situation of female journalists:

- specifying the career ladder for female journalists;
- removing obstacles facing female journalists in training sessions;
- improving female journalists and raising them to higher levels in all sections;
- issuing a law to protect female journalists and their rights;
- opening a Press and Media section at King Saud University;
- improving the women’s image in the media;
- instituting a female official position at the Ministry of Information to deal with female journalist issues.

Hopefully, the next generation of graduates from the Press and Media School will see some of these recommendations implemented, so they can look forward to a brighter future.