The struggle of being a woman journalist in Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH: The difficulties women journalists face in reporting an event in Saudi Arabia illustrates the wider difficulties experienced by women in the Kingdom. It starts with the press release. They arrive in abundance announcing outside events, seminars or conferences.
Fatima Sidia | Arab News

But the press release does not mention that women should not attend them. Many women journalists have been stopped at the entrance or told to leave and get what they need by phone or email.

Manal Humaidan, a reporter at Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, said she was once assigned to an education event before the organizer told her only men were allowed.

Humaidan said she tried to explain that her newspaper had sent a reporter without taking gender into account.

“He was not cooperative so I spoke to my boss who called him and criticized his attitude. The organizer called me back apologizing and was willing to cooperate. He had to hear a voice of a man to know I was serious and there to work.”

Humaidan who has experienced similar incidents before, said that the support that women reporters receive from their employers is essential in terms of their productivity.

Humaidan said these incidents happen because of a general stereotype that women journalists do not cover events that are not clearly attached to female concerns.

“We face other problems that are common between reporters of both genders, which is a lack of cooperation and transparency. There is still that fear of the media.”

Humaidan said another potential problem is transport.

“I call up a driver to drop me at events that are prescheduled. But for events that pop up at the last minute, I am often too late for them because I am still waiting for a driver.”

It is not only fieldwork that presents challenges, says fellow journalist Omaima Sanad. Sanad could not get a comment from a sheikh for a story she was working on.

“When he heard my voice he was not willing to speak. Plus he started preaching because I am working as a journalist.”

She said a lack of cooperation from women was among the problems she faced.

“Female officials give us a hard time. They are not always available, and if they speak they will not tell you anything that is meaningful or useful for the story.”

Sanad believes that it is actually not women who are restricted if they are segregated from men at events. “Men are the ones who are restricted in one section. We always insist to go and meet contacts and exchange business cards in the men’s section. So basically it is men who are prevented from going to the women’s section,” she said.

Women reporters from Arab News experienced considerable difficulties at two recent events. One reporter arrived at a press event only to be told by security guards that the women’s event had moved to another location, which required a 45-minute trip across town.

However, on arrival the guards told Arab News that women were not allowed in. After an exhausting but frank discussion, the guards finally accepted that the reporter was there legitimately and was let in. So far so good. However, another security guard refused to let her into the main hall where the event was taking place. She was asked to go to the women’s entrance where another guard refused to let her in.

The reporter pointed out that there were already women participating in the event before the guards finally relented.

A couple of days later at another event, two Arab News reporters were allowed into the women’s section but were not allowed to meet officials or interview them on site.

No provision had been made for women, only for men, they were told.  So the reporters had to go outside onto the street to facilitate interviews with officials.

There is of course an easy way out. Women journalists could just stay in the office and rewrite press releases.  Perhaps that is what the public relations people want.