Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- Whereas most government representatives around the world feel pleased and relieved when they hear the soft female voice of a female journalist, in Saudi Arabia, officials sometimes feel angry and suspicious. They adopt a hostile tone towards the female journalist and act as if she represented some sort of sin that they had to get rid of as soon as possible.
Female journalists suffer in the Kingdom because most publications are reluctant to train them and offer them lower salaries than their male compatriots often as freelancers. They suffer constantly from the disparaging attitudes of men, especially if they require the opinion of a religious scholar. Their anguish is solely based on them being women.
It is an all too familiar scene for a female journalist to contact a government official to gather information about a certain topic and ask a few questions only for the recipient to put the phone down on her after realizing the speaker is female. If she is lucky, he might respond in a terse tone and demand “Send your questions by fax and I will reply.” In most cases, the official will not even politely end the conversation or utter any greetings.
The reaction of religious scholars is more severe. Many refuse completely to deal with a woman forcing them to enlist the help of male colleagues to complete their story, as Umayma Sanad, from Sayyidati magazine, found out.
Manal al Sharif, a Saudi journalist at al Watan newspaper, says she has suffered alot throughout the years. Once, she said, she had to wait three months to publish a story because she was unable to contact a religious scholar to inquire about a certain issue. Everyone, from Dar al Fatwa to the imam of a neighboring mosque, declined to speak to her. Finally, the prominent scholar Sheikh Abdul-Mohsen al Obeikan responded “out of respect for my responsibility as a journalist”.
Female journalists in Saudi Arabia have grown used to reprimands by men and women alike who object to their profession and calls to stop mixing with men and speaking to them. This unsympathetic attitude, Manal believes, is caused by a lack of awareness regarding the important role of women journalists as mediators in Saudi society, especially on women’s issues. However, she refuses to generalize, saying that “Some officials respect the Saudi female journalist and offer her their support by cooperating with her and giving her the required information.”
Paradoxically, I was unable to contact anyone who opposes the work of women journalists in Saudi Arabia, with the exception of a quote from a male colleague. A certain official told him, “The voice of a woman is shameful. It is best to avoid it and speak to a male colleague instead.”
For her part, the Saudi journalist and activist Nahed Bashtah, who received the Dubai Press Club award in 2001 for her investigative reporting, indicated that the negative attitude towards female journalists is not surprising since many of them were under-trained and unqualified. Other reasons include misogynist attitudes or envy, she said. Female journalists, she contended, were sometimes more successful that their male colleagues because sources were often too embarrassed to deny information in front of them. “A woman journalist is able to get more important statements than men,” a male Saudi journalist once told me.
Dr. Abdullah Abdulaziz al Youssef, a Professor of Sociology at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh, indicated in earlier statements that female journalists play an important role in Saudi society because their present the voice of Saudi women, “perhaps there are a number of atypical practices by some officials who ignore the role of women journalists and do not realize their social responsibilities in the age of globalization. Lately, however, a number of women journalists have succeeded in overcoming this and achieved more than their male colleagues through perseverance and positive contributions.”