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Role of Women in Middle East Media Grows


Women in Islamic nations are increasingly being heard, seen and listened to, thanks in part to leading female voices determined to make a difference, despite challenges ranging from motherhood to threats on their lives. In New York, Mona Ghuneim spoke with some successful female media figures from the Middle East who are paving the way for young women today.

One of the hostesses of a popular Saudi program called "Speaking Softly" says that until recently, she did not see people like herself on television.

Muna Abusulayman is one of four anchorwomen on the show that deals with various issues in a talk format. Of the four, Abusulayman is the only one who wears a hijab, or headscarf. She is also divorced and lives alone with her child in Saudi Arabia.

Broadcast via satellite by the Middle East Broadcasting Center, Abusulayman's show reaches a wide variety of viewers. She finds it amusing that she was the first anchorwoman to wear a hijab on international satellite television.

"You're going to laugh when I tell you this," she said. "There were no women on a non-Saudi governmental channel in the Arab world, other than two religious channels that were very very religious, that wore the scarf."

"We have 250 million people in the Middle East, half of them are women, at least half of them, so 50 million at least wearing the hijab, and there was not one single woman representing them on television," she added.

Women in the Middle East actually make up the majority of anchors and presenters on television. But, Abusulayman says, they are much less prominent behind the scenes and in other media like print and radio.

Tasneem Ahmar, who runs a media and advocacy group in Pakistan as well as producing radio programs on women's issues, agrees with Abusulayman.

With more than 25 years experience as a journalist, Ahmar says that, not unlike the West, most decision-making jobs, top executive positions, and "tough" assignments are given to men.

"Women normally are assigned very soft issues - social issues, cultural issues," she said. "There are very few women, you'll find, who are doing hard political stories or economic stories or current affairs programs."

One woman in the Middle East who does cover tough stories and speaks out is May Chidiac. She is the host of a Lebanese TV program called "With Audacity."

Chidiac is known all over the Arab world for her tenacious journalism. A victim of an assassination attempt by suspected Syrian agents, she lost a hand and a leg in a car bombing in September 2005. After numerous surgeries, she went straight back to work.

"It was a big challenge to me," she said. "I wanted to be able to explain to those who decided to kill me that they will not be able to silence me."

Being silent is not an option for Huda Ahmed, an Iraqi journalist who works in Baghdad for the U.S. based McClatchy newspapers chain.

Ahmed says that while it is a dangerous job being a reporter, male or female, in Iraq today, she cannot be quiet. She says that the female voices have to be heard and if she does not help them, who will?

"I keep writing and contributing because we have few females doing that," said Ahmed. "We have many many challenges that make me feel that I have to serve my own people and those people who want their stories to be told."

"I would like that my writing, or my voice, will reach the government. I hope that what we write - whether in Arabic or in English - that will make a change, make a difference," she continued.

The women all agree that the growing number of females attending university in the Middle East will make a difference.

Mehrangiz Kar, a journalist and human rights activist from Iran, says that 65 percent of students at Iranian universities today are women, and many of them study journalism.

Tasneem Ahmar thinks positive changes for women in the Middle East and the Islamic world are on the horizon. She predicts that a new wave of young women in the Pakistani media will have an impact in five to ten years in her country.

"These young girls who have come in, they're very ambitious and they're very hard working and I don't think anything is going to stop them from going to the top positions."

While there is still a lot of work to be done, the women hope that their efforts and successes in the media will inspire not only women but men too. Or maybe there is truth to the old adage, "the best man for the job is a woman."

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