Women and Media in Saudi Arabia: Changes and Contradictions
Naomi Sakr 23 September 2009

This paper was presented by the author at the Conference “The East and the West: Women in the eyes of the media”, organised by Resetdoc and held in Doha on April 19th 2009. It is based on the author’s much longer research article, ‘Women and Media in Saudi Arabia: Rhetoric, Reductionism and Realities’, published in the December 2008 issue of the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol 35, No 3, pp 385-404.

The government of Saudi Arabia has introduced numerous internal economic and political reforms in recent years. Any account of these reforms should acknowledge that they started in the 1990s and therefore predated both the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and the international pressure that the attacks triggered for Saudi Arabia to initiate social reforms. Although the changes discussed in this article took place in 2004-06, it is important to understand them in the context of a much longer history of change – one that goes back several decades. Since the focus here is on media, there may be no call to look back much further than the start of television in the kingdom in the 1960s. But, since the focus is also on women, it is relevant to note that Saudi Arabia signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000. The government placed multiple reservations on its adherence to the convention. The crucial factor, however, is that it signed the convention for reasons that seemed to be related to a bid for increased foreign investment and membership of the World Trade Organization and had nothing to do with external pressures experienced in the wake of 9/11.

It is also necessary to recognize that Saudi Arabian public discourse on the issue of women’s status is full of contradictions. On one hand official rhetoric talks of ‘women’s nature’ as if this ‘nature’ imposes self-explanatory restrictions on what women may do and where they may go. On the other, there have been some big changes in government policies on women’s education, employment and legal standing. Professions and university courses that were once barred to women have been opened up. Women have been authorized to apply for identity cards without a male guardian’s consent. In 2005, they were promised the vote in municipal elections that were due to take place in 2009 but were postponed. Contradictions are interesting because they indicate that there is intrinsic pressure for renegotiation. Several scholars have picked up on this point, showing how the contradictions between official discourse about women and practical realities have direct ramifications for Saudi women in their everyday lives. An extreme example was the fire at a girls’ school in Makkah in 2002. Fifteen girls died in that fire. Families of the victims blamed the religious police for obstructing evacuation because of rules about contact with uncovered females. After the deaths, responsibility for girls’ education was transferred from religious clerics to the Ministry of Education.

My aim here is to assess how far women’s personal and political status in Saudi Arabia has been renegotiated through the media. For that purpose there are two contradictory sets of evidence. The first indicates a big increase in women’s visibility in the Saudi media in 2004-06. The second shows that, despite the increase in visibility, there was very limited change in the status of women working as journalists. This contradiction can help to account for pressures to renegotiate the status of female journalists. At the same time, the contradiction itself merits an explanation, which my presentation will attempt to give. However, before setting out the evidence, three background observations are in order. The first is that women’s visibility in the media does not necessarily tell us much about their status in other areas of public life. For example, Egypt – despite having a large number of female presenters in radio and television – has very few women in parliament.

The second is that public discourse in Saudi Arabia is based almost exclusively on references to Islam and such references are inevitably historically specific. That is to say: people in power interpret Islam differently in different times and places. For instance, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran reversed his position on women’s political rights. In 1962 he said it was against Islam for women to vote. In 1979 he said Muslim women had a duty to intervene in politics. Saudi Arabia has also seen revisions. In 1979 protestors laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Makkah, alleging moral degeneracy among the kingdom’s political leaders. The government responded with what Saudi women media veterans describe as a wave of ‘anti-women’ activity, which included removing women from many types of television programme and enforcing strict segregation in public places. This reaction conformed to what often occurs when certain interest groups need to put on a show of unity. They do so by pressurising the less powerful to abide by norms legitimized by reference to ‘tradition’. In this case ‘tradition’ is equated with Islam. Yet, as the scholar Hannah Papanek has noted, so-called traditions may be concocted by the already powerful from their own particular visions of the past and hopes for future power.

The third background observation relates to ways of evaluating change in media portrayals of women. The question of how to approach such an evaluation may appear very challenging when portrayals are highly contradictory. The 2005 edition of the Arab Human Development Report, subtitled The Rise of Women in the Arab World, concluded that: ‘Contradiction is the outstanding characteristic of images of Arab women in the media as in society itself’. Widely differing images of women appear across all types of programmes on Saudi-owned television channels, including MBC, Rotana, Al-Risalah and Al-Majd. Because meanings are not fixed, no-one really knows how individual viewers interpret the diverse portrayals they see in the media. On the other hand, the more diverse the portrayals, the more scope there is for diverse interpretations. This implies that, instead of trying to evaluate portrayals in terms of whether they are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ women, they can be evaluated in terms of the extent of diversity. When the diversity of characters and narratives increases, in both factual and fictional media content, the range of reference points also increases for discussion of issues relating to women’s status.

Moving now to evidence of women’s visibility in Saudi media over the period 2004-06, the choice of this three-year period is corroborated by an article published in the Saudi liberal online publication Elaph in June 2006. The author of that article declared that there had been a huge transformation of the Saudi media in the past two years. He wrote: ‘women are now appearing daily on the front pages of all eight official newspapers which had previously been monopolized by men’ and ‘official television channels, which had once minimized the presence of women in newscasts and other programmes have been turned into advocates for an invasion (iqtiham) of the media by Saudi women’. For many Saudis, the logical response to this alleged “transformation” was to point out that it was only a transformation in relation to the preceding quarter of a century. A comparison with the situation before 1979 might not have been so startling. For example, in the 1970s people used to watch open-air cinema in Saudi Arabia in mixed company. After the end of the 1970s they could not.

How to explain the sudden rise in women’s visibility noted by Elaph? Abeer Mishkhas, a Saudi woman journalist, had already noted a change in this direction in 2004. She linked it to two things that had happened in 2003: introduction of the National Dialogue and the announcement that municipal elections would be held in 2005. The National Dialogue was started as a government-sponsored series of six-monthly meetings of people from different sections of Saudi society to debate issues of social policy. The promise of municipal elections meanwhile raised hopes that women would be allowed to vote and stand for public office. Thus, when it was announced that the National Dialogue meeting in June 2004 would debate policies affecting women, it coincided with a period of high expectations and intense debate and precipitated a torrent of media coverage of activism for and against women’s political participation.

At the same time, rules on publicizing National Dialogue discussions were also changing. Initially the Dialogue took place behind closed doors. Gradually, under pressure from various sources, including some of the kingdom’s more liberal media outlets, media were allowed to record the proceedings. The subject of the June 2004 meeting helped to even up the gender balance among Dialogue participants. These two developments combined to increase women’s presence as subjects of media stories. But women were also making an appearance as presenters. Al-Ikhbariya, a Saudi state-owned television news channel was launched at the start of 2004, and its management made a point of launching with female presenters. This was in keeping with the Saudi authorities’ attempts to modernize the kingdom’s image and to keep up with trends in television channels owned by private Saudi entrepreneurs. In particular, the media group MBC had started its own news channel, Al-Arabiya, in 2003 and employed many women in all areas of news production. Arab news and entertainment channels proliferated apace after 2003; in order to compete for Saudi viewers, Al-Ikhbariya needed to focus on national news and current affairs.

Al-Ikhbariya had been operating for more than 18 months when King Abdullah acceded to the throne in 2005. Soon after his accession he met with two large groups of women to hear their views on necessary social legal and social changes, and television cameras were on hand to film these meetings and broadcast them to the Saudi public. When the next session of the National Dialogue took place a few months later, it was a natural next step for Al-Ikhbariya to report live on discussions in which Saudi women were prominent participants. This does not mean these steps were uncontested. Indeed, the little that is known about King Abdullah’s meeting with representatives of women working in various sectors, including media, indicates that he urged them to adopt a ‘softly, softly’ approach so as not to alienate the kingdom’s arch conservatives. The king later also met with local editors and instructed them to “take care" not to flout restrictive local social customs when publishing pictures of women. When two women scored a breakthrough by being elected to the board of directors of Jeddah’s Chamber of Commerce & Industry, some editors played down the news for fear of provoking a misogynist backlash. On the other hand, there are ample indicators of change in media portrayals of social customs affecting women. In October 2006 an episode of the popular Saudi TV series Tash ma Tash satirized strict sex segregation. The novel Banat Al-Riyadh (Girls of Riyadh) was published in 2006 and a court allowed its distribution inside Saudi Arabia. This was a time when the number of Saudi women novelists and bloggers was rising fast.

My second set of evidence deals not with women’s visibility on television screens and on the front pages of newspapers, but with the number and status of women working in media jobs. Here the signs of change are much less obvious. Maha Akeel, a Saudi woman journalist, counted the women working in media around the country in 2004 and 2006. In 2004 she found they accounted for less than 8% of newspaper staff and around 5% of staff in the broadcast media. Two years later these proportions had barely changed.

Here again the reasons are fairly straightforward. The most important during this three- year period was a lack of college places for girls to get qualified as journalists. Saudi journalism courses were off limits to female students until 2005 and even then courses were introduced gradually, given the separation of male and female campuses. Without professional qualifications women could only get freelance jobs with relatively low pay and no job security. Many found themselves paying their own expenses. Another reason was a lack of forums through which women could pressure the authorities to open journalism courses to women. There were supportive editors in television and in the English-language print media, where female columnists called for journalism training to be opened to women. But it was not always easy to make these arguments in person at professional meetings. Suzan Zawawi, writing for Saudi Gazette, reported how women at a forum of the Saudi Association for Media and Communication in 2005 had tried to raise the issue of training but, because they were physically separated from the men, their attempts to interject were overlooked.

It might be argued that Saudi women journalists had two new vehicles for advocating fairer treatment with the launch in 2004 of the Saudi Journalists Association (SJA) and the National Human Rights Association (NHRA). Outspoken women took advantage of delays in setting up the SJA to put themselves forward as candidates and two were elected to the board, whereupon they quickly pledged to address the key issues of work contracts for women, professional training and job security. But both the SJA and NHRA lacked autonomy. The SJA board included editors, who are appointed to their jobs by the government. The NHRA’s 41 members, including 10 women, are also government appointees. So any analysis of women’s activism through the media in Saudi Arabia has to be seen in the context of wider political structures and the concentration of decision-making powers.

Finally, by way of conclusion, it remains to try to account for the contrast between the two sets of evidence, one showing high and increasing media visibility of Saudi women in this three-year period and the other a much slower rate of change behind the scenes, in women’s employment in the media and in their apparent ability to influence change. It seems that the contradiction here reflects the workings of patronage in a fundamentally authoritarian system, where superficial modernization takes place without any real devolution of power. Women’s heightened visibility in the Saudi media in 2004-06 was arguably the result of top-down initiatives, as key members of the ruling family put their weight behind efforts to modernize the kingdom’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world, through projects like the National Dialogue, Al-Ikhbariya, and the NHRA. Senior Saudi princes and their allies meanwhile used media outlets like MBC and Rotana to allow a certain amount of debate about social issues, including women’s personal and political status.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, nephew of King Abdullah and owner of the Rotana Group, personally promoted a number of women to high profile positions. Mona Abu Suleyman, known for her contributions to the MBC show Kalam Nawaem (Soft Talk), holds a position at Alwaleed’s Kingdom Holdings. The first Saudi actress, Hind Mohammed, made her debut in the Rotana film, Keif al-Hal? Hala al-Nasser, author of a book recounting the difficulties facing Saudi women in media, became the first female editor-in-chief of Rotana magazine. Media exposure for Rania al-Baz, an announcer on Saudi TV who was brutally beaten by her husband, can meanwhile be traced in part to Walid al-Ibrahim, brother-in-law of King Abdullah’s predecessor and owner of MBC. It was MBC under Al-Ibrahim that opted to import, subtitle and broadcast the Oprah Winfrey show on MBC4, because the show’s treatment of sensitive personal experiences apparently appealed to Saudi female audiences. Al-Baz was interviewed by Oprah in an episode that was eventually shown by MBC.

This observation about high-level support in no way diminishes the courage and energy of women who were prepared to come to the fore. But it implies a different set of circumstances for both men and women who lack patrons. As doubts about the effectiveness of the SJA and NHRA indicate, people engaged in “bottom-up” reform initiatives in Saudi Arabia still face many more obstacles than those engaged in reform that is “top-down”. The fascinating interactions of women and media in Saudi Arabia in 2004-06 underline how, in an authoritarian system, men and women outside the ruling elites and patronage networks struggle to get their voices heard.

Naomi Sakr teaches Media Policy at the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster



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