Monday, April 6, 2009

Calls to ban Saudi women from television disrespect female achievements

Note: This article was originally published by

It seems that the more progress Saudi women make in employment, education and the arts the more conservatives want to keep them in their place, which, I gather, is home where she is supposed to be a good wife and mother.

Some conservatives are complaining about the “well-rooted perversity” in the Saudi Ministry of Information and Culture because it allows female presenters on television. One statement issued said, "No Saudi women should appear on TV, no matter what the reason. No images of women should appear in Saudi newspapers and magazines."

These women wear the hijab and are dressed appropriately as they would at any shopping mall or restaurant. Yet, according to the logic of some people, it’s different on television. I suppose if a man is not permitted to gaze at women on the street, he can do it in the privacy of his own home. That must be the perversity the opponents of women television presenters are thinking.

These are the same people, by the way, who liken some television station owners to drug dealers whose only motives are to corrupt families into watching shows of questionable moral value. It’s as if we are children who don’t know the difference

Then, of course, we have the fellow who manages to help Saudi Arabia move backward on the road towards progress by issuing a fatwa that some television station owners should be killed.

These outrageous statements not only sadden me as a Saudi but it does nothing to further the cause of Islam or Saudi Arabia.

The conservatives appear to have forgotten their history. Saudi television has a long and rich history of women television news presenters, show hosts and journalists.

When I was a child growing up in Madinah I watched Mama Dunia’s children’s show regularly. Dunia Younis and her sisters, Sanaa and Waafa, are well-known television personalities to my generation. Salwa Shaker was another presenter for different programs and had established the women’s administration at the Riyadh television center.

These women are pioneers in Saudi television in addition to Saudi women print journalists who are foreign correspondents.

While these women should serve as role models for today’s women television presenters, sadly they don’t. And there lies the conflict between the values of conservatives and women wanting their place as media professionals.

I recently saw one Saudi woman who started her television career on Saudi television. She has since moved to the Lebanese station New where she recently spoke about the demands to ban women from Saudi television. She was defending the right of women appearing on television, but her appearance defeated the very argument she was making.

She was not wearing the hijab, her makeup was heavy and her blouse tight. It many parts of the world this means nothing, but for Saudis it means everything. If a Saudi woman is making an argument advocating that her sisters be allowed to appear on television she should not appear as anything less than respectful of Saudi values. At the very least a Muslim woman should cover her hair and neck. By ignoring this, this Saudi was actually supporting the conservatives’ position.

Don’t misunderstand me, how a Muslim woman appears or behaves is not for me to judge. She will answer for her deeds before God. But as a Saudi woman this television presenter does not represent me nor do I want her to advocate on my behalf.

If a Saudi woman wants to represent Saudi women on television – and I am not speaking about women in other Muslim countries – then she should be closer to Saudi women’s values. In the Arab world beauty is defined by the hair and neck. By displaying it, it only undercuts the message and adds strength to the conservatives’ position.

A female colleague of mind covers the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh. She often appears on Saudi television at news conferences. Certainly her presence is noted by the authorities but not once in her years of coverage did anyone ever complain or suggest that her appearance is inappropriate. Of course, she wears the full abaya, hijab and niqab, but it allows her to in effect neutralize herself as a woman in men’s eyes and perform her job solely as a journalist. Some people may consider the niqab extreme, but most of my female colleagues do not wear one and still do their job with professionalism and not bring attention to themselves. To bring attention to ourselves in ways deemed socially unacceptable only encourages the conservative element in our society to ban us from television appearances.

I’m not setting myself or my colleagues as shining examples of journalism in its purest form, but I rather have presenters like Dunia Younis lead by example instead of Saudis who prefer to send their message from Lebanon.

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