Women Advance in Media Against Odds

A few senior jobs have gone to women but they still face an uphill struggle to be accepted as equals.

Women Advance in Media Against Odds

A few senior jobs have gone to women but they still face an uphill struggle to be accepted as equals.

Thursday, 2 July, 2009

Women are making a name for themselves in the Syrian media as never before, however some say they have to work a lot harder than men to prove themselves.


Last December, for the first time in the country’s history, a woman was chosen as editor-in-chief of one of the main official newspapers, Tishreen. 


The appointment of Samira Masalma to this important position in Syrian society raised many eyebrows in a country where men occupy most of the leading posts, but was welcomed by some as a sign that more and more women are gaining importance in media institutions in Syria.


One of the most prominent is Intisar Younes, who presents Chessboard, a new political programme on national television that brings her face to face with mostly male analysts and politicians to tackle questions about Syria and the Middle East.


“Women in the media today are like women working in any other institution here. They basically have to carve out their careers,” said Diana Jabbour, a leading female figure who has been director of Syrian state-run television for three years.


“For women to make achievements, they have to pass through strenuous tests on a daily basis,” Jabbour said. 


When a female journalist makes a mistake she will frequently be stigmatised for being a woman, she said.


Rim Haddad, an editor at the private Syrian TV station Dunya, said that she was once removed from her position as a producer of a TV programme that discussed articles in the local press.


Haddad, who headed a team of six men, said her colleagues kept complaining to the director of the channel that they refused to be headed by a woman and that they were more competent as men. 


Female journalists face the patronising judgements of a male-dominated society that often regards them as professionally less competent than men, some say.


Abdel-Hamid Tawfik, director of the Damascus bureau of the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, told IWPR, "I am not against women working in the media but these women are in the end wives and mothers so their lifestyles obliges [them] to be present a lot of time in their homes.


“Therefore, I am not for women journalists occupying leading positions in media institutions because they get distracted a lot from their work. When I am away, I prefer to be replaced by a male reporter.


"It is true that [some] women have reached high-ranking positions in Arab and Syrian media but they are still considered to be minors in the eyes of men no matter how knowledgeable and experienced they are." 


Women’s physiology and their role at home as mothers and wives limit their capacity for work, said Hisham Ghabra, director of the news department at a Damascus radio station.


Shahinza Bissani, a news editor at a Damascus radio station, said that her neighbours insulted her behind her back her because she returned late from work.


“I had to change my shifts at work to save my parents’ reputation,” Bissani said.


Although men and women working in the media earn much the same, it is more difficult for a female journalist to get promoted, observers say.


Souad Jarrous, who works in Damascus as a correspondent for the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, said that for a long time she had to accept a low income for the stories she wrote before getting a fixed job.


Many female journalists also complain that there are certain areas of journalism that are considered out of reach for them.


Female journalists are mostly confined to writing about art or women-related issues like fashion, said Jabbour at Syrian TV. Women are told that they are not good enough to analyse politics and culture because they cannot grasp these topics, she added.


“I had to fight to enter the world of politics,” said Jarrous, adding that for ten years she was only allowed to write about local news and crime before becoming a political reporter.


Many female journalists also find it hard to cover events in the field, which pushes many of them into desk jobs editing or compiling news reports.


Arij Bouwadakji, a news editor at the eSyria website, said that as a journalist it was difficult for her to report on the ground about controversial social issues like so-called honour crimes because as a woman she was looked down on by the relatives of the victims and even the investigators.


Honour crimes, where men kill female relatives who engage in extramarital sexual activities to save the family’s reputation, are common in certain areas of Syria and the rest of the Arab world and largely go unpunished.


Bouwadakji also said that women reporters were treated with condescension by police officers and so avoided reporting from police stations as well as court rooms.


Some observers also say that good looks, not competence, are the driving force behind the employment of female journalists, especially in TV.


The journalist at a Damascus radio station, Bissani, said appearance is the most important criterion today when hiring a female journalist, even in radio.


She lamented that many media institutions rejected competent female reporters if they were not attractive, which, she said, is bluntly expressed by some male directors or implied from their behaviour.


Mays Orfali, a presenter on Syrian national TV, said that as a veiled woman she was unable at first to find a job in television. She finally removed her headscarf after feeling it was the only way to get the work she wanted.


Meanwhile, many observers say that women in the media are also challenged by general difficulties that are equally faced by their male counterparts, such as restrictions on freedom of expression and nepotism.


“I have lost any ambition to change the current situation,” said Jarrous.

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