Saudi Female Journalist Defies Western Stereotypes
By Rob L. Wagner
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi journalist Sabria Jawhar was scrolling through her e-mails on her iPhone at a coffee shop when she came across a note from her editor at the Saudi Gazette complaining that her weekly column criticizing the conduct of the Kingdom’s morality police was premature.
“He thinks it was wrong for me to criticize the Hiy’a (the Commission for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) because he says all the facts have not been made clear,” Jawhar said. “But the Arab media are just tearing these guys apart based on what we know. Even the emir wants something done about them. There’s no reason for not criticizing their behavior.”
The column in question reported an incident in Tabuk in which a young mother was taken into custody by the religious police and purportedly beaten for asking a man for a ride in his car to Jeddah. Jawhar wrote that the Hiy’a is rarely held accountable for its abuses and have long lost credibility among the people the commission is supposed to serve. Women especially should be wary of contact with commission members, she wrote.
Jawhar’s column ultimately ran intact in the Saudi Gazette, but not after a lot of haggling and testy e-mail exchanges with her editor. Editing is fine, she says, but trifling with her opinion by toning it down is not.
Jawhar is among the emerging new breed of Saudi journalists that have taken a more aggressive approach to addressing Saudi reform, ranging from women’s rights to changes in the role the religious police. Jawhar, however, prefers writing in English instead of Arabic to address a Western audience. Saudis, she says, do no need convincing that reform is essential in their country. The West, though, needs a better understanding about Saudi issues.
Jawhar’s efforts have earned her a spot on the Dubai-based Arabian Business magazine’s “Power 100” list of the “most influential Arabs” in 2010. Jawhar is a first-timer on the annual list, ranking No. 94.
“I’m honored to be on the list,” Jawhar said in an interview. “But I don’t think it makes much of an impression on Saudis.”
And therein lies the rub of being a female Arab journalist writing solely in English and targeting Western non-Muslim readers: She has gained a loyal readership, not to mention the attention of Western media outlets, but is largely ignored by her Arabic-speaking colleagues.
Journalism is not Jawhar’s chosen profession. She has a master’s degree in applied linguistics and is now studying for her doctorate in applied linguistics at Newcastle University in Newcastle Upon Tyne in England. She became a journalist by happenstance when on a whim in 2003 she entered a journalism training program sponsored by the Saudi Gazette, the English-language daily newspaper based in Jeddah. After she completed the course, she was hired as a reporter and later promoted to Jeddah bureau chief. Her beat was foreign affairs, a rare assignment for a female Saudi reporter. She’s also an early pioneer in his highly segregated society in breaking the gender barrier of women attending Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal’s regular press conferences. Such media events often included U.S. Secretary of States Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the Bush administration and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan during the early period of the Iraq war. She earned her reporting chops covering the frequent attacks of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the Kingdom between 2003 and 2006.
Her editors, however, recognized that Jawhar was never without an opinion and gave her a column in 2004. The column has been both a blessing and a curse for the newspaper. The Saudi Gazette is among very few Arab newspapers that give woman journalists wide latitude to regularly venture an opinion on any topic. But perhaps one in 10 of her columns are rejected as being too confrontational or deemed disrespectful of authority to be published.
Her readership widened about a year ago when The Huffington Post asked her sign on as a contributor. Jawhar’s columns also appear on Arabisto.com and her own blog, Sabria’s Out-of-the-Box (http://www.saudiwriter.blogspot.com/). Writing for The Huffington Post opened a new door for Jawhar that doesn’t make her entirely comfortable. Arabic-language news outlets recently began translating her columns into Arabic, sometimes badly. Because English doesn’t always translate well into Arabic, especially when the writer uses Western idioms, sarcasm and dry humor, the result occasionally makes Jawhar sound a little silly or even dissident.
Some Saudi journalists can’t reconcile that Jawhar is a native of the holy city of Madinah and wears the niqab (face veil), but takes liberal positions on social and political issues. The common complaint among Saudis is that she looks conservative and appears to be a “good Muslim girl” but argues for reform. “She has spent too much time in the West,” one male Saudi journalist said. “It’s time for her to shut up and come home.”
Another Saudi pointedly said that Jawhar’s columns attract too much unwanted attention and don’t always reflect positively on Saudi Arabia. “Sometime she makes too much of things. She needs to tone it down.”
Western readers of The Huffington Post and her blog often seem to ignore her arguments and focus on why she wears the veil.
“People always focus on the trivial issues like the niqab or what people wear,” she says. “They lose sight of the bigger issues like jobs and education. That’s the issue of women’s rights, not the meaningless things like passing legislation in France or Quebec to ban the burqa.”
Sitting for an interview at a coffee shop on Jeddah’s Corniche overlooking the Red Sea, Jawhar nibbles on a salad while discussing her writing. She says she is uncomfortable with being labeled an activist in some Arab publications.
“I’m not an activist,” she says emphatically. “I’m just a journalist with an opinion. Non-Saudis presume to know what’s best for Saudis, like Saudis should modernize and join the 21th century or that Saudi women need to be free of the veil and abaya (long black cloak required of all women in Saudi Arabia) and be able to drive. And by freeing Saudi women, the West really means they want us to be just like them, running around in short skirts, nightclubbing and abandoning our religion and culture. When I write, I just try to give people an idea of how Saudis think and what is important to them.”
On this pleasant Jeddah evening, Jawhar, who politely declines to give her age, points out that the new generation of Saudi women are nothing like her generation. Many of the Saudi teenagers and young women wear their hijabs loose on their head and with their hair exposed. Their abayas are open at the waist, Emirati style, revealing their clothing underneath. Jawhar seems to have caught the fashion sense. Her abaya, trimmed in an elaborate gold pattern, is open at the waist revealing her designer denim trousers and somewhat incongruously a pair of Nike trainers (“I like to be comfortable”). Not a strand of hair is exposed from under her hijab, but her attire today is a far cry from my last Jeddah visit with her in 2007 when she was buttoned up in a plain black abaya.
Jawhar marvels at the new Saudi woman. “They just don’t care, and the reason they don’t care is because their parents are supportive of them. They do what they want.”
Part of the reason, though largely unspoken, is due to the low profile of the religious police in Jeddah. Contrary Western perception, the Hiy’a does not walk around with canes beating people who fail to attend prayer. When they make their presence known, they may harass a young woman for exposing her hair. More often than not the woman will shrug it off and walk away. And parents are increasingly telling the religious police to mind their own business. It’s grassroots reform on an incremental level.
Jawhar, however, has mixed feelings. On the one hand she excited about their audacity, but she believes there could be consequences from the conservatives who will attempt to clamp down on such behavior. There’s a tendency, she says, of Saudi society to take one step forward and two steps back. By testing the patience of conservatives by crossing some social lines could set back the pace of women’s rights.
The looming elephant in the room is the all encompassing Saudi society. King Abdullah has often said that reform will occur in Saudi Arabia when Saudi society is ready. The King and Saud Al-Faisal have said more than once that they believe women should be permitted to drive but it’s up to Saudi society to decide the right time. By virtue of offering his opinion the King has set in motion the movement to broadening women’s rights.
Like the vast majority of Saudis, Jawhar expresses deep affection for the King and his reform programs, but she also notes that Saudi society seems to consist solely of men, leaving women voiceless as to the direction of their future. Yet she views some Saudi women activists as opportunistic grandstanders looking for celebrity. She notes with amusement of one Saudi woman who protested Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving cars by videotaping herself driving a car in the Saudi desert and posting it on YouTube. The activist was applauded as a courageous hero by Western conservatives for thumbing her nose at Saudi authorities. The only problem, Jawhar says, is that many women drive in the desert out of economic necessity to support their family. That includes driving 2- and 3-ton farm and water trucks great distances. These so-called activists, Jawhar complains, simply exploit the ignorance of Western human rights organizations. It also exposes women desert drivers to closer unnecessary scrutiny, thus risking their livelihood. Generally, Saudi women find such public displays of disobedience undignified and counterproductive, she says.
It’s these misperceptions and generalizations from self-aggrandizing saviors of Saudi women that annoy many Saudis. Jawhar says ignorance plays a role but there is a distinct campaign to demonize Saudi Arabia by raising fears of Wahaabism, characterized by Western media as an austere form of Islam that is exported to every Saudi-funded mosque around the world and is the driving force behind extremism.
“Wahaabism has replaced communism as the big evil. It means nothing to Saudis, but it serves as a simplistic answer for terrorism and, I suppose, to scare little children at night as a bedtime story. But who actually uses the term Wahaabi, or a word like “infidel”? No Muslim that I know of. Only Westerners and the idiots on extremist websites.
The confusing portrait of Jawhar – an image of niqab-wearing obedience that contradicts the blunt and sometimes sarcastic criticisms of some Saudi institutions – stems from political and social opinions rooted in the context of Islam. As the youngest daughter of 11 brothers and sisters, Jawhar was spoiled by her own admission. She was eager to wear the abaya long before puberty required it and she memorized the Qur’an at an early age. There was a religious devotion unmatched by her sisters and most of her brothers. Yet it was tempered with a liberal upbringing and her parents’ insistence that no person should judge another.
She has, for example, no problem with some level of male guardianship as it applies to an unmarried woman that may need protection or assistance from her father. It’s proscribed in the Qur’an, but she objects to the current Qur’anic interpretation of guardianship that is so restrictive that it effectively treats women as children. The guardianship issue, for example, does not include seeking permission to travel or obtaining an education or a job.
“There is an increasing view in Saudi Arabia that guardianship is accorded to every male, not just the father,” Jawhar says. “Obtaining permission for everything is now common practice. When my father gave me written permission to travel, the officer who looked at the document asked my father, “Are you sure you want to release control of your daughter? Every male now knows better that you. My driver told me the other day when we argued about payment that he was giving me protection. He’s assuming guardianship over me and it’s none of his business.”
The role of the religious police should be that of protector and not persecutor, she says. The driving ban, she argues, is absurd and has no basis in Islam, but doesn’t rise to the level of human rights when more serious issues like being denied property, inheritance, employment, education, freedom to travel abroad and the choice of a husband are far more important.
Jawhar says she wants see a quota system in place in Saudi Arabia, much like the affirmative action programs once in the United States, which will guarantee Saudi women sufficient job and education opportunities.
“If all women were given the rights the Qur’an guarantees us, and not be supplanted by tribal customs, then the issue of whether Saudi women have equal rights would be reduced.”