Middle East

Women Who Are Journalists in Yemen Persist in the Face of Discrimination

Yemeni journalists speak with a representative (left) of the Britain-based human rights organization Article 19 at a rally for press freedom on August. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images

For Yemeni women violence and spinsterhood can often result from pursuing a career, especially in the field of journalism, so only a few venture into the media industry.

"The most common reason why the majority of Yemeni female journalists were facing no acceptance to getting married is their nature of job that demands them to directly mix and deal with men," said Sumaiah Ali, a journalist at the state-owned Saba News Agency in Yemen's capital Sanaa.

"This—mixing and dealing with men—directly conflicts with society's belief of religion and tribal traditions," she said.

In Yemen, religious and tribal traditions rule everything, and both strictly forbid men and women who are not related from directly dealing with each other, but women who are journalists here are gaining a reputation for persistence as they struggle against the country's many limitations on women.

"It was a difficult decision when I strongly insisted to study at the media faculty, it was difficult to be a journalist because of my family's continuing refusal stance on journalistic professionalism," Ali explained.

"When my name appears in the newspaper, my family tries to say this name is for someone else, to deny in front of our relatives that it was my name."

Women in Yemen enjoy greater freedom than do women in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, possibly the world's most deeply religious and gender-conservative countries.

But this freedom does not count for much and the situation is still not accepted by the tribal custom of Yemeni people, admits Hana al-Asta, an investigative journalist at the daily official newspaper Al Siasiah.

"There is no obvious policy for women's rights and there is very little knowledge of this," she said.

"It's been eight years since I started. I am not feeling satisfied at work. My family refuses to allow me to report from the field, even our bosses see us as second-class journalists, so we don't get promotions like male coworkers.

"If one of us sat down to interview men, she would face a big problem with her family, and people would … talk badly against her. She would also lose respect among her male colleagues. This is the reality of our society."

It's a job of a lot of fears. It's the matter of keeping a good reputation for the family. The girl must obey her family and not leave home without being in the company of a male relative and must stop working when she gets married.

When leaving the house, a woman must cover her body and face with a black robe and veil, only showing their eyes to protect her from the harassment of men.

A smaller number of women only cover their hair with a (black or colorful) scarf, showing their face but covering their neck. Some even wear makeup.

Bilqees Hanash, 29, editor at the official government daily Al Thoura, said her family supported her ambitions but that Yemeni society made it very difficult to work.

"There are not many problems when a Yemeni woman works as doctor or teacher because the woman in these careers is working in a place isolated from men and she deals only with women and children, which is completely different than working as a journalist," she said.

There are no official or even semi-official statistics on the phenomenon of spinsterhood among Yemeni women who are journalists.

"For this religious-environment society, it's very hard for the families to accept their daughters to work in journalism. It's also very difficult for male journalist to marry from his female colleague," Hanash said. "Only a very, very small number of female journalists get married."

Human rights organizations seem to be far away or women who are journalists can't approach them. Nadia Mohamed, a Yemeni human rights activist, said that fear and shyness are the main reasons why women who are journalists often find it impossible to successfully pursue a career in traditional society.

"The female journalist is subjected to many kinds of violence; she is abused in her honor and career whether by the society or some media official who is able to harm her if she tries to defend her rights," she said.

A young newscaster, 29, with Yemen's satellite TV channel, who declined to be named, said she paid an expensive price for her professionalism.

"Four months ago, my ex-husband—a journalist working in a private daily newspaper—divorced me on my first week of wedding because of my professionalism … my family and relatives knew that," she said.

Her ex-husband offered some insight into her future and ordered her to stop working as a journalist; he asked her to get into teaching or some other career. After a long, heated argument, he forced her to choose between conjugal bliss and her job.

Tearfully, the young newscaster went on to say: "I had no alternative but to choose my profession … yes, I lost the marital life, but I love my job in media."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Mohamed Al-Azaki.