The difficulties of a career in journalism for Muslim women

The competition is intense, but for those who have the dedication and courage, the industry is as egalitarian as it ever was, writes Nabila Ramdani

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
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Despite the massive expansion of the global media in recent years, the chances of breaking into the industry as a professional journalist remain as difficult as ever. Social networking sites and a multitude of blogs may have provided opportunities for millions of enthusiastic amateurs to have a crack at writing or broadcasting, but only a tiny minority end up building successful careers in the industry.

As I argued at the 5th edition of the Fujairah Media Forum last month, which focused specifically on “Women in the Media”, Muslim women can face particular obstacles within a highly competitive field.

There are all kinds of barriers to advancement, especially in countries where Muslims are viewed as outsiders. A country’s media is a reflection of society: it does not exist in a bubble, and if someone is finding it hard to get on generally, then they will certainly find difficulties in pursuing a high-profile career covering the big issues of the day as journalists.

Perhaps the greatest challenge comes when Muslim journalists are asked to work on stories that involve negative perceptions of Islam. These might range from women’s rights to terrorism. Even in these days of instant communication, of wall-to-wall rolling international news, of smartphones and social media, people still display extremely ignorant opinions, often ones based on, at most, the odd snippet of information about what being a Muslim is really all about.

No news is good news, and the positive aspects of a religion that is grounded in peace and understanding between communities is seldom highlighted.

Instead crass clichés – ones involving bushy bearded radical preachers or unfriendly women wearing niqabs – dominate coverage. These simple depictions of “Muslim types” fit neatly alongside reports about suicide bombers, oppressive regimes and dark- clothed barbarian fanatics who have usurped the name of Islam to create murderous forces such as ISIL.

A very good example of the kind of challenge I refer to came with the reporting of France’s so called “burqa ban”. This was an issue laden with divisive rhetoric, thanks to the mainstream politicians who were responsible for introducing the ban.

The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy described the full Islamic veil as “a sign of enslavement and debasement”.

Immigration minister Eric Besson called it a “walking coffin”, and the former prime minister, François Fillon, accused wearers of “hijacking Islam” and displaying a “dark sectarian image”.

As a female reporter covering the story, I had to listen to such insults continually. Those supporting the ban used particularly melodramatic language when women were around, in the hope that it would have an emotional effect, but there was no need for such sexist anger.

There are only about 2,000 women in France who actually wear a niqab.

Female Muslim journalists like myself are often assigned topics like the “burqa ban” – these can of course be for positive reasons, in that we are considered to have the necessary sensitivity and background knowledge. But there is sometimes the danger that we can be placed in the “Muslim” box, with some expecting us to write or broadcast exclusively on Islam-related subjects.

In fact, Muslim journalists thrive in all aspects of the media, covering matters that have absolutely nothing to do with their faith or culture. I would certainly resent being used on certain stories simply because I am a Muslim woman. This would especially be the case if I was being asked to work on some kind of anti-Muslim agenda, writing scaremongering stories about Islamic extremism, for example.

Sexist expectations can also be a serious hurdle to the work of female journalists.

I found this when I interviewed, and later wrote articles about Asma Al Assad, the wife of Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad. An infamous piece in Vogue magazine had described her as a “rose in the desert” and praised her elegance and style.

I tried to get closer to the real woman – somebody who had worked very hard to support her husband’s inhumane government, especially through her own understanding of public relations. Mrs Al Assad studied in the UK and then worked as a banker in the City of London, so she understands how to manipulate western public opinion.

I highlighted her remarkably sheltered life in Damascus since she married Mr Al Assad in a secret ceremony on New Year’s Day 2001, showing how she tolerated the murders, torture and imprisonment that were part and parcel of her husband’s authoritarian state. She was convinced her family would rule Syria for years to come.

My report was certainly a far cry from the Vogue magazine issue in which the Al Assads were portrayed as a “wildly democratic” couple who had made Syria “the safest country in the Middle East”.

The article, arranged and managed by an American PR company, paid for by the Syrian government, revealed Asma’s love of crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin shoes and Chanel dresses and painted her as a fragrant, caring first lady, in the style of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

I met Mrs Al Assad at a conference in Damascus before the start of the revolution in Syria, and was intrigued by the way she exploited modern political discourse to try to sound like a credible democrat. Sentences such as “You must all have a stake in your country – a chance to make it what you want” were as common as Mrs Al Assad’s attempt to use social media, including sites like Twitter and Facebook, to bolster her husband’s cause.

She not only appeared intelligent and concerned, but extremely up-to-date, especially to the thousands of young Syrians looking for change within their antiquated society.

My main point here is that PR can be a real impediment to good journalism. Like so many other negative aspects of a rapidly changing media, it needs to be approached with huge suspicion, especially when there is clearly a vast amount of money behind it.

But the most important thing I told the Fujairah Media Forum was that talented and hard-working women have every opportunity to forge their own careers within the international media.

There are still a mass of professional outlets, ranging from satellite broadcast channels to internationally famous newspaper titles, who offer opportunities. The competition is intense, but for those who have the dedication and courage, the industry is as egalitarian as it ever was. Muslim women may well find the challenges tougher than most, but the rewards of success will be just as satisfying.

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who spoke at the 5th Edition of the Fujairah Media Forum. Her talk focused on the difficulties facing women journalists reporting on the ground