Women in Television 1: The Faces of Al-Jazeera
Groskop, Viv, New Statesman (1996)
Last week Shaima Rezayee, 24, was shot dead in her flat in Kabul's Char Gala district by an unknown gunman. She was a "VJ" (video jockey) on Hop, an hour-long weekly music and chat show on an independent Afghan TV channel, Tolo TV, featuring videos from the likes of Madonna, and Turkish and Iranian pop stars.
British newspapers loved the story, portraying Rezayee as a photogenic, Madonna-loving martyr to the anti-Islamist, pro-western cause. (She was unpopular with the authorities and had been attacked by mullahs about her "un-Islamic" values.) But suggestions that female broadcasters across the Arab world might be running similar risks may be misleading.
Last year I spent three days in Doha, Qatar at the headquarters of al-Jazeera, arguably the leading Islamic television channel. Researching a behind-the-scenes feature, I interviewed a number of the women working there. Some were in suits that wouldn't look out of place on the GMTV sofa, some mixed hijab and shalwar kameez with jeans, others were in floor-length black with their faces almost completely covered (with amazing heels flashing under the hems of their robes). None conformed to any stereotype.
Al-Jazeera has its own Kate Adie in Atwar Bahjat, its 28-year-old aggressively objective Baghdad correspondent. There is a Natasha Kaplinsky, the glossy-maned business news presenter Farrah Barkawi. The channel is a distinctly female-friendly environment. Forty per cent of the staff are women, including eight out of 18 news anchors (most of whom don't wear the hijab--and viewers don't seem to mind; they are just obsessed with their hairstyles).
They come from all over the Arab world--Sudan, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine. …