Mideast femmes fight prejudice with pride

Male-dominated Arab TV world slowly opens up

DOHA, QATAR — Across the Middle East, a clutch of ambitious, talented and hard-working Arab women are breaking down barriers to reach the top of the TV tier.

Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than in Dubai.

Despite its location in the heart of the Gulf — usually associated in the West with images of subservient, hijab-wearing women — a new, dynamic breed of Arab women are running satcaster channels in the tiny, though affluent, emirate.

Since its relaunch in summer 2004, state-owned Dubai TV has become the region’s second most-watched satcaster channel behind MBC. Close behind is Dubai TV’s year-old English-language channel One TV.

Consider these achievements:

Najla Al-Awadhi, 30, has become One TV’s deputy general manager, running day-to-day operations. She’s born and bred in the United Arab Emirates, a sign of a shift in attitudes in the otherwise conservative Gulf. Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a native Emirati woman would have risen so high so quickly.

Elsewhere there’s Maha Gargash, VP of Dubai TV, another UAE citizen, as well as Lina Matta, head of programming at One TV, and Pia Abu-Jaoudeh, the marketing wiz responsible for all on-air promos across Dubai TV’s four channels, who is winning international awards for her work.

One thing these women have in common is their education, having studied in the West, mostly in the U.S.

On their return to the Middle East, opportunities were limited.

Al-Awadhi, for example, wanted to be a lawyer. “I wanted to work for women’s rights, but I learned just how young our legal system was,” she tells Variety. “The legal system by far favors men. If I wanted to contribute to developing women’s rights, then I really had to change perceptions in our society.”

Al-Awadhi’s big chance came in 2003 with the appointment of Ali Jaber to oversee the relaunch of Dubai’s ailing TV network. Jaber, a former university lecturer and head of Lebanese satcaster Future TV, appointed the hottest emerging talent he could find. More often than not, he turned to women.

“For decades, Arab TV had suffered from inefficiency and corruption. There really was little understanding of what makes TV, especially private TV, work,” Jaber says. “The driving force behind the explosion of Arab satellite TV has been women. They are more sophisticated than men and far less corrupt.”

As well as placing Al-Awadhi on the corporate fast track, Jaber also head-hunted Matta, whom he’d worked with in Lebanon, Jaoudeh and Gargash to spearhead his campaign to establish Dubai TV as a regional player.

While women execs in the U.S. have suffered from whisperings of nepotism and casting-couch promotions, the more conservative Arab attitudes have largely shielded these women from similar accusations.

However, they do have to deal with the patriarchal, at times patronizing, attitudes of the male-dominated hierarchy.

“Being a woman, (it) generally takes more effort to convince men of your ideas,” says Abu-Jaoudeh. “They tend to test you first before they trust you. Once they know you can do the job, however, they trust you fully.”

The Arab satellite TV industry has boomed in the past few years.

Where pre-dish skeds were filled with reruns of Egyptian sudsers and old black-and-white movies, Arab viewers now have more than 200 channels available, and an industry that spends $2.5 billion a year on advertising and programming.

What helped Arab women come to the forefront of the new scene was the fact they had the best training.

Viewed by many men as a trivial occupation in comparison with medicine, law and business, television was an area in which women were encouraged to further their studies.

“Women trained in media in the Arab world much more than men,” Jaber explains. “It was seen as this fine arts kind of thing that girls would enroll in before there was a real market and industry, as there is today.”

However, better training didn’t necessarily guarantee success.

After graduating in 1994, Gargash joined Dubai radio and TV, working on local news before directing documentaries, many of which focused on the plight of women.

“When I started, there was just one other female director from the UAE. Parents used to worry about their daughters working in media. They preferred them to become teachers in all-girls schools or nurses,” Gargash recalls. “Now, we have UAE women who work not just as directors, but also producers, presenters, reporters, set designers, graphic artists and coordinators.”

Similarly, Matta, Lebanese by birth, spent years working in the U.S. as a documentary producer before joining Dubai TV. She made two docs about women’s issues — including one set in a Gotham prison — before the call came from Dubai to join the media revolution.

Abu-Jaoudeh began her career as a presenter on Future TV in 1995. She joined the production department in 1996, and was head of the department when she left in 2003 to join Dubai TV.

In addition to handling Dubai TV and One TV, Abu-Jaoudeh is also in charge of promos on Samaa Dubai, the local Arab-language channel, as well as the new sports channel launched in December. She took home four Pro-Max awards this year, including two Gold Stars, honoring the best in international TV marketing and promotions.

Dubai isn’t the only place where women are making strides.

In Kuwait, the head of acquisitions at Al-Rai TV, the country’s first privately owned network, is Nicole Maamary.

Similarly, in Lebanon, long the most progressive of all Arab countries, Future’s head of programming is Layla Wehbi; while LBC, the country’s top satcaster, is run by husband-and-wife team Pierre and Randa Daher.

“If you go to any media conference, to Mipcom at Cannes, you see Arab women discussing and negotiating with the likes of Disney and Warner Bros.,” Jaber says.

Even lawmakers in Saudi Arabia, long the bane of women’s rights activists for its restrictive policies, have let women loosen their headdress slightly. In November, Saudi women took part in elections for the first time — albeit only for the board of the Chamber of Commerce.

Already there are real signs that the rise of these women is positively influencing media and, by extension, Arab societies.

“I see a bright future for women of the UAE in television. Already, the young women who are joining us in the station show an inspiration and nerve that wasn’t there before. Women today are bolder and work harder,” Gargash says.

Broadcasters are beginning to pay attention to women’s needs when it comes to programming.

While Dubai TV offers a blend of Arab and western programming, One TV shows entirely English-language shows such as “Martha Stewart” and “Pop Idol.”

Satcaster MBC has gotten in on the act, relaunching MBC 4 as a women’s channel, with the original female American TV mogul “Oprah” front and center.

” ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ has been a big hit among young Saudi women, and we decided to build the schedule around it,” says Tim Riordan, MBC’s director of channels. “We’ve brought in shows such as ‘Starting Over,’ ‘Supernanny,’ ‘The Swan 2’ and ‘Dr Phil,’ which, like ‘Oprah,’ tackles women’s issues in an engaging but responsible manner.”

There’s even a satcaster run by and aimed at women.

Heya-TV (Arabic for She-TV) broadcasts out of Beirut and Dubai, reaching 15 million women a day and employing a staff of 60 with correspondents across the Arab world.

In Iraq, femme-skewed radio station Al-Mahaba (Arabic for love) launched in May with support from nongovernmental organizations like the Iraqi Women’s League and the United Nations Development Fund for Women. More than half of Al-Mahaba’s employees are women, giving them a chance to shine as presenters, producers and technicians.

Media training center Ryan Academy, headed by another woman, Sumaya Kubeisy, is being set up in Dubai to train the next generation of execs.

Not that challenges don’t remain.

Women’s rights in some areas in the Gulf and the Arab world still haven’t clicked in, or have been distorted. Newsweek recently ran a cover story on the threat posed by the recruitment of women as suicide bombers in Iraq and Jordan.

For all the problems, however, these pioneering women in Dubai and the Arab world are starting to see a change.

“Men still dominate the Arab media scene at the decision-making level, but this is slowly changing,” says Al-Awadhi. “We are taking steps to empower women. It’s our right and responsibility to be actively involved in developing our country.”

One thing these women share with their Western and American counterparts is the struggle to balance their professional and personal careers. None has found the time to start a family. Interestingly, though, in what could be a further sign of shifting sands, none feels any social pressure to.

“TV work comes in waves — waves of hard work and waves of extremely hard work, so it’s tricky,” Gargash says. “Thankfully, in the UAE it’s no longer about being a woman or a man. It’s becoming simply about being a capable man or woman.”

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