TEL AVIV — Women have been making inroads in every part of the entertainment business, so it only makes sense that in the Middle East, long known for its patriarchies, a different kind of Arab Spring has been quietly blooming for a few years in boardrooms and at the entrepreneurial level. And like every good inclusive wave, its forward momentum has broached all in its path, Arab and Israeli, bringing its success to the shores of Hollywood.
Sarah al-Jarman is young, Muslim and busting stereotypes. In a region of the world where only 26% of females are employed, Jarman, 27, is the director of Dubai One, an all-English-language entertainment channel under the auspices of Dubai Media Inc. (DMI) that has a wide following among expats and local Arabs alike.
“There was always this taboo that the media field was technical, so it wasn’t the best place for Emirati females, especially since it’s a conservative society,” Jarman says. “Starting at DMI, there were only a few of us, but they supported the females in the same way as they did the males.”
Jarman came to Dubai One fresh out of school and worked her way up the ranks. She was programming and acquisitions manager, acting channel manager, and then channel manager before her promotion to director. The hallmark of her work — and of Dubai One — is a mix of secular and religious programming; the channel produced an English-language Ramadan special called “Understanding Islam.” Jarman helped orchestrate “Studio One,” a lifestyles program; and “Emirates 24/7,” a daily business show.
Dubai is a place of superlatives. In this opulent desert city, where the world’s tallest building and the only seven-star hotel shimmer among other skyscrapers in the blistering heat, records practically beg to be broken. So it is fitting that here, Jarman and other ambitious, hijab-wearing females are making names for themselves in the uber-new office complexes of Dubai Media City, a tax-free zone that is run by the Dubai government and hosts more than 1,300 companies.
Indeed, global TV giant FremantleMedia Enterprises has just set up shop in Dubai, headed by Middle East VP Anahita Kheder.
One of Jarman’s mentors was Najla al-Awadhi , who was CEO of channels at DMI for more than a decade before she left the company to take a parliamentary appointment. Al-Awadhi’s resume details a series of broken barriers: first woman in a Gulf country to rise to the top levels of a state-run media group; first woman in the history of the United Arab Emirates to serve in parliament; youngest UAE parliamentary member.
Awadhi ankled parliament in 2007 to found her own consultancy firm. She writes a monthly column for Gulf News, the UAE’s leading English-language newspaper.
Both Awadhi and Jarman believe that the onus for women’s rights lies with women. Says Jarman: “In terms of what the government is providing, in terms of what the country is providing, it’s open for anyone. I think (equality gaps) come from women themselves being maybe a little hesitant, and thinking twice in terms of what is traditional and what is not.”
Across the Arabian Peninsula is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a cosmopolitan port city known for its diversity and tolerance. It is here that Danya Alhamrani and Dania Nassief (both pronounce their names “Don-yah”) founded Eggdancer Prods., an independent film and television company, in 2006.
In 2008, on a lark, Alhamrani applied to be a part of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” fan-driven special, and was selected to serve as a local guide. Bourdain and his crew flew to Jeddah, and with Nassief juggling the logistics, Eggdancer was credited as a field producer on the episode.
Eggdancer produces documentaries, sitcoms and religious programming, including an Imax film about the Haj — the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca — as well as cooking show “Khushu Almatbakh” (Get Into the Kitchen); a documentary on young people, “Kalam Kabeer” (Big Talk) that features high-school and college-age men and women describing their lives; and a doc on a young Saudi Arabia nurse, “My Story.”
Alharmani and Nassief were the first Saudi women to be granted a permit to run their own business without a male business partner — a substantial feat in a nation in which women are forbidden to drive or appear in public without a male chaperone. King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run for office on Sept. 26 — but that right will not go into effect for another four years.
Alharmani and Nassief are childhood friends who were both educated abroad, Alharmani in San Diego and Nassief in Southhampton, U.K., before returning to Saudi Arabia. Alharmani manages the creative aspects of the company, and Nassief, who has a degree in information systems, handles the business end. They are proud of what they accomplished for Saudi women, they say, but are more concerned that their work speak for itself.
“Most Westerners know about the Middle East through the news, and they know what’s going on politically, but they don’t know about the culture. They don’t know the inside story,” Nassief says.
It’s up to the Saudis to change that, Alharmani says. “It’s not that people are holding on to their stereotypes — they’ve just never seen anything else.”
Women have been making inroads in Middle East media for quite some time, but the Arab Spring — which, among other effects, brought Arab media outlets such as Al Jazeera into Western living rooms more often — pushed those changes to the forefront.
“The Arab Spring has shattered all sorts of myths and stereotypes held in the West about people in the Middle East,” says Deepa Kumar, associate professor of Media Studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers U.
In Israel, where women have enjoyed greater gender equality, some female media professionals have found success in Hollywood by milking a cultural common ground.
Ten years ago, 34-year-old Israeli actress and producer Noa Tishby, a household name in her homeland, left Tel Aviv to try and make it in Los Angeles. A few years later, when she sold HBO the rights to “In Treatment” (“B’Tipul”), one of the most successful dramas in Israeli history, she knew she had hit upon something, pointing out that Israel and the U.S. share remarkably similar cultures.
While “In Treatment” never scored big ratings for the pay cabler, it was a critical success. The show, starring Gabriel Byrne, won acting Emmys for Dianne Wiest and Glynn Turman and a Golden Globe for Byrne in its three seasons. Tishby has since launched her own production company, Noa’s Arc, and sold two more Israeli formats to HBO. Dozens of Israeli programs are now being shopped to U.S. networks, a phenomenon that Tishby doesn’t hesitate to take credit for.
“Innovation in Israel is across the board. Entertainment is just another aspect of it,” she says. “I’m thrilled to have basically started this industry.”
Across the Green Line from Tishby’s hometown of Ramat Aviv, Israel, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Samar Stephan, a producer and filmmaker, has spent the past decade working in TV. She started as a satellite coordinator and desk producer for Link productions before moving to Reuters TV as a freelancer. In 2010, with Pina TV Prods., she created a reality series, “Sleepless in Gaza and Jerusalem,” that documented the good, bad and ugly of Palestinian women’s daily lives under occupation.
“While the show doesn’t go out of its way to be political, it remains heavily so, because life under a foreign military occupation is inherently and unavoidably political,” Omar Baddar wrote on the Huffington Post website after viewing the series, which is available on YouTube.
Stephan says that in her years working in TV in the Palestinian territories, she has seen more and more women enter the ranks. But what is also notable, she says, is that females are filling out the technical side of the business, as well.
“We now see camerawomen in the field standing side by side with men,” she says. “As time passes we also see more equality in pay.”
The Arab Spring, Stephan says, has taught bot
h genders to find their voice. “Just the will to change the status quo, and be ardent about it, is an empowering concept for both men and women,” she says.