The faces of al-Jazeera

Observations on women in television (1)

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, Ma- donna-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 aggres-sively 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. Katia Nasser, 30, a repor-ter from Lebanon, said: "Here I can act like a journalist independent of my sex. I try to be efficient and professional regardless of being a woman. As a journalist, I want to show defects of Arab regimes and show that we need to solve our problems with our own solutions." The religious aspect may be more pronounced than in other television newsrooms (there is a prayer room), but all the women I spoke to saw this as a personal, private issue.

Al-Jazeera is, admittedly, a special case - the staff are well educated, middle class, most speak several languages and they are drawn predominantly from the most progressive corners of the Arab world.

Hanna, the anchors' make-up artist (eight months pregnant and breezing through the newsroom, with no one batting an eyelid), explained: "This is one of the only places in the Arab media where women are treated well - like family."

Al-Jazeera may be an exception to the rule (and it is undeniably unpopular with fundamentalists), but it is respected and followed avidly - 70 per cent of satellite- owning Arabs watch it.

Female journalists don't get death threats, they get fan mail - hundreds of letters a week requesting details of their hair, make-up and clothes. The discussion programme For Women Only is one of the channel's most popular.

Al-Jazeera's multicultural female staff demonstrate that to be a working woman in the Arab world is not only not un-Islamic, it is also not necessarily a pro-western thing to do.

Shaima Rezayee's death is a tragedy, but to turn her into some sort of MTV martyr does a disservice to other Muslim women.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Oxfam is failing Africa