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Journalists from five Middle Eastern Countries Reach Out to U.S. Colleagues

After the collapse of the USSR, said May Chidiac with slight exaggeration, the United States is “ruling the whole world.” The award-winning Lebanese TV journalist noted that ordinary people in the U.S. don’t seem interested in what’s going on outside their borders. “Since you decided to rule the whole world,” she challenged her American audience, “you should know more about us.”

Her humor and outspokenness has made Chidiac a hero in her country, especially since a pipe bomb exploded under the seat of her Range Rover in September 2005 after she had finished broadcasting her political talk show. She survived the terrorist attack—one of a series targeting critics of Syria’s political and military dominance in Lebanon—and resumed her career once fitted with prostheses for a missing arm and leg.

Chidiac was one of five women journalists and scholars speaking to colleagues gathered at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York for an April 20 breakfast jointly hosted by Pat Mitchell, president of the museum, and Carol Jenkins, president of the Women’s Media Center. Representing Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran as well as Lebanon, the panel called for a more realistic portrayal of their countrywomen by U.S. media.

Muna AbuSulayman of Saudi Arabia, whom Barbara Walters had introduced at a program the evening before at the museum as the woman who does “The View” in the Middle East, said, she didn’t see women like herself on U.S. TV—women “who didn’t ride a camel and were able to speak back to their brothers.” AbuSulayman co-hosts “Kalam Nouam” (“Speaking Softly”), which features many nuanced discussions on the Arab family—suggesting, for example, that there might be a less drastic solution to the problem of cell phones being used to take inappropriate pictures than to ban them altogether.

AbuSulayman echoed Chidiac’s concern that Americans be informed of international issues and learn to distinguish the effects of religion and culture, since ignorance can breed dire consequences. There are many different perspectives in her part of the world, she said. “We all do have lenses; we don’t look through clear glasses. And we need more exchanges between media women of different cultures.”

Speaking of solutions, Chidiac said education was essential to bring people out of the poverty where extremist roots flourish. Women have equal access to education in Lebanon, she said, and Lebanese media women are working all over the Middle East. Mehrangiz Kar of Iran, a visiting human rights scholar at the Harvard Law School, said no one in her country had political freedom under the Shah, but that women lost rights following the revolution. She gains hope from the fact that, while the Iranian regime seems afraid of diversity—even that shown by colorful scarves—the voice of women is becoming stronger. More than 65% of the country’s university students are women, she said, and many are active in law and human rights.

Huda Ahmed, a reporter at McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau, said that with the U.S. occupation, women had at least hoped to gain back civil rights that they enjoyed after the fall of the monarchy in Iraq in the late 1950s. But instead, she said, the Americans empowered radical religious factions, and women stand to lose because of ambiguity in the evolving constitution. In the midst of the fighting and violence, she said, they had to explain to politicians what it means to have Shia courts written into the constitution. “Women risk their lives to write in Iraq,” she said. “Don’t block out what is happening.”

Pakistan is not one culture, said Tasneen Ahmar, who directs the Uks-Research, Resource and Publication Centre on Women and Media in Islamabad (Uks is an Urdu word meaning reflection). There’s a mix, she said, of Indian culture and that of the original inhabitants, a blending of Islam, some Hinduism, with an overlay of feudal values and customs. Pakistani women no longer keep silent about such abuses as honor killings. “Pakistan is not going to be taken over by the Taliban,” she insisted. Ahmar also saw a need to bridge the information gap. “It’s not me and you,” she said, “but us.”

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