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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired March 4, 2006 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to this special edition of CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.
We'll consider the role of women in the Middle East and Asia and how the media covers issues important to them.

In just a moment, the shocking story of Rania al-Baz, the former Saudi television presenter who was beaten within an inch of her life by her husband. She's now daring to challenge the culture of violence against women.

And we'll also hear from the award-winning foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, who has written extensively about the region.

First, though, we take you to Saudi Arabia. Life there for women is very different than in the West. They can't vote, drive or check into a hotel without a male family member. But there are some signs that women are gaining more rights and freedom.

CNN's Nic Robertson traveled to the kingdom, where he spoke to one activist who is urging other women to speak out on repression and religious extremism.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): Life for girls in Saudi Arabia doesn't get more daring than this. At the wheel of a virtual car, Annan (ph) is not sure if she'll drive when she grows up. Not because she's crashing, but because women are banned from doing the real thing.

MAHA FITAIHI, WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVIST: This is the house for ladies who can -- widows and divorced.

ROBERTSON: In her chauffer-driven car, as she drives me around her hometown, Jeddah, women's rights activist Maha Fitaihi sees change.

(on camera): How long do you think before you could be driving around these streets?

FITAIHI: I think maybe a few months.

ROBERTSON: That's short.

FITAIHI: It will have a backlash, I'm sure, from some people who don't believe in the woman's role in life.

ROBERTSON: The more religious extremes.

FITAIHI: Yeah. And expected, but we're ready for that, yeah.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Female drivers are a hot issue. Video clips like this, purporting to be women flaunting the law, driving in Saudi Arabia, are popular in the growing youth counterculture of video messaging.

Fitaihi, though, wants more than just being allowed to drive. She wants religious extremist, responsible for repressing women's rights, to radically reform their attitudes. She wants respect.

FITAIHI: I want to see that when you talk to me, you listen to me and you talk me in the eyes. You look me in the eyes and you respect me as a woman and you take what I say as a woman.

That was the first time we came up on the TV. We were eight ladies.

ROBERTSON: Her path, from mother of five to reformer, began in earnest with TV appearances following September 11.

FITAIHI: Just talking the everyday life as a mother and as a wife living here, that had a life and wanted to have a better life.

ROBERTSON: She felt Saudis were responsible for the attacks in the United States and her country needed to change. She discovered she wasn't alone.

FITAIHI: I was shocked by some of the messages and telephone calls.

ROBERTSON: Many women supported her view that narrow religious education is the root of the Saudi problem stemming from the empowerment of conservative religious leaders following a botched revolt against the royal family.

FITAIHI: That incident of 1979 had an impact on our TV, our schools, our education, our daily life. You know, everywhere, we were not allowed to speak out.

ROBERTSON: Fitaihi is devoted to Islam. She prays five times a day. To do less would allow religious extremists to derail her agenda.

FITAIHI: My mission, that I would like to differentiate and to show the differences between what is from Islam and what is from social practices and customs.

I was living here in the...

ROBERTSON: Nowhere is her calculated bucking at the social norm more obvious then when she shows me where she grew up. For a woman to be in public with an unrelated man is banned by religious police. For it to be filmed for Western television is a first for me. It is a sign of change.

In the market's female migrant workers she sees optimism and reality in equal measure.

FITAIHI: Two years ago it was only maybe three or four women. You see now how many? Saudi women themselves, they don't want to get into this now because they don't know that it's -- maybe that she is going to be harmed, maybe she is going to be hurt, maybe she is going to be hearing something -- but the more we have like this, I'm sure in two year's time you'll find some Saudis sitting here.

ROBERTSON: Her optimism is based on trust in the new Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, in whose hands women's fortunes here lie.

(on camera): Just looking along this rack of magazines and newspapers gives an indication of the subtle and slow change on women's issues. This magazine, for example, features a picture of Saudi Arabia's king and a woman on its cover. It would have been unheard of several years ago. And, like many publications these days, features more articles relevant for women.

(voice-over): And elsewhere, women are getting minor victories. Girls can now study engineering. Women can join chambers of commerce, both formerly off-limits. But fundamental changes, like equality in law, are nowhere in sight.

Fitaihi has been fighting for her own college-aged girls. She knows the final push may come from them.

FITAIHI: The new generation is rejecting that power without logic, and this is the cause of the Internet and the TV -- satellite TVs - - and their exposure.

ROBERTSON: More than 60 percent of the country is under 16. Seventeen-year-old Sally knows what she wants and is breaking social norms to tell us.

"It would be better if women could drive," she says. "It would be easier on the family."

By the time Annan (ph) is Sally's age, she may well be driving, and if she keeps practicing, she'll likely do just fine.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.


SWEENEY: Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, breaking the silence. A former Saudi TV anchor tells what happened when she was nearly beaten to death.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Rania al-Baz was one of the best known and loved faces in Saudi Arabia. She was the host of a program called "The Kingdom This Morning." That was until her husband beat her so badly she nearly died.

After the attack, Rania decided to speak out against Saudi Arabia's repressive male-dominated culture. She published these pictures of her injuries and has written a book about her ordeal.

CNN's Monita Rajpal caught up with Rania in Paris, where she now lives, and asked her about life before and after the attack.


RANIA AL-BAZ, FMR. SAUDI ANCHORWOMAN (through translator): I had a very simple life in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I grew up in a very simple manner. I went to a university, I got married, so there was no difference with any other kind of growing up in any other place.

MONITA RAJPAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How does someone growing up in a very simple kind of life, very basic family, like every other family, but in Saudi Arabia -- how do you become this very famous television presenter, something that's not very common, not common at all in Saudi Arabia, in the kingdom?

AL-BAZ (through translator): I got into the television world by luck, actually. It wasn't really planned. When I got there, there were only two or three women by the age 60, and I knew a very close friend of my father's, whom I call my uncle, and he was already working in television, and that's maybe why I got into the field.

RAJPAL: What kind of a marriage did you have?

AL-BAZ (through translator): I got married twice and the second marriage, of course, was the most important. He proposed to my father and my father was reluctant to accept the marriage, but he did and the most important thing, of course, is my children in this marriage.

RAJPAL: What about the image? One thing that's very important for women living in the Middle East, in any Asian culture as well, the image of a woman who wants to divorce her husband. It's very difficult for her to get the kind of support and also to be seen as respectable after. No one is saying that that's right, but that's the reality. How difficult is that? How difficult was that for you? And do you think maybe because you were famous it was easier?

AL-BAZ (through translator): The society is very rude with a divorced woman, especially when she has children. She is condemned doubly by being a divorced woman and by failing in her family life.

RAJPAL: Why do you think you were given your first job on television? Not your first job, but the job as the host of "The Kingdom This Morning," and why do you think you made it so popular?

AL-BAZ (through translator): I was young and the executives thought I would be able to present that program in a good way.

RAJPAL: Well, in a good way, and as such that it was indeed a very popular show, a very popular morning show in the kingdom. That said, why did they not want you back after you recovered? Why did the not give you your job back?

AL-BAZ (through translator): Because I live in Paris, not Saudi Arabia.

RAJPAL: Why did you want to have your photographs published after your family saw you in the hospital and the condition that you were in? Why did you want those pictures to be shown everywhere?

AL-BAZ (through translator): I didn't ask for the photos to be published, but when they were published I thought they would be an example to show what's happened to the world.

RAJPAL: How important is that then for you, to get that message across?

AL-BAZ (through translator): Writing this topic in the media and pointing out the silence against women was very women was very important, and all the media coverage helped to raise this topic.

RAJPAL: There are those back in the kingdom who are saying even though you have supporters, there are those who are criticizing you, who will say, you know, you should not be saying this, you should not be vocal, you should be loyal to your husband no matter what. What do you say to them?

AL-BAZ (through translator): I respect those who are not with my opinion and I think I will be able to convince them. And in every matter you have those against and those for.

RAJPAL: That's what I want to get at. I want to know what your focus and your mission is now.

AL-BAZ (through translator): My goal is to protect women, to enhance women's rights and to prevent women from being beaten and to respect the international treaties of everywhere.

RAJPAL: This business that we're in, it's about self-esteem, it's about feeling strong inside as well. When you were abused, what did that do to your self-esteem?

AL-BAZ (through translator): Of course it didn't shake my self- confidence, my self-esteem. It gave me the strength to keep on fighting and to do my best to protect women's rights.


SWEENEY: That was CNN's Monita Rajpal talking to Rania al-Baz.

Up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, we hear from the award- winning foreign correspondent Christina Lamb.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

We've just heard the remarkable story of Rania al-Baz, the Saudi television presenter who was beaten nearly to death by her husband and now campaigns against domestic violence.

One Afghan woman, though Nadia Anjuman, wasn't so fortunate. The young writer and poet was killed apparently murdered by her husband. Her family were also said to be angry that she wrote about beauty and love.

Nadia's death raised questions about the position of women in Afghanistan. Foreign correspondent Christina Lamb has written extensively about the country and Christina spoke to CNN's Andrea Sachi (ph), who began by asking her what drew her to report from Afghanistan.


CHRISTINA LAMB, JOURNALIST: I think obviously as a woman myself I'm interested in the status of women, because it's so different, the status of women in the West and going to a place where much of the time women are almost invisible because they're kept away, particularly under the Taliban times, made it very interesting for me. And of course, as a woman reporter, I'm able to go into those area where it's extremely difficult if not impossible for a male reporter to do.

ANDREA SACHI (ph), CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're able to get in, but is it easy to conduct your work? Do you encounter hostility? Have you put yourself in danger?

LAMB: I think in Afghanistan it's very hospitable, very friendly place, so people are very keen to talk. I think sometimes in rural areas, talking to women there, they just can't understand my questions, not from a language point of view but because they cannot imagine the kind of life that we have.

SACHI (ph): Was there a single experience that most influenced how you report and what you do?

LAMB: Definitely. In Herat, in 2001, I arrived the day after the Taliban had fled, and I met a group of women who were known as a sewing circle, who belonged to the literary circle of Heart. They were women writers or poets or women just interested in literature. And they, during the Taliban time, when it was forbidden for women to do anything and it was illegal for a girl to even learn to read, they used to meet secretly at a professors house, and they basically got together and thought, what is the only thing that the Taliban let women do? And that was to sew.

So they created this Golden Needle Sewing School, it was called, and they would go there three times a week carrying bags, which underneath all the material and scissors and sequins and things would have notebooks and pens. And then once they got inside, instead of talking about sewing and learning to make something, they would start discussing Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky and Pashkin (ph), and that really had a big impression on me, because these people were risking their lives to do this.

Where they used to meet was the main traffic crossroads, flower crossroads, and that's where the Taliban used to regularly have bodies hanging because people had transgressed one of their laws. So these women were taking enormous risks. And to do that just to be able to write was something very important to me, because I think sometimes we tend to, as Western reporters, see women in these countries, in the Middle East, kind of locked away, and think that they obviously are not interested in the same kind of things as us.

But one of the women said to me, you know, we were poor in every day life. Why should we be poor in culture too.

SACHI (ph): So the bravery was quite an inspiration to you. However, do you feel that their spirit really represents the majority of women, particularly in Afghanistan? Are these women who want to fight for their rights to education, who really want more out of life than what the traditional society allows them to have?

LAMB: It's very difficult to say, because I only meet a small number, and they may not be at all representative. But I think it's fair to say that most women in Afghanistan know that education is very important and will take great risks and go to great lengths and go without things for education.

So even in a society where most people are still struggling to just be able to have one meal a day, they would still really try very hard to be able to educate their children.

SACHI (ph): Do you feel your work as a journalist, bringing their struggles to light, has helped the position of women in Afghanistan?

LAMB: Sadly, Nadia Anjuman's story would suggest not, because this is what, now four years after the Taliban have fallen, for a woman to be apparently murdered by her husband because her poems, apart from writing about love and beauty, she wrote very movingly about the status of women and feeling caged and this was seen as something just shameful by her family. And they stopped her on many occasions going to attend any kind of literary meeting.

So, you know, if that sort of thing is still happening today and we've seen also in Herat a lot of young girls burning themselves to death because they're being forced to marry at a very young age, 12, 13, to local commanders, as a way of sort of sorting out feuds between families. A child will literally be sold off to resolve the feud.

SACHI (ph): So unfortunately, her case is not unique.

Do you fear that there are far more cases like hers, as extreme as murder, that are not reported?

LAMB: I'm sure there are. I mean, I think Afghanistan today, President Karzai is very determined that women should have equal status. The new constitution gives equal status to women. In fact, the recent elections, Afghanistan now has about 25 percent of its parliament is female, which his much more than we have here in the United Kingdom, for example. So on one hand, that's quite impressive.

On the other hand, absolutely nothing is done about these domestic abuse cases. Nobody has been prosecuted since Karzai took over. And there have been quite a few cases that have been reported. Of course, it must just be the tip of the iceberg. Most people would be frightened to go and report something like that happening to them.

SACHI (ph): Have you seem some reward, then, at least, in your reporting of women's issues in Afghanistan and the Middle East? Has anything every come out where you've said, "I'm so grateful that I did this, I've made a difference in these women's lives"?

LAMB: I mean, you would hope so. Certainly in terms of doing things like reporting on the situation of women's health and the complete lack of maternal facilities, Afghanistan has the highest maternal death rate. So there have definitely been improvements from writing about some of those things, and that's led to people actually building hospitals and focusing on that.

I think I feel very strongly as a reporter that we do, even women reporters, tend to focus very much on men, because they -- in that region - - because they're the ones usually in power. And I think, you know, much of the time it's actually the women behind the scenes who are the ones that are the real heroes in a struggle, like I think these women writers. But also the women that were managing to feed and shelter their children during all the bombing. I met women in Pakistan who had walked for three weeks to cross the mountains, feeding moths to their children because there was nothing else.

And so you do see incredible strength amongst some of the women.

SACHI (ph): Overall, though, Christina, do you feel journalists could be doing more to empower women in the region? Or are you satisfied with the coverage of women's issues?

LAMB: No, I do think women -- I think journalists could be doing more. I think part of it is because, as I said, that we tend to perhaps interview too much and talk too much to people at the front who are more likely to be male in those areas, and I think this is one of the problems with domestic abuse in places like Saudi and Afghanistan, that it's hard for people to, the victims, to go and report these cases, because most of the officials are males. They're not likely to do that.

And, similarly, the people that we are meeting, unless we make a lot more effort. I mean, I have gone and stayed in Afghan villages. I am always taken into the male area to talk to the men. And it's sometimes quite difficult to be able to talk to the women. They won't speak English. I'll probably have a male interpreter. So just communication can be difficult. But I do think we should make more effort.


SWEENEY: That is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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