Iraqi Women, Raising Their Voices
After 20 years, Salama Omar is finally able to put her journalism degree to use.
Today, Omar, whose real name has been changed to protect her safety in Iraq, is a correspondent for Radio Dijla, the nation's first talk radio station.
After she graduated from Cairo University 20 years ago and returned to her home in Iraq, she became a high school teacher instead. The dictatorship of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein interrupted Omar's career plans as the airwaves were closed and journalism stifled.
Jumana Shaker Aabood, whose name has also been changed, had not been involved in broadcast journalism because there were no radio stations in her town. She is now the announcer and program host at Radio Nawa, a new independent national station.
"I never had the opportunity to be a journalist before now," Aabood said, "but the desire was always there."
"Talk radio is rapidly emerging as the media outlet of choice for Iraqi women," said Stacy Sullivan, a senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. The institute recently brought three aspiring female radio journalists from Iraq to polish their on-air skills and receive training from leading talk show hosts on American radio.
Air America's Laura Flanders, Monica Crowley of WABC and MSNBC, and WOR's Joan Hamburg were among several U.S. professionals sharing their expertise as well as providing in-studio training to the Iraqi women. They also met with Women's eNews editors; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; officials from the United Nations; the Oxygen Network; and the editorial boards of The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Washington Times. They also attended the biennial conference of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television in Williamsburg, Va.
A powerful medium to reach women
"Although the Institute for War and Peace Reporting had primarily focused on print in other countries, we realized when we got to Iraq that radio was the most powerful and far-reaching form of media, particularly for women," said Sullivan.
As evidence of the popularity of talk radio among Iraqi women, Radio Dijla received 16,000 calls on the first day of its broadcast and more than half of the callers were women. With women making up well over 60 percent of Iraq's population and with only 24 percent of women being literate, talk radio is fast becoming a female-dominated industry in Iraq.
"Women were shut off from so many aspects of this patriarchal society that they now have access to through the radio," said Sullivan. "With travel restricted because of safety, women are home a lot of the time and phones are readily available, making it easy for Iraqi women to use the radio to connect. Women call up to these shows all the time."
Jessie Graham, who works for the institute in Iraq training women in radio, says the opening of the airwaves is having a dual effect on media and reporting there. "When the regime first fell, talk radio took off rapidly," she said. "The licensing system was unclear, which led to an unregulated system. However, as a consequence, this has meant there is sometimes a lack of analysis of the issues. We are working to change that."
Hearing change over the airwaves
As Omar sees it, there is often a tension between reporting on reality versus what women want to hear. "Women want to hear happy news," she says. "They want to hear that there is a smell of change, but that isn't always the case."
Omar reports on more serious cultural and political issues, ranging from rooftop snipers to how women are being kidnapped. She also reports on how the war is creating a shortage of men.
"After decades of war, women now outnumber men and women want to get married," she said. "These are the kind of issues we address on my program."
"There are women in Iraqi prisons being raped. That hasn't been covered by the Western media," said Muna Mushin Muhammad, the host of "Miyat Halla" on Radio Baghdad. "We are trying to focus on those stories."
Some stations such as Radio Almahaba -- translated as "Cup of Tea" -- take a slightly lighter approach, focusing their coverage on issues such as relationships and parenting. Radio Almahaba began broadcasting in March from Baghdad as the first independent women's radio station in Iraq. It is said to be nongovernmental, nonreligious and non-ethnic.
Women's concerns fuel comments
Although the content varies from program to program, the issues covered on talk radio shows have largely grown out of the concerns of the women who call in.
"They told us that women who call into their shows are concerned about being forced to wear hijabs in the workplace," said Sullivan. "They are concerned about men taking on second wives without asking the first wife."
Many of these female journalists believe that, for now, radio is the best media outlet for women. "Radio is something that can reach everywhere, to all women," said Radio Nawa's Aabood. Yet the future remains tenuous.
"The challenges for women in media in Iraq are really threefold," said Sullivan. "They have to deal with sexism, the lack of security and the shortage of equipment."
Omar, however, has a vision that goes way beyond such barriers. She is optimistic about future prospects for Iraqi versions of American cable TV networks that reach largely female audiences.
"I'm one of a few female journalists left in my town; my other female journalist friends were killed," she said. "But I hope one day there could be a media network like Oxygen or Lifetime. We will have women who shake off the dust of the war, but right now it is very difficult."