Sunday, April 21, 2013

Al Jazeera's Dima Khatib @ AUS

I just got back to my office from a special guest lecture given by Dima Khatib, a prominent female Arab journalist for Al Jazeera and that network's first female bureau chief. I have a few other things I should be doing now, but I am so energized from her talk that I want to share a few highlights with you.

Dima was invited to speak at AUS by the Mass Communications Club, and the advertised angle of her presentation was her work as an Arab, female journalist. She framed her presentation around seven challenges. They were all fascinating, but I am going to focus on five, six, and seven.

1. Obtaining family support. Dima was born in Damascus to a Syrian mother and a Palestinian father who encouraged her and supported her in her life's ambitions....

2. Dealing with society's expectations and traditions. ...Even though these ambitions went against what was expected of her by society.

3. Overcoming the patriarchy. Dima spoke repeatedly about being surrounded by men. She specifically noted that most of the audience for her presentation at AUS today was female, and what a change that was for her. She showed us pictures of her at work and out and about and most of the time, her colleagues were 100% male. Literally 100%.

4. The nature of journalism. Journalists go to dangerous places and do dangerous things, and it's not always easy to be in those situations as a woman.

5. Sexual harassment. This was a big one. Dima explained that as a journalist, she has experienced the sexual harassment you might "expect" (sad but true) when out in unruly crowds or elsewhere on assignment, but she also made sure to note that she has experienced sexual harassment inside the office as well. And as one of the very few women around (see challenge #3), there has not often been a safe, clear path of recourse for her in dealing with these incidents. Plus, she also had to worry that if she reported an incident, it might hurt her reputation - I assume as a Muslim woman, though she didn't say this explicitly. On a somewhat lighter note, she said that her camera tripod is her best weapon in preventing groping incidents (by using it to move people out of her way in an unruly crowd) and in punishing them, as well (by hitting people with it). This makes me laugh, but also kind of cry.

6. Having a family. Dima said that you can have it two ways. She herself chose to develop her career first, and then she had a family. However, she encouraged the young women in the audience to consider having a family first (and young), and transition to a career in your 30s. Either way, she said, go ahead, have a family. She said she would throw away all that she has accomplished in her career (which is considerable) in order to have her family. Wow. She spoke at length of the challenges of working as a correspondent while pregnant. She did not tell her bosses in Qatar (while she was in Latin America) that she was pregnant until she was six months along, because she didn't want to be treated differently. She continued being on camera throughout, just having closer and closer shots that did not show her changing body over time. After she had her son, she - seriously! - conducted live, on-air interviews over the phone while breastfeeding her baby. She also canceled live interviews just beforehand - something she said she had never done before, not when there was war or conflict or earthquakes or gunfire or whatever - because her son was crying and he needed her at that exact moment. And she told them that was the reason she was canceling, which I thought was even more courageous.

Here is a picture (from a fellow lecture attendee) of Dima doing her work with her son literally in her arms. She's not actually on camera at this moment, but yeah, AWESOME.

7. Yourself. "Your biggest challenge is yourself." When Dima is at home, all she hears from her son is that she's never there. When she's at work, she hears that she's never there. She didn't offer many solutions for finding a balance, but urged us to do our best.

Finally, Dima specifically addressed the ways in which being a journalist is different for men and women. Women have to worry more about how they appear on camera, especially as they age. On men, gray hair has a wisdom-enhancing effect. On women, not so much. Women have more prejudices to break through, and the work is tougher for them by nature. Also/however (because this is a pro and a con), women journalists have different access in the field. She spoke about being in Libya and being able to knock on doors and gain access to homes (and interviews and story angles) because she was female, and therefore less intimidating to a living room full of women. However, also in Libya, she was denied access to the front lines because no fighter groups would take her along because she was a woman.

The overall message I took away from Dima Khatib's lecture was that she does her work as a woman, not in denial of it, even in a heavily male-dominated field. I love love love that she made it work along with having a child, and she didn't do so in secret. When she took time off for her kid, or turned down assignments in order to spend time with her kid, she was sending an important message that our families and children need time, too. When she took her son along with her on assignments, I like to imagine that she was changing minds and opinions about mothers in the workplace. As she put it, eventually, "people accept that you have a child." And they get over it.

I did have one question for her, but I had to run back to make office hours so I asked it via Twitter. And she answered!

I asked this question because while I understand why she preferred to NOT have everyone watching her on TV know that she was pregnant - because people view and treat pregnant women differently, often for the worse - I thought she could have really broken down some stereotypes and been an example for other women. How nice of me to volunteer her for that, I know.

She answered:

And so I said:

And she responded:

Anyway, great lecture. It's really given me a lot to think about, especially as a woman. I was about to write "especially as a woman who has a job outside the home" or "especially as a woman with children," but no, actually, just as a woman. Period.


Kathy Haynie said...

Awesome. I googled her image just to get a little sense of her personality, and she looks like a vibrant, lively, loving woman. (Is that weird that we assume these kinds of things from photographs? Or is it wonderful that we can make visual perceptions? Not sure...) Anyway, thank you for sharing her insights and your thoughts. Lots to reflect upon.

On a personal note, I have never regretted staying home with my 5 children until I was 35, and then going back to college and completing a professional degree. I was fortunate to land the job I wanted at age 40. For me, it has been an excellent career path. I was inspired my own mom, who completed college when I was in high school. She began teaching during my senior year.

Liz Johnson said...

Ok, this is completely fascinating to me. I've thought a lot about this, and how I've kind of always grown up with the assumption that you either have kids, or you have a career. It's always been presented as so difficult & complicated to have both that I always perceived it as being the least desirable option. I think this is partially why I initially found (and still sometimes find) motherhood so suffocating - it was like I wasn't allowed to do anything else, because it wasn't worth the complication/effort/etc. But women like her (and Claudia Bushman, who got her PhD when she had five little kids at home) remind me that you don't have to relegate yourself to one sphere exclusively, and in fact, you shouldn't. Being a mother shouldn't exclude you from being an engaged member of society and the workforce, and people need to realize that women (and men) have families that also require their attention. Careers are meant to support the home, not the other way around. I'm encouraged to see more workplaces being open to things like flex schedules, bringing kids to work, and telecommuting. I hope it makes the bridge between parenthood and career easier and more manageable.

I love that there are women out there who are boldly bashing through these walls, so that others who go after them are far less injured doing so.


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