SABRIA JAWHAR, a Saudi Gazette columnist and contributor to the US-based The Huffington Post, was named last month as one of the “most influential Arabs” in the Arabian Business magazine’s annual “Power 100” list.
Jawhar was only one of two Saudi women selected from the Arab World, the other was obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Samia Al-Amoudi, who was named to the list along with 13 Saudi men.
The magazine, based in Dubai, UAE, praised Jawhar for “direct” and “blunt” writing to bring Saudi issues to English-speaking readers.
“My column in the Gazette and now on The Huffington Post, allows me to break down the myths that all Muslims sympathize with terrorists or that Saudis are backwards because we follow the Shariah laws. I found that a lot of Western readers thank me for giving them insights about Saudis. There are a few, unfortunately, who seem to be more preoccupied with my “niqab” (the Islamic hijab) or the way I dress. However, there’s not much you can do with people with preconceived stereotypical ideas of Arabs and Muslims,” she said.
Jawhar began her career as a journalist in 2003 when she joined the Gazette. She supervised the Women’s Department and was named the newspaper’s Jeddah Bureau Chief before she became a columnist in 2005.
Journalism is not her primary profession. She earned her bachelor’s degree at King Abdulaziz University in Madina and her master’s degree in applied linguistics at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah. She is now studying for a doctorate degree in applied linguistics at Newcastle University at Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.
“I feel that both fields, academics and journalism, go hand in hand,” Jawhar said. “When I write my column or contribute to The Huffington Post, I try to confront Western myths about Saudi Arabia and especially Saudi women who are perceived as weak and helpless. When I attend seminars or conferences as a student at Newcastle, I also represent Saudi Arabia, and I know that people wonder about the typical Saudi woman. I try to give them an accurate picture.”
Jawhar began attracting attention first when her Saudi Gazette columns were published on English-language websites or picked up and quoted in
English newspapers. After her observations about Saudi Arabia and its relationship with the US and Europe were published on The Huffington Post, several Arabic websites began publishing her writings. Jawhar said it hasn’t always worked out well. “English doesn’t translate well into Arabic and sometimes the message is lost in the translation,” she said. “Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t translate my stories, but at least they are paying attention.”
The goal for Jawhar as a Saudi woman is to write for the English-speaking reader. “No one bothers to ask Saudi women how they feel about their rights and others try to speak for us. I would rather that the world hears what Saudi women really think, than what a Westerner thinks they know about us.”
Topics in Jawhar’s columns include Saudi women’s right to education and employment, the right to travel freely, the issue of whether to wear the abaya, or “burqa” and cover their faces in Europe and attempts to ban mosque minarets in some European countries. Some Muslims describe her as an activist, but Jawhar said she dislikes the word. “Of course I am not an activist,” she said. “I’m just a columnist with an opinion.”
Although Jawhar writes often about women’s rights, she thinks issues, such as Saudi women being able to drive and whether they should wear the abaya in a European country are trivial. She prefers to discuss women’s rights guaranteed in the Holy Qur’an. She said that as long as women are guaranteed their basic human rights as the Qur’an requires, most equal opportunity issues involving women would be solved.
“Many people outside Saudi Arabia don’t understand that we live our lives as Muslims, and what some human rights groups consider women’s rights or freedoms are not the same as how we define them. Yes, I want to drive, but is that so important to us in Saudi Arabia? No, not when we still struggle to get our rights to have a quality education and a good job with a good salary.”
She added that only in the context of Islam can women achieve their rights.
Jawhar said she doesn’t see that many English-speaking Saudi women writing about issues that affect them for English-speaking readers.
Saudis have access to many news websites that have good female writers discussing issues close to them, but the message is not getting out in English.
“I’d love to see more educated Saudi women try to write in English and discuss what is important to us,” Jawhar said. “If there were enough messengers discussing Islam and what it means to the average Saudi woman, then maybe the trivial concerns like driving would disappear and we could focus on what the Holy Qur’an guarantees us.”
Her dream is to see Saudi women reaching higher decision-making levels where they can speak for themselves. “I can’t wait for the day when Saudi women become Shoura Council members, ministers or even ambassadors,” she concluded. – SG