By Axel Andén
PORTRAIT. When Hana Al-Khamri discussed the future with her childhood friends, she listened, with growing irritation, how one by one explained that they do not need to study because they would get married. Finally she stood up and gave a little speech.
- I concluded by saying “I will not get married, and you will know who I am.”
Hana Al-Khamri traded the women’s desk in Saudi Arabia for foreign desk at the Danish magazine Information. For a daughter of a guest worker from Yemen, a career in journalism was almost an impossible choice.
She describes her family as conservative. Her father is a guest worker from Yemen, but the family has lived in Saudi Arabia her whole life. The dream of becoming a journalist was difficult to realize. As a woman, she was not allowed to study journalism. As a child of a guest worker, she was not allowed to study at the university. And the family and society around her wanted her to get married and stay at home.
When she was 19 years old, she called up the newspaper Al-Madina and offered to write on voluntary basis. She was invited to write for the female affairs desk, which consisted of two women who sat in a remote part of the building and wrote about women’s issues. In the two years that she spent there she never met her male colleagues.
- If I had passed by my boss on the street, I would not have known that it was him.
She worked her way up to a paid job and eventually became responsible for the Islamic Women’s page describing the challenges the Muslim women face in Saudi society. There, she started several debates, including a debate on why women cannot work in courts.
- I noticed that I was able to bring new ideas with soft words, that there is no need for violence to change things.
She was offered a course in electoral reporting at the American University in Beirut, but her father refused to let her go. Eventually she was allowed to go on the condition that her brother would come along. She was then 21 years old – he was 14. However, the weeks in Lebanon were an awakening for her.
- It is a country in the Middle East where people have completely different perspectives and opportunities. When I got home I started reading a lot about religion and realized that many problems of the society in Saudi Arabia do not come from the religion but from the traditions.
- When the world tries to limit me, religion is my only freedom.
Next, she discovered a new course at the Al Jazeera Media Center in Qatar, which deals with live coverage and interaction online.
- I realized that if I did not manage to shake off my brother this time, I would be dragging him with me the rest of my life.
She told her dad that it was a women only type of course and that the women would come and fetch her. Only when returned home, did she tell the truth.
- Look, I’m back, nothing happened, I’m not pregnant!
After that she worked for two years in order to get a scholarship for a course in international relations at Krogerup’s school in Denmark. Eventually she managed, with money from the Politiken Foundation and a Danish museum. When it was time to do an internship, Hana Al-Khamri called up the editor of the Information and asked if she could work there twice a week. After some persuasion, she was allowed to work at the foreign desk where she made three big stories: about Saudi Arabia, the Iraqi elections and the Saudi delegation at the climate summit in Copenhagen. As a result, she was allowed to stay for six months.
- I have been told that I was the first journalist from the Middle East to work on a Danish newspaper.
However, her column on life in Denmark generated the most reactions. She received many comments when she criticized Pia Kjaergard’s statement that a woman can not wear the burqa because “we can not have people around us who do not smile back when we smile at them”. Hana Al-Khamri asked what was worse: not getting a smile or not to get an education, which will be the consquence for the women who wear burqa if they are banned.
- The best was all the feedback I received from the readers, many said that my articles were different from the rest, I provided new angles and perspectives.
The positive reception in Denmark has made her think that she should continue in Sweden or Norway, if there is a newspaper that would like to try a similar approach. Her dream is still to get a journalism degreen in Europe, and return to the Middle East.
- We need journalism to change the society, and I feel I must return, for it is getting worse and worse.
During her entire childhood, she was lost in books, which she bought cheap at the market. Her mother found it strange that she did not care about cleaning and cooking, but let her be. At the beginning people were talking a great deal about Hana Al-Khamri, about her career choices, her marital status and travels. It has calmed down a bit, but the family still feels pressured, and sometimes asks if she should get married and stop working.
- My dad, and the whole society must understand that freedom is not that should be given to me, it is born with me, it is a part of me.
Her childhood friends have now read her name in the newspapers. One of them, who now has three children, phoned her and said, “I think you were the only one of us who made the right choice.”
Even her mother, who got married when she was 16 years old, has changed her point of view and now supports her life choices.
- She said “You have been able to do so much that I never got the chance to do. Keep it up, and do not listen to your dad, but do not say that I said it! “
• Reporter in the Danish magazine Information
• Editor of Islamic women page of “Al Risalah”
• Reporter at the Al-Madina
Hobbies: Reading, traveling, trying new things, documentaries, painting, dance, especially belly dancing.
Reads: Political books, novels, history.
Media Habits: Almasry Alyoum in Cairo, Alsharq Alawsat and Independent in London. I like Aljazeeratalk Blog and, many of the new blogs in the East.
Hana Al-Khamri on Journalism in Denmark and in Saudi Arabia:
In Denmark, I learned storytelling: To alternate sources, quotes and facts in order to create a read thread. In Saudi Arabia, it was common to just take the sources after each other. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot study journalism, or work with men. In Saudi Arabia the chief editors are appointed by the Ministry of Information and sit more or less for life. In Saudi Arabia the only way to write controversial stuff is to do it on a blog, while in Denmark, I could write about what I wanted.
Working as a journalist in Denmark and in Saudi Arabia:
In Denmark I was for the first time able to talk directly to my editor, go over to the editing, see my pages made out, and participate in editorial meetings. In Saudi Arabia, there is great hostility, especially from older, conservative men, who, among other things, prevented me from entering the press conferences. I was also dependent on men for my transport because I could not drive.
Western Media’s Middle East Watch:
I do not like to generalize, but my understanding is that they have approximately the same angles, and that they follow each other very much. They constantly confirm stereotypes about the Middle East and confirm what the readers already know, but seldom dig deeper. One of the biggest misconceptions is that the veil is something forced on us. It is not religion that oppresses us, it is tradition.
Translated from Swedish by Marina Ferhatovic
Read the text in the original language in Medevärlden.