Sabah Adam is a rarity in Sudanese media: one of the few women who has managed to reach the top of her industry. As the former chief editor of the Citizen daily newspaper, Adam was only one of two female editors in the country when she held the position.
“I think women are not in higher positions, not because they are weak or anything, but because of the guardianship approach that is in our institutions,” she says.
Female journalists in Sudan make up 60 percent of the industry’s employees, according to the Sudanese Journalists Union, but very few manage to reach editorial positions. There is currently not a single female chief editor among Sudan’s 32 political, social and sports newspapers.
Male colleagues in the media routinely doubt women’s abilities, Adam says. “People say women cannot work late or even travel abroad.”
“This is not true,” she says, but “this situation has continued and does not give [women] a chance to upgrade their careers.”
Other female journalists view the plight of Sudanese women as reflective of the country as a whole. “I see the problem affecting the whole society. It isn’t only facing female journalists,” says Shamael al-Noor, a journalist and columnist at El Tayyar newspaper. She recently came under attack from hard-line Islamists in Sudan for writing a column that criticized government health policies.
“We cannot get an answer to the question as to why women journalists are not in better positions without answering the bigger issue: Why aren’t women in all institutions getting upgraded?”
Having female journalists in senior positions is key, Adam says, not only for producing more balanced coverage, but also for women’s protection.
Human Rights Watch has found that Sudanese security forces used sexual violence, intimidation and other forms of abuse to silence female human rights defenders across the country last year. The same applies for female journalists.
In 2012, suspected security agents abducted freelance journalist Somaya Ibrahim, tortured her and shaved her head before eventually dumping her in a remote area of the capital, Khartoum, the press freedom group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, reported. Ibrahim’s captors showed her articles she had written and accused her of disrespecting the ruling regime, newspapers reported. Ibrahim had covered human rights violations in western Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, subjects deemed off-limits by Sudan’s security forces.
After observing the plight of her colleagues in the media, Lubna Abdullah, a journalist for the country’s leading daily, Al-Jareeda, decided to launch a support group for female journalists.
While women are quick to join the newsroom, Abdullah says, she has found through her work that they are also the first to leave due to harassment and discrimination. Abdullah is working on a research project concerning this issue. “Many female journalists left the industry in Sudan; some for financial reasons, but others left because they were subjected to sexual harassment,” she says.
The problem is especially acute for younger female journalists who are subject to sexual harassment by their senior male colleagues.
“Female journalists are not able to talk of their own issues, let alone women’s issues in Sudan,” Abdullah adds.
The dearth of female editors has led to a lack of coverage of women’s issues as a whole in Sudan. A weeklong monitoring of three major newspapers in Sudan by Nuba Reports found that only three articles related to women were published. The three media organizations monitored – Al-Sayha, Al-Rai al-Aam and Al-Jareeda – have the highest circulation in Sudan. Al-Jareeda did not publish a single article about women during the monitoring period.
“There are so many important issues absent from the press,” says Abdelgadir Mohamed, a journalist and author of “Walls of Silence,” a book about Sudanese press censorship.
Sudan has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation in the world, for example, but local coverage of this sensitive issue is hard to find.
Many issues concerning women are considered sensitive, Mohamed says, and are therefore banned from publication. Topics such as gender equality in the workplace are seen by the ruling regime as detrimental to its political support base, which prefers “to keep women trapped between the walls of homes,” Mohamed says.
Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders considers Sudan one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom, ranking it 174 out of 180 countries.
Not only are women’s issues underrepresented by the press, media outlets are often enemies to women’s issues. In 2009, when the journalist Lubna Hussein was arrested for wearing trousers, some local media outlets were sympathetic, but others were outright hostile. Mainstream media organizations, such as the daily newspaper Al-Wifaq, described her supporters who took to the streets to protest her arrest as “prostitutes and homosexuals.”
“If our voices are not heard, nothing will change,” says one former female Sudanese journalist, who wishes to remain anonymous. “As long as female reporters don’t get a final say in editorial decisions, that voice will remain largely silent.”