Munirah keeps a note on her office wall to remember everyone she has ever interviewed.  

The Journalist

Munirah, 34, Riyadh

On the role of women

It’s not better to be a man or a woman, I’m very happy to be a woman. But it is harder to be a girl. When you’re a boy everything is easy, there’s no challenge. For girls it’s different, but I don’t see it as a negative. I want to face this challenge, I want to feel the value of the things that I make. Nothing is given to you, it’s all earned. 

On becoming a journalist

I had a lot of issues from my family. The first time they saw my name in print, my brother went to our father’s office, took a gun and held it to my head. If my mother hadn’t intervened he would have killed me there and then. 

And it was just for my name. Because once it was out there, in black and white, people would know that I was his sister, that I was a journalist, and that therefore I worked in a news office, probably with men. 

That's the thing they object to. Nowadays women work, often we are expected to work, but as teachers, as professors, only in places that are not mixed. One of my friends wanted to study to be a nurse, but her family took her file from the college because they didn’t want to risk her working with men in the future.

 

When I felt the gun, I was so shocked, I couldn’t even cry. But at the same time, it was an important moment for me, because in those few seconds I decided I wouldn’t give up, that I would challenge everyone to prove myself. 

Alhamdulillah things have changed since then. When I was asked to give an interview on TV, my father was so proud, he called all of his friends and told them “that’s my daughter on TV”, w'Allah!

On freedom of press

It really depends what kind of newspaper you work for. If you write for a government-owned paper, you don’t have a lot of space to write anything. But in private newspapers like mine you have wider parameters. I don’t feel restricted in my work. 

Of course I would like things to keep developing and opening up here, but I'm not interested in challenging the system directly. My goal is to educate the next generation; that’s why I always have interns, I’m always working with kids, with young journalists, teaching them how to express themselves as writers. They will be the ones to make the big changes here.

On the veil

 

In the beginning, you cover because your family wants you to. You reach a certain age and your brother, your mother, your father, they all start with this, “cover your face, cover your face!”. So it’s true, in the beginning I didn’t want to wear the niqab, but now I wear it out of choice. To me it’s just part of the culture, it’s not a problem. 

Sometimes I’ll uncover my face at work if that’s more comfortable. Also for travel, if I went to Europe for example, I wouldn't wear it. I know that it’s not usual for women to cover there, and I don’t like to stand out, I’d want to respect the local culture. 

This interview is an extract from the book Queens of the Kingdom, Simon & Schuster (2019)

                  What's in a name?

While it is well-known that Saudi women are

expected to practice extreme modesty in dress in

public spaces, it is less widely understood that a

woman’s concealment of identity goes beyond physical

appearances and is often expected to extend to her own

name.

According to conventions stemming from bedouin ancestry, the

flaunting of a first name may be deemed provocative and

potentially damaging to a woman's reputation.

Navigating this etiquette of discretion in the modern world can

have curious consequences; from the bride's name being omitted

from her own wedding invitations, to businessmen agreeing

informal evening supermarket rostas at the office, to avoid ever

being in the awkward position of having to introduce one's wife

to a colleague in the dairy aisle.

 

In many tribes and regions, a man will never speak the

names of his female relatives in public at all, referring to his

wives and sisters at home simply as "the family".

In such society it is not uncommon for best

friends, and even brothers, not to know the

names of each other’s wives.

If you could change any one law in Saudi Arabia, what would it be?

I think it would be to do with the guardianship.  Everything, every decision in your life, must be taken by a man around you, your brother, your father, even your son! I want women to be free, I want to be able to talk about myself, about everything, to have the full right to express myself.