Saudi Arabia appoints first female newspaper editor

The employment glass ceiling has long been off-limits to women in Saudi Arabia, but it’s hoped that this new appointment will strike within it a tiny crack that turns into an open door

A Saudi Arabian newspaper has appointed the country’s first female editor, in a move that gender-rights activists hope will inspire more Saudi women to enter the workforce and seek leadership roles.

The Saudi Gazette, an English-language daily with a circulation of 15,000, named former deputy editor Somayya Jabarti as its editor-in-chief, with outgoing editor Khaled Almaeena saying the decision was “not a question of gender but of merit.”

The newspaper, one of the few in the Kingdom that aren’t part-owned by Saudi royalty, has a reputation for being relatively liberal, at least by the standards of Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled media. While English-language newspapers are typically given more latitude than the Arabic press, Saudi journalists routinely self-censor, especially when handling stories that concern the royal family.

Newspapers must also win the Ministry of Culture and Information’s approval for top-level editorial appointments, although the current information minister is seen as fairly progressive. The Gazette already employs a mostly-female crew of journalists, but until now men had held all senior editorial positions.

“There’s a crack that has been made in the glass ceiling. And I’m hoping it will be made into a door,” Jabarti told reporters.

Only around 15% of Saudi women work, but that figure has gradually increased since 2011, when King Abdullah ordered lingerie stores — and later department stores, cosmetics retailers and wedding stores — to hire more women.

The ‘feminisation’ decree brought tens of thousands of women into the workplace, but angered Saudi Arabia’s religious police. It also ran against entrenched social mores: many female workers still veil their faces and refuse to wear name-tags to avoid shaming their male relatives.

Still, activists hope that women’s entry into the workforce — and promotion into leadership positions — will spur further progress. In recent months, women have begun to openly defy the Kingdom’s ban on female drivers, and also to petition for the right to marry without their fathers’ consent.

For her part, Jabarti remains focused on running her newspaper. “There will be challenges, but there is ground to be broken. This is just the starting point.”