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Nadia Al-Sakkaf: See Yemen through my eyes

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Pat Mitchell: You have brought us images from the Yemen Times. And take us through those, and introduce us to another Yemen.

Nadia Al-Sakkaf: Well, I'm glad to be here. And I would like to share with you all some of the pictures that are happening today in Yemen. This picture shows a revolution started by women, and it shows women and men leading a mixed protest. The other picture is the popularity of the real need for change. So many people are there. The intensity of the upspring. This picture shows that the revolution has allowed opportunities for training, for education. These women are learning about first aid and their rights according to the constitution.

I love this picture. I just wanted to show that over 60 percent of the Yemeni population are 15 years and below. And they were excluded from decision-making, and now they are in the forefront of the news, raising the flag. English -- you will see, this is jeans and tights, and an English expression -- the ability to share with the world what is going on in our own country. And expression also, it has brought talents. Yemenis are using cartoons and art, paintings, comics, to tell the world and each other about what's going on.

Obviously, there's always the dark side of it. And this is just one of the less-gruesome pictures of the revolution and the cost that we have to pay. The solidarity of millions of Yemenis across the country just demanding the one thing. And finally, lots of people are saying that Yemen's revolution is going to break the country. Is it going to be so many different countries? Is it going to be another Somalia? But we want to tell the world that, no, under the one flag, we'll still remain as Yemeni people.

PM: Thank you for those images, Nadia. And they do, in many ways, tell a different story than the story of Yemen, the one that is often in the news. And yet, you yourself defy all those characterizations. So let's talk about the personal story for a moment. Your father is murdered. The Yemen Times already has a strong reputation in Yemen as an independent English language newspaper. How did you then make the decision and assume the responsibilities of running a newspaper, especially in such times of conflict?

NA: Well, let me first warn you that I'm not the traditional Yemeni girl. I've guessed you've already noticed this by now. (Laughter) In Yemen, most women are veiled and they are sitting behind doors and not very much part of the public life. But there's so much potential. I wish I could show you my Yemen. I wish you could see Yemen through my eyes. Then you would know that there's so much to it. And I was privileged because I was born into a family, my father would always encourage the boys and the girls. He would say we are equal. And he was such an extraordinary man. And even my mother -- I owe it to my family. A story: I studied in India. And in my third year, I started becoming confused because I was Yemeni, but I was also mixing up with a lot of my friends in college. And I went back home and I said, "Daddy, I don't know who I am. I'm not a Yemeni; I'm not an Indian." And he said, "You are the bridge." And that is something I will keep in my heart forever. So since then I've been the bridge, and a lot of people have walked over me.

PM: I don't think so. (Laughter)

NA: But it just helps tell that some people are change agents in the society. And when I became editor-in-chief after my brother actually -- my father passed away in 1999, and then my brother until 2005 -- and everybody was betting that I will not be able to do it. "What's this young girl coming in and showing off because it's her family business," or something. It was very hard at first. I didn't want to clash with people. But with all due respect to all the men, and the older men especially, they did not want me around. It was very hard, you know, to impose my authority. But a woman's got to do what a woman's got to do.


And in the first year, I had to fire half of the men. (Laughter) (Applause) Brought in more women. Brought in younger men. And we have a more gender-balanced newsroom today. The other thing is that it's about professionalism. It's about proving who you are and what you can do. And I don't know if I'm going to be boasting now, but in 2006 alone, we won three international awards. One of them is the IPI Free Media Pioneer Award. So that was the answer to all the Yemeni people. And I want to score a point here, because my husband is in the room over there. If you could please stand up, [unclear]. He has been very supportive of me.


PM: And we should point out that he works with you as well at the paper. But in assuming this responsibility and going about it as you have, you have become a bridge between an older and traditional society and the one that you are now creating at the paper. And so along with changing who worked there, you must have come up against another positioning that we always run into, in particular with women, and it has to do with outside image, dress, the veiled woman. So how have you dealt with this on a personal level as well as the women who worked for you?

NA: As you know, the image of a lot of Yemeni women is a lot of black and covered, veiled women. And this is true. And a lot of it is because women are not able, are not free, to show their face to their self. It's a lot of traditional imposing coming by authority figures such as the men, the grandparents and so on. And it's economic empowerment and the ability for a woman to say, "I am as much contributing to this family, or more, than you are." And the more empowered the women become, the more they are able to remove the veil, for example, or to drive their own car or to have a job or to be able to travel.

So the other face of Yemen is actually one that lies behind the veil, and it's economic empowerment mostly that allows the woman to just uncover it. And I have done this throughout my work. I've tried to encourage young girls. We started with, you can take it off in the office. And then after that, you can take it off on assignments. Because I didn't believe a journalist can be a journalist with -- how can you talk to people if you have your face covered? -- and so on; it's just a movement.

And I am a role model in Yemen. A lot of people look up to me. A lot of young girls look up to me. And I need to prove to them that, yes, you can still be married, you can still be a mother, and you can still be respected within the society, but at the same time, that doesn't mean you [should] just be one of the crowd. You can be yourself and have your face.

PM: But by putting yourself personally out there -- both projecting a different image of Yemeni women, but also what you have made possible for the women who work at the paper -- has this put you in personal danger?

NA: Well the Yemen Times, across 20 years, has been through so much. We've suffered prosecution; the paper was closed down more than three times. It's an independent newspaper, but tell that to the people in charge. They think that if there's anything against them, then we are being an opposition newspaper. And very, very difficult times. Some of my reporters were arrested. We had some court cases. My father was assassinated. Today, we are in a much better situation. We've created the credibility. And in times of revolution or change like today, it is very important for independent media to have a voice. It's very important for you to go to, and it's very important to listen to our voice.

And this is probably something I'm going to share with you in Western media probably -- and how there's a lot of stereotypes -- thinking of Yemen in one single frame: this is what Yemen is all about. And that's not fair. It's not fair for me; it's not fair for my country. A lot of reporters come to Yemen and they want to write a story on Al-Qaeda or terrorism. And I just wanted to share with you: there's one reporter that came. He wanted to do a documentary on what his editors wanted. And he ended up writing about a story that even surprised me -- hip hop -- that there are young Yemeni men who express themselves through dancing and puchu puchu. (Laughter) That thing. (PM: Rap. Break dancing.) Yeah, break dancing. I'm not so old. I'm just not in touch.



PM: Yes, you are. Actually, that's a documentary that's available online; the video's online.


PM: "Shake the Dust." (NA: "Shake the Dust.")

PM: And it definitely does give a different image of Yemen. You spoke about the responsibility of the press. And certainly, when we look at the ways in which we have separated ourselves from others and we've created fear and danger, often from lack of knowledge, lack of real understanding, how do you see the way that the Western press in particular is covering this and all other stories out of the region, but in particular, in your country?

NA: Well there is a saying that says, "You fear what you don't know, and you hate what you fear." So it's about the lack of research, basically. It's almost, "Do your homework," -- some involvement. And you cannot do parachute reporting -- just jump into a country for two days and think that you've done your homework and a story. So I wish that the world would know my Yemen, my country, my people. I am an example, and there are others like me. We may not be that many, but if we are promoted as a good, positive example, there will be others -- men and women -- who can eventually bridge the gap -- again, coming to the bridge -- between Yemen and the world and telling first about recognition and then about communication and compassion.

I think Yemen is going to be in a very bad situation in the next two or three years. It's natural. But after the two years, which is a price we are willing to pay, we are going to stand up again on our feet, but in the new Yemen with a younger and more empowered people -- democratic.


PM: Nadia, I think you've just given us a very different view of Yemen. And certainly you yourself and what you do have given us a view of the future that we will embrace and be grateful for. And the very best of luck to you.

NA: On Twitter also.

PM: So you are plugged in.


Video Details

Duration: 13 minutes and 18 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 374
Posted by: tedtalks on Jul 18, 2011

As political turmoil in Yemen continues, the editor of the Yemen Times, Nadia Al-Sakkaf, talks at TEDGlobal with host Pat Mitchell. Al-Sakkaf's independent, English-language paper is vital for sharing news -- and for sharing a new vision of Yemen and of that country's women as equal partners in work and change.

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