#WITW14

04.03.14

Editor on Fire

At the Yemen Times, Nadia Al-Sakkaf is giving the women of her country a seat at the table. Gail Sheehy reports

Nadia Al-Sakkaf could find no role models in Yemen to show her how to be a revolutionary leader. So she trained herself to be the change she wants to see in her country.

When her father, the editor of the Yemen Times, was assassinated for opposing the brutal regime of President Saleh, Al-Sakkaf was still in college in India, planning to be an engineer. She felt a mission to keep the paper alive. Knowing nothing about journalism, she got a scholarship to UK University and earned a Master's degree in systems analysis. That was her way of preparing herself to bring a new management style to the family business.

In an Arab country where most women are married off at fifteen and fully veiled in black, never seen even by a brother-in-law living in the same house, Al-Sakkaf's take-charge presence in the newsroom was met with scorn. This was ten years ago. Her father's male successors stopped at nothing to humiliate her.

Al-Sakkaf gathered her courage and fired half the men. She replaced them with women whom she trained from scratch.
She worked on persuading her female journalists that they had to remove their veils in order to report a story.

 "Without a face, you have no identity," she told them. "You have to see and be seen."

Changing the face of her newspaper was even more radical. Readers were shocked to see human-interest stories appearing on the front page. "Why do you write about children?" readers demanded. Al-Sakkaf fired back: Because they are ten percent of the country and many are starving. That is news, too."  

Her most daring decision concerned whether or not to show readers what female genital mutilation really means. It wasn't just the text. She found illustrations from the World Health Organization: four graphic drawings of the different ways a female's vagina is cut and sewn to desensitize her. The makeup man balked. How could they run pictures of "woman's intimate parts?" A translator had to tell him what FMG meant. The man was aghast; he had no idea. Al-Sakkaf went back to her office and thought it over. ReturNing, she found the man shaken. "If this is how it hurts you, this is how it will hurt many readers. Run it."

Her internal revolution at the Yemen Times had grown strong before the Arab spring in Yemen in 2011. Al-Sakkaf and her staff were out in the central square with peaceful protestors demanding that President Saleh step down. All over the country, women came out of hiding and formed segregated protest sites apart from men. After weeks of jubilation in discovering their selfhood, the young protestors were confronted by army sharpshooters. Sixty people were shot dead.

"But we will never go back," Al-Sakkaf tells men from the Muslim Brotherhood. She sits as the only woman with them and other members of the Committee for Dialogue that is drawing up a new constitution for national elections to take place next March. They are following the model of Tunisia. All factions including young people and women are being given a representative voice in forming a new government. 

It is further testament to Al-Sakkaf's mission to change her world that she found an Arab husband who supports her goal. "He gave me a broader perspective to deal with my guilt about firing my father's successors, " she says. The couple has two children, eight and two. "My husband is taking care of them so I could come to New York for two-and-a-half days," she says proudly. This is not the Benazir Bhutto marriage. This is a thoroughly modern woman family. And when men on the committee protest that they can't find any qualified women to run for political office, Al-Sakkaf has the answer. 

"Just ask me," says Al-Sakkaf. "I have a database of 700 of them.

Nadia Al-Sakkaf will appear at the Women in the World Summit on Friday morning. Watch it live here.