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First woman newspaper editor in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a paradoxical place, where women cannot legally drive or travel abroad without a male relative’s permission, but can be business leaders, lawyers and doctors. Now, for the first time, a Saudi woman is the editor-in-chief of a Saudi newspaper.

Somayya Jabarti will lead the English-language Saudi Gazette. Jabarti had previously been the Gazette’s deputy editor.

Jabarti made the obvious point that this is a milestone for women in Saudi Arabia. “There’s a crack that has been made in the glass ceiling. And I’m hoping it will be made into a door,” Jabarti said. (A crack turning into a door? A door in a glass ceiling? Perhaps the editor needs an editor for her metaphors.) She also said, “I was pleasantly surprised, because I did not think we as a country were ready for a female editor.” And no doubt, there are conservative elements in the kingdom that will see Jabarti’s appointment as more proof that Saudi Arabia is going to hell in an un-Islamic, Westernizing, liberalizing handbasket. But there is also no question that many, many Saudis disagree, and are ready for a woman editor—and for gender equality in other spheres of life.

Of course, Saudi women have access to Facebook, Twitter and the like. Because of social media, newspapers like the Saudi Gazette have a diminishing role in giving Saudi women a public voice. With direct access to a worldwide audience, Saudi women have less need for someone like Jabarti to champion and publish them. But the symbolism of Jabarti’s new position remains very significant: women visibly being leaders in various professions will help Saudi Arabia put both feet into the modern world.

In Saudi Arabia, editors require the approval of the Ministry of Information and Culture. So, while Saudi Arabia’s English-language press has generally had a longer leash than its Arabic-language media, the government retains the ultimate control. However, the current minister, Dr. Abdulaziz Khojah, was educated in Britain, and has been described as relatively liberal, and close to the liberalizing king. There’s nothing like a First Amendment in the kingdom, but the Saudi Gazette will probably continue to be able to do fairly honest journalism.

Jabarti’s appointment shows that much of what counts as avant garde in Saudi Arabia is old news indeed in the West, and much of the rest of the world. But progress is better than retreat. Saudi Arabia is an economically and politically weighty country, so its social progress, even if painfully slow to Western eyes, must be applauded.