Saudi trailblazer Huda Al-Rasheed’s message to women: never give up on your dreams

My father valued education, but he did not think broadcasting was a suitable job because men and women worked closely together. He thought I might go astray. At the time, there were no women working for Saudi broadcasting, but I heard they were looking for someone to present an informative program about development in Saudi Arabia. My father said, ‘You can try, but you will fail.’ That made me even more determined. (AN photo by James Hanna)
Updated 12 May 2018
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Saudi trailblazer Huda Al-Rasheed’s message to women: never give up on your dreams

LONDON: Huda Al-Rasheed’s first visit to the BBC was meant to be as a tourist enjoying a relaxed look-around. Instead, it turned into an audition for a job that transformed her into an accidental trailblazer when she became the first Saudi woman newsreader on BBC Arabic.
“It changed my life,” says Al-Rasheed.
Now, 43 years after she first uttered the words “Huna London” (“This is London“), Al-Rasheed remains a familiar voice to millions around the globe and to several generations.
Her path into broadcasting was far from smooth, however. Al-Rasheed’s father strongly opposed her ambition to work in radio — so much so that he forbade her to speak of it in public. But she ended up winning not only her father’s pride but also a place in both Saudi and broadcasting history.
But all that was far from her mind back in 1974 when Al-Rasheed arrived in London for a 10-week English-language course.
“I discovered the course organizer was married to a man who worked at the BBC so I asked if he could arrange a tour. The BBC wanted a letter from the Saudi Embassy. So I got one and because it was an official letter, the BBC invited me to spend a week with them,” she recalls.
It may not have been the intention, but it gave the BBC and Al-Rasheed the chance to have a good look at each other. At the end of the week, and only days before her return to Jeddah, she was handed a job application form.
“There was also a test which they said I could take at the British consulate,” said Al-Rasheed. “It was Ramadan and I was fasting. I went and took the test, but I didn’t tell anyone.”
She passed, but there was no promise of a job. At the time, Al-Rasheed was living with her married brother in Jeddah and trying hard to break into full-time broadcasting.
“It was my dream since childhood. The family used to call me ‘Broadcaster’ because I knew all the timings of all the programs. But whenever I said I really wanted to be a broadcaster, my father ignored me, or else he would say, ‘When I die’.”
Al-Rasheed was born and spent her earliest years in Onaza, in Najd province, north of Riyadh, but was packed off to boarding school when she was six, first to Lebanon and then to Alexandria in Egypt.
“My father valued education, but he did not think broadcasting was a suitable job because men and women worked closely together. He thought I might go astray. At the time, there were no women working for Saudi broadcasting, but I heard they were looking for someone to present an informative program about development in Saudi Arabia. My father said, ‘You can try, but you will fail.’ That made me even more determined.”
She encountered even more resistance after she got the job. “I had so many problems with jealousy from both other women and from men who didn’t think I should be there. My father was pleased. He thought it would make me give up.”
Then came a call from London, via the British embassy, with a job offer, starting immediately. But first, Al-Rasheed had to face her father, who was working in Damascus at the time.
To her amazement, he voiced no objection. “He said, ‘If your brother doesn’t mind, then I don’t mind.’”
Al-Rasheed’s brother, a pilot, had taken the same view — if their father didn’t mind, neither did he. There was nothing standing in her way, and with her father still predicting failure, she had everything to prove.
On Sept. 10, 1974, she began her new life at BBC Arabic. The training was intensive and everything about London seemed bewildering.
“I walked around with my eyes popping out of my head.” She lodged with a couple in Wimbledon, south London — “They were like parents to me” — but was desperately homesick.
“The weather was horrible, I wanted my own food and I was lonely. I spent my days off just watching television. But I never thought of going back because I was doing what I wanted to do and you have to take the rough with the smooth. For a year, it was hell. After that, I started going to the cinema, to concerts, traveling. I began to find my way.”
When her father heard her voice on the radio for the first time, all his disapproval melted away. The man who had forbidden his daughter to even speak of her ambitions now openly boasted about her. The next time Al-Rasheed visited him, they went out walking together so he could stop people in the street and introduce “my daughter who works for the BBC in London.”
She discovered that at home her father kept one of his many radio sets permanently tuned to BBC Arabic. “It was next to where he had lunch and no one was allowed to touch it,” she said.
Back at Bush House, the former headquarters of the BBC World Service and the broadcaster’s foreign language satellites, Al-Rasheed was reading and reporting the news. She covered the state visits to Britain of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and the Sultan of Oman, and went to Buckingham Palace to report on preparations for the royal banquets.
Which did she enjoy most? “All of it,” she replied without hesitation.
The Saudi broadcasting company also tried to entice her back. “I told the head of Saudi TV that I do not cover my hair. He said, ‘You don’t have to.’ So I was the first Saudi woman to appear uncovered. But I didn’t want to stay in Riyadh. I loved my job and couldn’t live without it.”
However, she had always regretted not going to university, so in 1989 Al-Rasheed left the BBC to study for a degree in history and English literature at the University of Buckingham. She subsequently gained master’s degrees in media studies and in linguistics and translation. After graduating, she returned to BBC Arabic as a freelance.
Referring to a radio career that has spanned four decades, she said: “It’s a real blessing to be so appreciated.”
Her flat in West London is filled with beautiful rugs and books in Arabic and English. She has published three novels of her own and had a play performed.
She follows current affairs closely and is enthralled by the changes in her own homeland. Does she see herself as a role model for other would-be Saudi career women?
She shrugs. “I knew what I wanted to do and I didn’t give up. That’s what women everywhere have to do.”


Local designers to share the spotlight during second Saudi Fashion Week

Updated 44 min 3 sec ago
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Local designers to share the spotlight during second Saudi Fashion Week

  • Riyadh will be the hub of Saudi Fashion Week
  • The Grazia Middle East Style Awards will this year take place in Riyadh

RIYADH: Emerging Saudi fashion designers will get a chance to showcase their work alongside internationally renowned peers — including Yahya Couture, Yuliya Yanina and Lama Askari — during the second edition of Saudi Fashion Week, which runs from October 21 to 25, 2018.

The dates were revealed by the event’s founder, Princess Noura bint Faisal Al-Saud, who made a statement with her choice of outfit for the official announcement: a black abaya with a traditional Saudi hand embroidered, red design.

The princess, who is honorary president of the Arab Fashion Council in Saudi Arabia, said she always dreamed of being part of the fashion industry and is working hard to help the dreams ofothers come true as well, by supporting local designers,providing them with a platform on which to showcase their creativity, and supplying them with the tools they need to succeed.

“This fashion week is sponsored by the GCA and we want to highlight our Saudi culture,” she said when asked how the second edition will differ from the inaugural event in April 2018. “Every designer is unique and designs in a different way. Our culture is not only about wearing an abaya; it’s what makes you comfortable as a person.

“We have more local names coming out and a program to support emerging designers. This is a platform with which we support Saudi designers, in their country, which they represent.”

However, it also embraces the wider international fashion industry, as well.

“it’s an exchange of cultures. It’s a platform for Saudi and other countries,” said Princess Noura. “When we speak about fashion, it’s a mirror that reflects our culture and modernity.”

To help launch the careers of Saudis who are just starting out in the fashion industry, a “Top emerging Saudi designers” program has been developed, and the country’s fashion community has chosen six designers to participate, some of whom are recentcollege graduates. It will offer them support and give them real-world experience of the fashion industry.

Riyadh will be the hub of Saudi Fashion Week, with three runway shows each day, beginning at 8pm. In addition, a fashion festival featuring pop-up stores will run throughout the event. The Grazia Middle East Style Awards, which is usually held in Dubai, will this year take place in Riyadh on the final day of Saudi Fashion Week.

“I want every designer in Saudi Arabia to not be afraid and to come out and show what they are made of. Be Brave,” added Princess Noura.