“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.”