The show — named Asrar Al-Banat (The Secrets of Girls) — is broadcast on Awtan TV, a Saudi religious channel that was first aired in August 2008 and has women broadcasters who are covered in the all-enveloping abaya and niqab.
There are over 60 religious satellite channels that are broadcast across the Middle East via Arabsat and Nilesat networks. The channels represent different extremes when it comes to women presenters. Channels such as Iqraa and Al-Resalah have women presenters who do not cover their faces and dress in different colors, not necessarily black. On the other hand, channels such as Al-Majd have no women presenters. Awtan is perhaps one that toes the middle line by allowing women to appear but only when covered from head to toe.
Presenting Asrar Al-Banat is Sawsan Salah Al-Deen, a 26-year-old Saudi BA graduate in Media and Guidance.
Sawsan presents the show with her sister, Sarah, a specialist in blood diseases, and psychologist Nawal Dawood.
Sawsan, who is from Riyadh, said she has long been looking to work as a journalist and has previously tried writing for the print media. She, however, finds TV shows effective in conveying her message. Asrar Al-Banat was the idea of Sa’ad Al-Obaid, the program’s director, who wanted a program that provides an insight into girls’ issues.
“He presented the idea to me and I liked it. He gave me the main points and I’ve been preparing the discussions ever since,” she said.
Commenting on how she looks on TV, Sawsan said, “Basically, this is my hijab and I don’t wear it because of the channel. The channel is an Islamic one and has a rule that I appear in full hijab.”
Sawsan, who is appearing on TV for the first time, said she was initially anxious. Her family has, however, been supportive, particularly since “people will not see me” and the program reaches out to young women.
Something that has also appealed to her family is the fact that her work environment is women-only; male technical assistants do not enter the studio while women are inside and carry out their duties from outside.Commenting on feedback on the program, Sawsan said, “I’ve seen comments on the Internet, spoke to my friends and heard varying opinions in my community in Riyadh. You can’t please all — everything new is refuted by some and welcomed by others.”
Speaking about a woman who criticized her appearance on TV she questioned why would people criticize her while she is in full hijab and leave other women who appear in improper dresses on various channels.
Sawsan added that in addition to compliments from the channel’s owner and the program’s director, the support of religious scholars — such as Sheikh Salim Al-Gadani and Sheikh Ghazi Al-Shammari — has been very encouraging for her.
Answering a question about some opposing religious views that regard the voice of women as Awrah (something that cannot be revealed in the presence of men), Sawsan said that scholars deem women’s voices as Awrah only if they are speaking softly or on immoral topics.
She added that the Prophet’s wife Sayyidatuna Ayesha (may Allah be pleased with her) would verbally issue religious rulings (fatwas) to men and that none of the Prophet’s companions criticized her at that time.
Commenting on whether her appearance on TV would now lead to women appearing on cooking and children programs, she said, “When it comes to cooking, men can present them. However, there are some issues relating to women which men cannot handle in the way we can.”
Asrar Al-Banat, which discusses different issues relating to teenage girls, has so far broadcast four episodes. It is aired from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Friday and receives live phone calls from members of the public.