I am so pleased to bring another important and insightful post to Girl With Pen from our regular guest blogger, Shawna Kenney.

The world hears much about women in the Middle East from Western media. Most stories are told from a human rights perspective, about women; rarely do we hear from the subjects themselves. Yet there are fierce young women working from within media structures in countries not especially known for their equal rights policies. As a journalist and educator, I have been blessed to encounter many lately. These brief profiles-in-courage are just a sampling of the work being done behind cameras, within newsrooms, from boardrooms, and in day-to-day life.

Mai Yacoub Kaloti has been a reporter with Al–Quds newspaper for almost a year. The 25-year-old Palestinian says she chose her field “to open up minds and reveal the truth about what’s happening” in her part of the world. Kaloti chose the print journalism field despite her father’s wish for her to be an accountant. Now she proudly signs her “full name” to every story and says that he is just as proud of her bylines. When people tell her women shouldn’t work in war zones, she says it’s her job and that she intends to do it right. “Women in the Middle East are just like all women on earth: they deserve respect, love, and care. They work in different fields, defend their country with pen and weapon, raise children with a sense of responsibility and good manners.”

30-year old Mozn Hassan is the Founder and a member of the Board of Directors for Nazra for Feminist Studies in Cairo, Egypt. While most of her time is spent partnering with local and international organizations in promoting women’s rights, she also answers “nonstop questions from neighbors, colleagues and even the guard of [her] building” about why she is unmarried, why she travels abroad alone, and why she chooses to live in an apartment with her sister rather than her parents. “As an Egyptian feminist I see customs and culture here which govern the mentality of Egyptians. The hardest obstacle we face is that most Egyptian men are occupied by patriarchal ideas.” Still, she fights on. “I think this field is one of the most sensitive and important issues that must be tackled openly and critically in my country. The issues of women’s rights opens lots of discussion on all of society’s problems, and in my opinion it is impossible to reform our society without tackling gender issues.”

Muna Samawi is a 25-year-old Program Officer working for the Freedom House organization in Amman, Jordan. After earning a Bachelor’s degree at St. Lawrence University, Samawi dedicated herself to working in the field of human rights. “I was fortunate to live, study and work in a foreign country for 6 years where I was able to express myself without hesitation, and practice my freedom of expression.” She has since worked with at-risk youth and organized exchange programs focused on including journalists, lawyers, bloggers, and human right defenders from the Middle East. Her activism is not always encouraged. “Political and societal pressures are placed on any activity in the Middle East that is sponsored from foreign agencies, so some eyebrow raising occurs from time to time,” she shares. “As a young woman working in development, I do not always get the recognition or support needed, but my family’s support is sufficient to sustain and push my personal goals to higher levels.” She stresses that advocacy for women’s rights and feminism are “growing movements” in the Middle East—more than most people know.

Marianne Nagui Hanna is a producer at a large news support corporation in Egypt. The 29-year-old describes herself as a “news junkie” who works 14 hours a day in this field she loves. She says her work environment is multicultural and multinational, but that managers tend to assign field missions to men, and has been told “it wouldn’t be cost-effective sending one woman with a team of men, being that she’d need a room to herself instead of sharing.” She takes it in stride and says she wishes the world knew that women in the Middle East “can actually achieve things. We are not all backward housewives from the Middle Ages. We do live in the Middle East in very tough circumstances, in a culture that doesn’t hold much respect to women and considers them second-class citizens, yet we are able to successfully work and gain respect. We don’t ride camels, we don’t live in tents .. and for sure, the harem is no more.” In her bit of spare time, Hanna maintains her blog http://resstlesswaves.blogspot.com/

22-year Hana Al-Khamri is a Yemeni woman from Saudi Arabia living in Denmark to study journalism. Her passion has pushed her to study in another country, due to laws and social pressure. “It is illegal for women to study journalism,” she says of her choice to leave Saudi Arabia. “Second there is a huge social pressure to marry and quit working. Third, I often faced hostility (writing for the ‘women’s section’ of the paper there), especially from older conservative men. I have been refused entry to press conferences only because of my gender. Fourth, I am dependent on men for transportation since I am not allowed to drive a car. And finally, media in Saudi Arabia is under strict government control and censorship, and when you are as open-minded and openmouthed as I am, you are bound to get in trouble.” In her opinion, it is tradition, not religion, that oppresses women in the Middle East, and though her career choice is one not supported by her government, she calls her path in line with God’s will. “My faith is a liberator, not oppressor. I can change my community through my pen,” she says.

Shawna Kenney is an author, freelance journalist and creative writing instructor. Her essays appear in numerous anthologies while her articles and photography have been featured in the Florida Review, Juxtapoz, Swindle Magazine, Veg News, the Indy Star, Transworld Skateboarding, and Alternative Press, among others. She also serves as the Language Editor of Crossing Borders Magazine. You can read more about her work at http://shawnakenney.com/.