Intrepid and artistic. An entrepreneur and a philanthropist. Nashwa Al ruwaini became a household name in the Middle east with the launch of ‘the Nashwa Show in 2006. Sheetal Thomas and Tasneem Abdur- Rashid speak to this popular media personality to discover there’s more to her than meets the eye.
You find yourself wanting to confess your deepest, darkest secrets when talking to Nashwa Al Ruwaini. It’s not surprising, seeing as she is the host of the highestrated talk-show in the region (according to IPSOS) and, having highlighted sensitive issues such as women’s empowerment, child abuse, witchcraft and AIDS, is accustomed to not only listening to people’s problems, but solving them as well.
Often hailed as the Oprah of the Middle East, Al Ruwaini is used to having people open up to her warmth and relate to her on a familial level, a quality that she believes is innate, and one that has played a crucial role in her success. Born in Egypt, Al Ruwaini was raised in Qatar and spent many years in London, where she completed an MSc in International Politics of Asia and Africa from the highly acclaimed School of Oriental and African Studies, as well as a PhD in Islamic Propaganda from the University of London.
Far more than just a pretty face and charming personality- something many TV hostesses are criticised (or complemented) for- Al Ruwaini is clearly more than qualified to talk about social reform, which the Nashwa Show is heavily anchored on.
One of the most seasoned players of the Middle East media industry, Al Ruwaini has a media career than spans over 20 years.
She started her career at just 16 as a DJ on Qatar Radio, and has worked her way up the corporate ladder to owning her own media production company, Pyramedia. After her stint on radio, at 17, Al Ruwaini worked as an English language news reader and anchor. “Luckily for me, my family supported me in my desire to enter the media industry and be the best at it. My father taught me that people earn respect. I just pushed hard in my career to be the best at what I do and earn the respect of my peers and my viewers,” she says.
By her twenties, she had a Master’s degree under her belt, and in 1998, she started Pyramedia, a one-stop shop offering a comprehensive package of services for all forms of media production and all supporting elements. Pyramedia, she says, always looks at the bigger picture.
“When producing The Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF), for example, the company was managing the annual press and publicity campaign, the regional and international marketing campaign, event management and special event organisation,” she explains, adding, “This was in addition to a full production team covering the festival’s events and managing a 24-hour satellite TV channel dedicated to the festival (MEIFF TV). We believe that for a project to succeed, it must be supported by all possible forms so that it has maximum impact on all possible levels.”
"I do work late hours, but I manage my time to be able to spend quality time with my family everyday. My family is my life"
Just over a decade old, Pyramedia has moved from strength to strength. The London office was set up in 1998, and since then, they have expanded to Cairo,Dubai, Abu Dhabi and New York with a total strength of over 370 employees. Among their countless documentaries, their Aids documentary won an award in 2005 at MIPTV in Cannes. The company also produces three of the highest-rated TV shows in the region:
‘The Nashwa Show’ on Dubai TV, nominated for an award in the international Rose d’Or Awards in Switzerland, the ‘Millions’ Poet’ and ‘Prince of Poets’ TV shows on Abu Dhabi TV that won awards in the Gulf TV festival last year. Pyramedia also produced the successful Mahabba Awards Festival last April in Abu Dhabi.
“Our role in the industry is on a number of different levels”, she goes on to explain. “We provide consultancy services about the film industry, and we produce all types of television shows, from commercials to documentaries to TV shows. We were also the first company in the region to become an agency for Arab actors with the aim of placing them in International film productions, like Syriana, The Kingdom of Heaven, The Kingdom, House of Saddam and others.
We will be re-launching this service soon, and expand the existing roster of Pyramedia Stars, like Ghassan Massoud, Amr Waked, Jamal Soliman, Ezzat El Alaily, Asser Yassin and many more,” she explains. With so many different projects at hand, it’s a wonder that Al Ruwaini actually has time to focus on other things, especially when she is a self-confessed perfectionist who won’t take a break until she achieves perfect But somehow, she still manages to find time for her husband and five-year-old son.
“I am fortunate to have a supportive husband, wonderful parents and family around to help with my life,” she confesses, adding, “I do work late hours, but I manage my time to be able to spend quality time with my family everyday. My family is my life”.
On being a mother, Al Ruwaini stresses that it has changed her entire perspective on both her career and her personal life. “My life has changed dramatically for the better since I have become a mother”, she says. “Before that, my career was my priority and fuel for advancement. But I always felt that something was missing in my life. I feel now that my life is complete. My career no longer drives my life. My hard work and dedication to innovate and to create trendsetting programming, to advance the arts and to effect social change is my attempt to create a better world for my son and for all of our children,” she smiles.
Taking her responsibility of being a role model seriously, she says she prefers to lead by example. “I am a working mother. I am an advocate to women issues and I swim against the tide to pioneer in more ways than one, and this is why I feel that the next generation of media personalities will have an easier life,” she says.
Indeed, although her rise to the top of the media world may appear to have been easy, Al Ruwaini explains that it wasn’t- the doors to success for women in the Arab world are often closed or at least, stuck- unless you carry on pounding on them.
“Being a woman in this part of the world isn’t always easy, especially as, in the past, it was a male-dominated society”, she explains. “But I think I have overcome this now and have gained the respect of people all over the region as a result of my work”. Her advice to other women who would like to follow in her footsteps? “Be strong, fight for what you want and never lose sight of your goals. If you have ambitions don’t put them aside because you think that society won’t let you fulfill them, just do the best you can and you will succeed,” she states. Her own encounters of gender prejudice, as well those that she has witnessed over the years, have encouraged her to talk about women’s rights (among many other issues) on ‘The Nashwa Show’.
"I am a working mother. I am an advocate to women issues and I swim against the tide to pioneer in more ways than one, and this is why I feel that the next generation of media personalities will have an easier life"
“I connect with issues related to the struggles of women to make it in a man’s mworld. The preconceived notions of gender in the Arab world are un-Islamic and hinder our progress towards modernity. We live in a male dominated and patriarchal society. It is quite sad to look at the state of women today in the Arab world. It is so detached from the Prophet’s great visionary empowerment of women fourteen hundred years ago. The preconceived notion of gender in Arab society marginalises women in the work place. Male society does not view us as leaders in industries.
They do not think we have the intellectual and emotional capabilities to lead. Yes, it is hard to fight these prejudices,” she says. Which is why, on her show, she makes a connection with women who have worked hard to shatter these stereotypes.
“They say, look, I have shattered these stereotypes and overcome the prejudices of gender by leading hundreds of male employees, by creating trendsetting ideas, and by managing complex projects. Yes, women can be leaders and can be very smart entrepreneurs. We can do it and most of the time we do it better than men!” states Al Ruwaini emphatically. In addition to women’s empowerment, through ‘The Nashwa Show’, Al Ruwaini also discusses other controversial topics.
Launched in 2006 in conjunction with Dubai TV, having hosted talk shows and lifestyle shows with various entities, Al Ruwaini felt that a self-titled show where she would have the freedom to choose which topics to discuss was a natural progression.
“As I was already a household name and people from all over the Arab world already felt they could relate to me as an onscreen face, I felt that a talk show discussing Arab social issues was appropriate. I felt it would help society to cross the boundaries of social discussion and start to face issues that are often not openly talked about due to the nature of our conservative societies.
I view my show as a platform for people to share their experiences with the rest of us. I see it as a tool to effect social change. I view my role as a conduit to communicate stories about issues that are important to all of us– happy stories, sad stories, informational stories, angry stories, love stories and so on,” she explains. It’s not always easy though.
Some of the toughest topics ‘The Nashwa Show’ has handled have been those related to women and children- part of the reason why ‘The Nashwa Foundation’ was set up- to support women and children who have suffered from abuse, violence, divorce and other issues, both financially and psychologicallyby putting them in touch with specialists who can help them.
"It is a shame to see that so many Western humanitarian organisations operating in the Middle East and working with our poor are more productive than Arab organisations who are doing the same"
“Without question, the toughest topics we have handled are related to women and children. I had shows about rape of young girls, child abuse, domestic violence and divorce. It was horrific and gut-wrenching to listen to their stories- stories of abused children, victims of rape, victims of domestic violence and arbitrary divorces. That is the human and emotional aspect of the stories,” she says.
But more than the topic itself, it was the handling of it that was tough for Al Ruwaini.
“The most difficult task in my work on these topics has been how to shatter the cultural prism that distorts the truth by claiming these abuses do not exist in our society or by simply blaming the victims. We can only reveal the truth and reality of these abuses when we can shatter this distorting prism. Then we can start working toward protecting the most vulnerable in our society. They also need a voice.
We need to speak up and we need to address these abuses. They exist in our society. So, how to successfully shatter the distorted prism to reveal the truth under the cultural restriction and ‘hush hush’ attitude is tough to tackle,” she informs. However, as confident as she appears on TV, it’s not always easy for Al Ruwaini to tackle controversial subjects.
“I’m very nervous when covering many of the taboo topics,” she confesses. “For example, I was very worried about the reaction to our show about incest. This is a very emotional and traumatic topic. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to admit that we also have sexual predators and sick individuals in our society. Reactions to these subjects can cause violence and death. I was very nervous about this episode. Also, the AIDS show was worrisome because just the suspicion that someone had AIDS can have serious consequences.
The child abuse programme also was tough too. Many may think that hitting a child for discipline is okay, and that no one should have a right to interfere with parental rearing. I was worried about the reaction that people may claim that we are encouraging children to report their parents to the police or to disobey them. So yes, I do get nervous about the taboo topics, but someone has to do it. I want to take advantage of my ability to reach millions to effect social change and to be a voice for those without a voice,” she asserts. Al Ruwaini believes that only through discussion can we begin the battle of social reform, and that the media plays an essential role in raising awareness of social issues.
“The Arabic media has to play a more proactive role addressing poverty and the vulnerable in our society,” she says passionately. “We are not doing enough. We are not building sufficient institutions to protect our women and children. It is a shame to see that so many Western humanitarian organisations operating in the Middle East and working with our poor are more productive than Arab organisations who are doing the same.
The Arab media is the platform to reach millions of people to educate them about health, their rights and both humanitarian and social related issues. I strongly feel that my show plays a very important role in this equation. All the topics I tackle, I believe in and I support and consequently I try to rally for it through all media mediums,” she adds.
Indeed, there are many issues in the region that Al Ruwaini feels strongly about. “There are many, some are much more imperative than others, such as health issues and poverty and women’s rights. I support a number of charities as well as my own Nashwa Foundation, and I also try to endorse campaigns, such as the recent Pampers- UNICEF campaign for vaccines against Tetanus (which proved a huge success as we surpassed our target of four million vaccinations to 5.1 million). I also actively lobby governments to make changes in laws to support the people. I helped lobby for the change in the law regarding honour crimes in Jordan, as well as child abuse issues in the UAE”.
It’s difficult for Al Ruwaini to put numbers to the amount of people she has helped- both through the show and the foundation. “I can’t even remember how many people we have had on the show- its been so many. Imagine, each week we host around ten guests an episode, as well as an entertainer, and the show has been running for three seasons, which means over 150 episodes, so you can imagine that’s a lot of people,” she smiles.
This, in addition to the thousands of viewers tuning in, makes the numbers even greater.
But among all those thousands, there are some who have stayed on with her over the years. One case that jumps into her mind automatically when asked about people she has met who have affected her, is one that was showcased a couple of months ago.
“There was a woman who had five children and was living a comfortable life up until her husband quit his job. He was depressed about the death of his mother, and started staying at home,” she remembers. “She had to take charge of the family, take care of the finances by getting herself a job, etc. She was pregnant at the time, and after she gave birth, she decided to do a hysterectomy. Worried that she would not be able to financially support any more children, she went in for the operation.
Tragically, while she was in the operation, her house burned down with all her children inside. They all died, except her husband and the youngest of her children. She was blaming herself for their death as she felt that this was a punishment for her decision to undertake the operation. My heart was absolutely broken for her,” says Al Ruwaini.
Through the show, the participants are able to discuss their issues and receive both expert advice and a comforting shoulder not just from Al Ruwaini but from the entire audience who are able to voice their opinions through the website. And they often do, sharing their own views, opinions and stories on different subject matters. Brimming with confidence and an apparent streak of defiance seen only in select women who strive to achieve all that they set out for, Al Ruwaini has no plans to settle down and hand over the fruits of her hard labour in the near future.
When asked if she is worried that age will impact her screen presence, she laughs, “You forget this is not the West! Here, actually, it is the other way around- people respect you more as you get older as they consider you wiser, which is true! As you can see from my company, I’m already doing many things behind the camera, and I will continue to do so for the unforeseeable future! I love media be it on or off the camera. I can see myself off camera but never AWAY from it!”
Indeed, with her foundation, production company and plans on the Nashwa Magazine, whether she is in front of the camera or not, Al Ruwaini has enjoyed a successful 20 years in the industry, and it’s likely she’ll be here for at least another twenty. Determined, dedicated and ambitious, she’s at the top, and enjoying the view too much to ever climb back down.
Article by: Arabian Woman