One British-Arab woman's battle for media representation

Diversity in the media
8 min read
07 January, 2022
Arabs in the UK series: The British media industry still suffers from a lack of diversity and representation. British-Arab, Nada Issa, describes her experience in a middle-class male-dominated industry and the challenges many ethnic women face.

Nada Issa, a British-Arab filmmaker and reporter, has worked in media for more than a decade. In this article, she shares her poignant experience navigating the British media industry as an Arab woman and the challenges she encountered along the way. Amid a colourful career behind her, Nada speaks of the lack of representation and diversity in the middle-class, male dominant industry, as well as the importance of those on top hearing out all voices. She shares her experience with The New Arab:

I’ve always wanted to be a journalist. But until the media industry confronts its lack of diversity, people like myself will continue to be invisible or undermined.

I’m a British-Arab filmmaker and reporter. Over the last fourteen years, I’ve been learning to navigate what can sometimes be a toxic or unfair environment. Yet, even at this stage of my career, I still find myself questioning if there’s a place for those like me in this industry – and if there is, whether it’s worth it.

"On the surface, we might claim to have more gender, social and ethnic diversity than ever before. But dig deeper and it all seems superficial"

Diversity in the media hasn’t always existed. In previous decades the industry was dominated by Oxbridge educated middle-class white men.

illustration - representation

There’s no doubt there’s been some progress since the 1980s/90s but we still belong to an industry that continues to harbour toxic and bullying behaviour. I have worked in the media for well over a decade now. During this time I’ve met some incredibly talented and inspirational people from whom I’ve learnt much. I love my job and have always had a real passion for journalism. But sometimes the very profession that I live to work for has caused me, and many like me, much grief and depression.

On the surface, we might claim to have more gender, social and ethnic diversity than ever before. But dig deeper and it all seems superficial. The IT and engineering departments of every network showcase their diversity but take a stroll through the creative and editorial halls and it remains predominantly middle-class, white, and male. In fact, I’ve often been the only member of the team from an ethnic background.

This is not due to a lack of BAME talent or self-drive – rather it is because if you’re an outsider you have to work ten times harder than anyone else to be seen. People hire who they feel is familiar. This creates a lack of opportunity for the “other” and an unequal playing field. Those of us who are different continue to struggle on a steep uphill path.

illustration - changing identity

Over the years, I’ve reached out to many like me. And they’ve shared similar stories. It is in our shared experiences that I have found comfort.

“If you have a foreign-sounding name you are most likely going to be pigeonholed. And even then, when it comes to high-budget prime-time gigs, despite your experience, you’ll still be invisible,” warned a colleague. I didn’t believe her but regretfully, I’ve come to appreciate her warning.

I started my career with an interest in reporting on stories across Africa and Asia. I was also keen to write about Westminster politics, in which I have a Masters degree. The former, I managed to do only for international networks but overwhelmingly I was placed to cover Middle East topics – something I wasn’t too familiar with at the time. It is this that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. An “Emily” can roam across all genres with ease. A “Nada” is somehow limited to the colour of her skin and, even within this pigeonhole, treated with suspicion.

"It’s easy to believe that you are colour-blind if you’ve never been judged on your ethnicity or pigeonholed. When you sit on top of the food chain you don’t see below you. You assume your achievements are based on talent and not on opportunities not afforded to your BAME counterparts"

I was once invited to an interview for a show on British Muslims. The talent exec deemed it appropriate to ask if I was confident I could maintain impartiality even before I’d declared my background. A fellow white colleague would not receive the same scrutiny. It is these double standards that dehumanise and dishearten.

To add salt to the wound, my white colleagues with little knowledge of the Middle East would still qualify above someone with roots in the region. Perhaps because an exotic university trip to Israel-Palestine makes them experts on the region far beyond those who are part of the political and social fabric of this complicated and nuanced terrain.

Needless to say, my fellow journalists are not at fault – the issue is the deeply entrenched institutional racism within our society, of which we are in utter denial.

Nada Issa filming on location
Nada Issa filming on location, Israel-Lebanon borders, 2018

We also have to endure allegations of “using the race card”. I was recently told by a white filmmaker, whom for many years I admired, that “you’re more likely to be hired these days if you’re BAME”. Even among journalists, it seems, systemic racism goes unnoticed.

Allow me to arm you with some examples.

The following is a tale far too many have experienced. On my first day at a leading British network, excited, eager, and hungry, the director asked me, “where are you from?” I replied, “London”. This indeed was insufficient. “But where are you from, from?” my response, “West London”. This wasn’t working. He demanded, “where did you grow up?” I complied, “south-west London – or more precisely Pimlico”. His skin now turning red, he finally turned to me and said “your name isn’t Anglo Saxon – where does it come from?”

In Brief

Now I understood the question posed and its purpose from the outset. For many, this may be a perfectly curious and harmless question but it felt like an attack on my chosen identity, implying that I cannot just be British from London, demanding to place me in a box that helps him better understand me. And yet that same professional no doubt believes they “do not to see colour”.

It’s easy to believe that you are colour-blind if you’ve never been judged on your ethnicity or pigeonholed. When you sit on top of the food chain you don’t see below you. You assume your achievements are based on talent and not on opportunities not afforded to your BAME counterparts.

"Over the years, I’ve come to learn that challenging the status quo often puts you in the firing line"

Some might even consider it banter when a producer from an Amazigh background working on a popular and prominent British show could be told by a member of her team that “you’re a long way away from riding camels in the desert here. Surely you can use your navigation app to find the shooting location”.

Others question the testimony of a British-black Sudanese editor who learns he’s the lowest earning person on his team despite his experience and the fact that he’s tasked with training his colleagues. Unfortunately, despite his skillset, he changed careers to safeguard his mental health. I deem him a great loss to the industry.

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Or a British-Arab filmmaker who’s dedicated her life to her career finds her integrity is often questioned: “Did you sleep with the exec for the commission?” Affairs, flings and indeed friendships are common in the workplace. But it certainly seems, you’re more likely to be accused of “sleeping” your way to a job if you’re a woman, and more so, a woman of colour.

Unfortunately, such comments are often spearheaded by our privileged counterparts. Of course, the patriarchy can sometimes turn us against each other but it reduces the workplace to a toxic playground.

To avoid this, I’ve caught myself downgrading my wardrobe – hoping that the plainer, the uglier, the less effort one makes the less likely you’ll be accused of offering your brown or black body in return for gigs.

"Always speak up because the right to have your voice heard shouldn’t be based on your privilege, ethnicity, gender or seniority"

Over the years, I’ve come to learn that challenging the status quo often puts you in the firing line. Early on in my career, I found the courage to speak up about a want for opportunities in a department meeting. What followed, was a senior management figure berating me. I was told to “know my station”. Did I have a station because I was a junior? Or maybe it was my odd and unfamiliar character? I believe it was because I’m an outsider in a territorial workplace and my race and cultural identity othered me even further. Whatever the reason, the reaction was heavy-handed and unfair.    

The media industry, like others, is to a large extent based on who you know and not what you know. What someone says about you can either elevate your career or cause lasting damage. Those in positions of power, therefore, bear a responsibility. Rather than fuelling a toxic environment they should not play favouritism and check their unconscious bias.

Today, I make a point to remind every junior researcher or producer that there are no “stations”. To always speak up because the right to have your voice heard shouldn’t be based on your privilege, ethnicity, gender or seniority.

I believe our industry is large enough to encompass, celebrate and include us all, and would benefit from doing so. But until we as a collective recognise the disease that has gripped us for so long, and are willing to confront it, then nothing will change.

Nada Issa is a freelance filmmaker and senior journalist. She has covered stories across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East making films for various British and international media outlets including the BBC, Channel Four and Aljazeera English.  

Follow her on Twitter: @Nada-Mai-Issa

This article is part of a special series called Arabs in the UK: An exciting new project that sheds light on the Arab population in the United Kingdom and aims to showcase their continuing contributions to communities. Follow here to read more articles from this series: 

Arabs in the UK