Zeinab Badawi: I see my hyphenated identity as an advantage

04 March 2016

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Zeinab Badawi
© Andrew Aitchison

To mark International Women's Day 2016, Wide angle invited the famous BBC journalist and producer Zeinab Badawi to talk about her work, her beliefs and her commitment to making the General History of Africa – what she calls UNESCO’s best kept secret –accessible to the public at large.

I always said that the General History of Africa (GHA), was one of UNESCO's best kept secrets because for years it did not get the promotion it deserved, so that it remained hidden away until today. I thank UNESCO for having the confidence in me to do this series of six documentaries based on the GHA, that we intend to give for free to African states’ TV stations, colleges and universities.

I have been in the media for 25 years and I have done all sorts of things, but I can honestly say, hand on my heart, that this project is by far the most exciting, the most interesting and the most valuable project I have ever been involved in.

It is a legacy project and a unique project, because never before in the history of broadcasting, have we had a systematic look from prehistory to the modern era of Africa’s history told, I hope, in a compelling way, particularly targeting young people and particularly targeting Africans. I really hope that after they see this, they will have a very clear idea of how wonderful their continent is, regardless of which part of it they come from.

How will you take the GHA to the people?

I am a television personality. I have been in television for a long time, and I am very keen to make sure that it is grounded in proper scholarship, which it is, but it also has to be visually enticing. So, it is not an illustrated lecture. I am very keen on making sure that young people watch it. It is no use making programs, which may tick the right boxes, if nobody watches them.

I am trying to make it fun and accessible and visually very colorful. For example, if I am talking about the trans-Sahara trade, I'll find a camel market, I'll jump on the camel, I'll fall off the camel... Yes, I did… and I’m not very proud of that, when I think that my great grandfather was a camel trader.

The key thing that I am very sure about is that this project is the history of the African people and not about stones and bones and monuments. Of course, we will show these monuments where it is relevant, but we want to tell the history of the people. Everywhere we go, I am trying to find characters who are mentioned in the GHA and to put them at the front of the narrative. It might be the Aksumite King Ashama, in Ethiopia; it might be the Berber king Juba II, in Morocco, who married the daughter of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra; it might be King Piye of Kush, in Northern of Sudan, who ruled Egypt in the 8th century BCE. So, this is my approach: to always start with a narrative that involves the people.

How are the local communities involved in this project?

I use local camera crews in each country. It is extremely hard work, and they are exhausted, but they are all thankful because they are listening to the interviews, they are looking at the places, and they are learning about their country. Some of them say, at the end of it: “I had no idea there was so much in my country”.

What are your major difficulties during the shooting?

One of the problems is to get archival material from the national TV stations. They are all willing to collaborate, but in the end, you never get anything. Also, there is a question of language. I work in English, but most people in Western Africa speak French. In Northern Africa, they speak mostly Arabic. Fortunately, my Arabic is better than my French.

I would say the main problem is the lack of female interviewees. The vast majority of the experts are men. So, where possible, I try to speak to women, in order to address the imbalance.

Do you face the same problem in your daily work at the BBC?

All over the world, including in the United Kingdom, the number of professors who are women is small compared to men. It means that when you want to go and seek experts' opinions, they are more likely to be male.

How do you see the gender issue in the media landscape today?

There are several aspects to the gender issue in the media: female onscreen presence - the kind of role that I have, for example; female expert opinion that is also sought, when the women are interviewees; women in positions of real power in media organizations, behind the scenes; and the way gender issues are covered in the media.

In terms of women in positions of power, regardless if it is a Western, African or Asian nation, the picture is not particularly optimistic. Major western organizations remain very much controlled by men. The BBC, certainly. You find women in middle and lower levels of management, but the high level is still very male dominated.

In terms of women’s presence in the field, and on the screen, I think that it has improved, but still the senior roles are predominantly male.

When it comes to gender issues, and how these are covered, that is sometimes done in a slightly superficial way, especially in countries where the assumptions, the prejudices on gender issues, are deeply rooted.


© UNHCR

In 2011, you moderated a Leader's Forum at UNESCO and on this occasion you said that girls' education was your "family business". Can you explain?

In a sense, yes, it is. I was referring to my great-grandfather Sheikh Babiker, who pioneered girls’ education in the Sudan, at the turn of the 20th century, when the country was under British rule. At that time girls were not educated, but my great-grandfather wanted to change this, and he started with his own daughters. Despite the hostility from the British authorities and the Sudanese community, he established a school in his own house for his children.

He had many children actually. We are making jokes about him, in the family, and we say that he was so pro-women that he married four of them!

More seriously, he was indeed a great visionary. He set an example by making sure that his own daughters were educated, and then they developed schools. I grew up with aunts, who are now in their eighties, with PhDs from Western universities. Presently, one of my uncles runs the Al-Ahfad University for Women, in Khartoum, where girls from Sudan, but also from other parts of Africa and the Arab world, are educated.

So, when people say that Muslim girls cannot be educated because it is inconsistent with the values of that religion, I am simply astonished.


© Rachel Barnes

Your work is time consuming. How do you balance work and family?

It is hard for women as mothers to have careers. We are the ones who give birth to children, and whatever our profession is, that means that there are some interruptions to our work. So you have got to do what works best for you. But if you opt for a longer interruption to your career - maybe three, four, five, ten years - in order to look after the children, then you do pay the consequences of that, which means you are out of the frame and you find you are re-climbing the ladder, while others have gone beyond.

Have you experienced this?

Probably… I was lucky because my work is studio-based, but I had some interruptions to my work, because I have four children. It is a lot! Had I been childless, I would have probably had two or three more years to add to my career, who knows.

You often say that you have a hyphenated identity. Can you tell us more about it?

Today, everybody is a bite of something in Europe, but when you have a badge of color, your multiple identity is more evident than if you have not. I was born in Sudan, I moved to the United Kingdom when I was 2 years old. At that time, there were fewer people from Africa or Asia living in Europe. There are many more now. I think that it is really less of an issue than it was.

Obviously I am of a Muslim background, but Muslims are a part of the European landscape. And I do think that when we refer to Muslims in Europe, we should say "Muslim Britains", for example, instead of saying "British Muslims". I would switch the name and the adjective, like the Americans do. They say "Muslim Americans". The difference looks slight, but actually it speaks a lot more. It is quite profound and it is important to the mindset.

I would see my hyphenated identity as an advantage that is giving me a first hand experience of both non-Western and European culture. I don’t see any inherent conflict. I just have the feeling that I have the best of both worlds. 

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Interview conducted by Jasmina Šopova

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Zeinab Badawi Biography

Zeinab was born in the Sudan - her family moved to London when she was two years old.  

Zeinab studied Philosphy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University and took a Masters Degree (awarded with a distinction) on Middle East History and Anthropology at SOAS London University.  In 2011, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by SOAS, London University for her services to international broadcasting.  In  2015 she received  a second honorary doctorate for journalism from the London College of Communications - University of the Arts London.  

Zeinab has extensive experience in television and radio, working on a range of programmes. She is one of the best known broadcast journalists working in the field today.  In 2009 she was awarded International TV Personality of the Year by the Association of International Broadcasters, and  was named in Powerlist 2012 and 2015 as one of Britain’s top 100 most influential members of the black community  

She is the current Chair of the Royal African Society, a patron of  BBC Media Action (the charitable arm of the BBC),  a Vice-President of the United Nations Association UK,  and a board member of the African Union Foundation.  She is also a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council. 

Zeinab is a former trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.  She has been a board member of the British Council,  the Centre for Contemporary British History, a former Chair of the London based freedom of speech campaign organisation, Article 19, and a board member of the Overseas Development Institute.

Current work:

Hard Talk for the BBC:  this programme has, and continues to feature some of the best known personalities and politicians in the world.

Zeinab also presents Global Questions and World Debates on BBC World TV featured on both BBC radio and television.   

Through her own production company she has produced and presented many programmes, including currently the definitive tv series of African history in partnership with UNESCO. 

Zeinab has four children.