By Sarah Townsend
A new generation of Arab women are taking to YouTube to have their voices heard in conservative societies. In the process, they are creating slick, marketable channels and giving traditional broadcast media a run for its money.
Four years ago, Jeddah-based AlJuhara Sajer launched a channel on YouTube called Jay’s Cherry. She did not expect a huge following, but wanted to offer women practical advice that she felt was hard to come by in her part of Saudi Arabia. A budding entrepreneur, she also wanted to build a platform through which she could one day launch a business.
Over the next three years, 25-year-old Sajer produced about 100 videos — a mix of product reviews, recipes and beauty tips — and built up a following of more than 200,000 subscribers. By 2015, the videos on her channel, now called JaySajer, had had 30 million views.
Yet nobody knew who she was. Like all women in conservative Saudi Arabia, Sajer faced restrictions on her words and actions and opted to keep her identity secret until she had established her channel and garnered a loyal following.
Her father persuaded her to reveal her identity last year. Sajer announced the planned date of her appearance on the channel and started a countdown to create a buzz.
Since then her popularity has soared — at the time of writing she had more than 335,000 subscribers. She says in an email exchange with Arabian Business: “At the beginning, it was a mystery road. I didn’t want to involve myself when I didn’t know how it would work out.
“Three years ago, there were hardly any girls on YouTube in the Middle East. I wanted to enjoy my privacy for as long as possible, and for people to focus on what I had to say rather than just think, ‘Oh, a Saudi girl turned rebel’.
“I did get negative feedback from men, telling me to quit YouTube because it’s not the place for girls and I should focus on being a good housewife.
“I showed my father some of these comments and he explained to me how these men think sometimes and how it’s weird for them to hear a Saudi girl on YouTube.
“I told him how sad this was and he said: ‘If you want to change this sad thinking, keep on doing what you do and someday they will accept it'.”
Jay’s Cherry is now one of the four most-watched YouTube channels produced by women in Saudi Arabia, and Sajer’s videos are increasingly wide-ranging in topic. They include clips from before and after her first live TV interview since revealing her identity, a round-up of her favourite products, a spontaneous video filmed at 2am telling her computer “not to give up”, and even videos featuring her father.
She also created a series entitled ‘Kong enti’, which means ‘Be Yourself’, after receiving comments from people telling her how to talk and trying to change the way she was. “My father saw the comments, came to me and told me to be myself and never listen to them.”
Sajer is one of a growing number of Arab women who are using YouTube to express themselves — whether that is by sharing beauty tips, reporting on their travels or creating comedy and other entertainment that highlights issues in their societies.
YouTube can also help launch women’s careers in a region where the workforce remains dominated by men. Creators are increasingly benefitting from advertising revenue as the region’s top advertisers seek to use high-profile online personalities to push products — though none of the women Arabian Business spoke to for this article would reveal figures.
Saudi Arabia has been cited as having the highest YouTube penetration rate in the world and 41 percent of Saudi females watch online videos every day, according to Analysys Mason’s Connected Consumer Survey 2015. There also has been a 200 percent increase in the number of subscribers on the top four Saudi female-led channels (JaySajer, Miva Flowers, es2almujarib and AnaWHeya) in the past two years, claims YouTube.
However, the trend is region-wide. YouTube ‘watch time’ across MENA grew by 60 percent between 2014 and 2015, the company says, and YouTube watch time via mobile devices grew by 90 percent over the same period. Within that, watch time of female content grew by 50 percent year-on-year.
Women under 25 in the UAE and Saudi Arabia watch online videos more frequently than they check their emails, according to Google’s Consumer Barometer — specifically, the watch time of beauty and fashion channels grew by 50 percent year-on-year in 2015. And Arabic language content is in high demand, says YouTube, reporting that the number of hours of uploaded Arabic content grew by 40 percent year-on-year in 2015.
The surge in interest has not happened overnight. YouTube, which was acquired by Google for $1.6bn in 2007, has been working to generate more Arab female-produced content on the platform, claiming viewers demand it, advertisers are hungry for it and more women are inspired to become creators as a result.
Diana Baddar, head of YouTube partnerships at Google MENA, says: “It was a personal mandate of mine to increase the number of female YouTube creators because there wasn’t enough.
“We looked at Europe, North America and Asia and saw these rising superstars — California’s Bethany Mota, beauty ‘guru’ Michelle Phan, all these names that booked deals, had their own product lines, did endorsements, whereas here in the Middle East, perhaps due to our more conservative culture, you do not find so many girls on the platform.”
Baddar began working with a number of emerging female creators in the region, showing them how to generate a following and encouraging them to create more. “A lot of the people we spoke to thought YouTube was some sort of abyss and nobody cared about what they were doing. When they got the phone call from us, they felt this was their ‘OMG’ moment — they’d been spotted!
“They all had the same reasons [for creating YouTube content] — that it was something fun for them to do and they wanted to share their experiences with other girls.”
She says creators find YouTube an attractive medium because it gives them the freedom to tell their story how they wish, without the restrictions of traditional broadcast media. YouTube also allows them to be more targeted, “to drill right down to very specific aspects of the community they are living in”, in a way that pan-regional television does not.
“YouTube has become the search engine of video,” says Baddar. “It’s so diverse, there’s something for everyone.” The quality of content distinguishes YouTube from other social media, she adds, as arguably a greater effort is made to produce, edit, annotate and upload.
AlJuhara says: “For me, the appeal is the freedom and unlimited creative ways in which you can express yourself and your ideas. A girl can film a video talking about what she likes and thinks, put it out there in YouTube land and find girls from everywhere that relate to her and share her interests, which provides security and makes you feel you’re not alone.”
These girls are not solely focused on beauty, though this is the most popular sector. But Baddar says in the Middle East, YouTubers “do things with a twist. Where else would you find a review channel where you’ve never seen the creator herself? Who takes years of building up the channel and then reveals herself?”
Many creators seek to highlight social and cultural issues using comedy, which Baddar says is groundbreaking in itself as Arabic female comedians are few and far between. One channel in particular may surprise Western viewers who presume discussing male-female relationships is taboo in Saudi Arabia.
Twenty-year-old Darin Al Bayed, a Lebanese, Saudi-raised creator whose channel AnaWHeya (‘Me and Her’) has 414,000 subscribers and 30 million views, acts out conversations between men and women from each sex’s perspective in a lighthearted yet incisive manner. Meanwhile, Hatoun Al Kadi uses her YouTube channel Noun Al Niswa to document scenarios in which she finds herself, for example with her driver, husband and kids, in the form of short satirical sketches.
Many Arab female creators say it is easier for them to express themselves online than offline. Aljuhara admits that her father has received threats from people trying to force her to stop her channel but says that, on the whole, feedback has been positive.
“We have the freedom to express ourselves online and create our own rules far away from the judgemental society.”
“Screaming from the rooftops does not work for every country in the world,” explains Baddar. “These girls are smart and intelligent and know they don’t have to tackle an issue head on; they can draw attention to it through shrewd, witty observations based on their awareness of what is acceptable in the society around them and what is not.”
Baddar’s work reached a peak this year with the appointment of Dubai-based YouTube video creator, Hayla Ghazal, as a United Nations (UN) Ambassador for Gender Equality. The 20-year-old was chosen along with six other female creators from across the world as part of a campaign by YouTube and the UN to encourage women to use digital media as an empowerment tool.
Ghazal tells Arabian Business she started her channel, HaylaTV, two years ago as a way of becoming less shy. She is self-taught, confessing she “literally keyed ‘video editing’ into Google” to produce what is now a portfolio of more than 150 videos.
She aims to present basic life tips to other girls, as well as lightheartedly poke fun at societal issues and trends. In one of her clips, Girls at Weddings, she acts out the role of various women at weddings, from the ecstatic and slightly smug bride, to the jealous older sister and the social climbing mother of the bride’s best friend, pushing her embarrassed daughter to go and dance with all the eligible bachelors.
Ghazal says Arabs in particular would understand the scenarios and laugh because marriage, and marrying well, is culturally very important. Another video shows her mimicking Arab dialects, from Khaleeji, to Syrian, to Egyptian. Ghazal has 663,000 subscribers and some of her videos receive millions of hits each.
“It’s great to see more women recognising how technology can empower them to own their own voice, speak up and share anything they want,” she says.
The rise of female YouTubers is working for advertisers, too, meaning there are commercial opportunities for creators — although Baddar claims generating revenue is a secondary goal for most of the creators with whom she works.
A spokesperson for Procter & Gamble, one of the 10 biggest advertisers in MENA, says: “Women YouTube bloggers are fast creating a unique media awareness tool. In MENA, when partnering with leading YouTube beauty bloggers to educate followers on a product, we found that engagement is almost 30-50 times higher than traditional brand-owned platforms. Consumers trust influencers’ voices, and this is having tangible results.”
YouTube is unlikely to overtake television in MENA, says Baddar, “but they can definitely sit side-by-side”. And, while the knotty, contentious issues are likely to be left to the male creators for the foreseeable future (watch Saudi comedian Hisham Fagheeh’s parody of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’, playfully titled ‘No Woman, No Drive’, on his channel Telfaz11), YouTube looks set to play a growing role in the professional and personal development of women in the Middle East.
Meet the MENA creators
1. Hessa Al Awwad, 27, Dammam, creator of Miva Flowers: "My show focuses on nail art and hairstyling and has 44 million views. My goal is to spread happiness and beauty and my motivation is my fans, I call them my ‘flowers’. My most popular video is one of my simplest — a clip about what’s in my handbag. It has had more than 2 million views. YouTube gives [Muslim] women the opportunity to show others our way of living and spread knowledge that hijabs and niqabs are not a wall from the world; we can do anything we like."
2. Darin Al Bayed, 20, Jeddah (Lebanese), creator of AnaWHeya: "I co-present AnaWHeya [‘Me and Her’], which uses comedy to explore the social dynamics between men and women. I have been approached by a major broadcaster but cannot reveal details at present. I started my channel in 2013 because I love the camera and want to spearhead equality and raise awareness of the issues women face in Saudi Arabia. Here, women have more freedom to speak online than offline."
3. Haifa Beseisso, 25, Dubai (Palestinian), creator of Fly With Haifa: "I focus on empowering women to follow their dreams through travel. Ten months ago, I quit my fancy job to follow my own dreams. I launched my channel in 2014 but published just five videos while I was working. Now, I’ve produced 39 and attracted 59,000 subscribers and 2 million views! Many of us dream of adding something significant to the world and I want to do that through YouTube. It makes me upset when I watch a movie or the news and see Arabs getting portrayed in a way most of us are not. In my videos, I do things that show I’m a normal girl: I’m crazy, I jump from mountains, I dive, I go on a zipwire, I’m a human being who loves other human beings and wants to understand different cultures."