Hometown: Hyderabad, India
Big picture: Zainab Sultan is changing the face of media in the Middle East. Sultan, who grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, finished premed studies at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar but transferred to Northwestern University in Qatar when the school opened in 2008. The award-winning documentarian reported in Sri Lanka on domestic worker abuse in the Gulf region, at the United Nations in Geneva on labor trafficking in the Middle East and in Ethiopia on the issue of maternal health. She interned at Al Jazeera English in Washington, D.C., and Doha, where she worked on long-form documentaries and the current affairs show Fault Lines. She was also editor of Qataraccidents.org, a student-created website on traffic safety in Qatar, where auto accidents are the leading cause of death. Sultan hopes to continue making documentaries and to one day teach journalism as a college professor. (Sultan won one of six President's Awards at NU-Q's first Education City convocation in early May. Read the Northwestern NewsCenter's complete coverage of NU-Q's inaugural commencement celebration in Doha.)
In her own words: “Being a journalist is tough in Doha and in this part of the world, especially if you are applying U.S. journalistic principles. There are no clear, defined rules, so you have to play it safe and smart to see what’s acceptable and what’s not.
“Sometimes I wrote about things the local media would never touch — sensitive topics like social discrimination based on economic class. I created a video package on cousin marriages in Qatar three years ago, and just now the BBC World News’ Doha Debates hosted a public debate to determine whether marriage between close families should be discouraged.
“You have to really invest time to learn about a culture before you write about it. There are so many stories that define the lives of the people here and what’s going to come in the future. At NU-Q you get an opportunity to go out and find stories and do them in a fearless and transparent manner. At the end of the day, we, as journalists, are not disrespecting culture. We are here to highlight uniqueness.”
A dream come true: “I wanted to pursue my dream of getting a world-class education, but it always seemed so far-fetched because Saudi Arabia did not offer those opportunities back then. But my family has always supported me in every way. After I spent my journalism residency in D.C., I realized I have become a global citizen. I can be independent and pursue stories fearlessly and do things that matter to me.”