In 2016, Ginella Massa made headlines as the first hijab-wearing woman to anchor a major Canadian newscast. The long-overdue representation of a Muslim woman thriving in her profession was not just a career milestone for Ginella, but also the culmination of a childhood dream — and an inspiration to those that hope to follow her.
By Teresa Harris
Ginella Massa never set out to become a recognizable name in Canadian television. From a young age, her only goal was to be a good reporter. Never in her wildest dreams did she anticipate what would ensue once she became Canada’s first ever woman in hijab to anchor on a major newscast.
“I talked about being a hijab-wearing woman on TV when I was a kid as a pipe dream,” she remembers. “I don’t know if I ever believed it was going to happen.”
Ginella spent the first half of her career behind the scenes as a news writer and producer. However, she felt a strong pull to be on screen, providing a voice to those who are underserved by current news media coverage.
“Being on air was something I really wanted to do. To tell stories, and to be able to have some visible representation of people who look like me.” With much of the upper management running Canada’s media hailing from mostly white, upper-middle class upbringings, another perspective felt necessary. “If you’re disconnected from the realities of your readers and viewers, how can you truly be doing them a service and understand what’s important to them?”
Knowing her ultimate goal was the easy part. Making it happen, on the other hand, took a leap of faith. In 2014, Ginella quit her full-time producing job in Toronto and spent several uncertain months working on her demo reel and freelancing in order to stay open to broadcasting opportunities. When the chance to report in the smaller market of Kitchener-Waterloo came along, she knew it was the beginning of the next phase of her career.
The first time Ginella appeared on-air in hijab as a reporter in 2015, she recalls there being little fanfare.
“My news director felt that it was better for me to continue focusing on my work as opposed to becoming the news,” she explains. “He shied away from us tooting our own horn, and in many ways that was a good thing because it allowed me to really learn and grow my skill, and feel like I belonged in that industry.”
“When I’m on air, I’m not talking about my religion, I’m not preaching to anybody. I’m just doing my job, and I happen to be doing it with my hijab on.”
The following year, Ginella graduated from the medium-sized market and landed a job at CityNews Toronto, becoming the city’s first reporter to wear a hijab. Her bosses immediately recognized her hard work, talent, and the ease and confidence with which she led the newscast as a reporter, and were open about their desire to one day transition her to a part-time anchor position.
“They gave me important stories and saw that I was more than capable of being a fair journalist, of drawing in our audience,” Ginella explains, and plans for her to fill in as an anchor over the 2016 Christmas break began to take shape. “The beauty of being in a diverse newsroom is that there are folks that celebrate Christmas who don’t want to work, but someone’s gotta do it!”
When she was unexpectedly asked to fill in for the regular evening news anchor one night in November, she eagerly accepted the spot. “It was a career milestone to be able to anchor. I posted a picture on Twitter, I was so excited, saying ‘This is really great and fun and exciting for me and my career, but also a big achievement for Canada.’ I didn’t realize that tweet would take off the way that it did.”
Take off is an understatement. Ginella’s visible presence on a major Canadian news station prompted media coverage around the world, her story appearing in The New York Times, Vogue, FLARE, Aljazeera, and The Washington Post, among others. Viewers and readers celebrated the long-overdue representation of a Muslim woman thriving in her profession — particularly one where appearance is so paramount.
“When I took that picture and posted it to Twitter, I thought, wow, imagine telling 11-year-old me ‘You’re going to do it, this is going to happen, don’t give up.’ It was an emotional moment in my personal journey. For it to take off internationally was incredible.”
Sensing the lack of diversity in Canada’s media landscape, Ginella recalls doubting at a young age that there was a place for her on-screen. “I said to my mom as a kid, ‘Maybe I’ll go into radio because then it doesn’t matter what I look like.’” Her mother — who relentlessly carved out spaces in the community for her young Muslim daughters — didn’t buy it. “She was like, ‘Why would you want to change your dream to accommodate other people? Just because nobody else has done it before doesn’t mean you can’t be the first.’”
It’s this encouragement that has allowed Ginella to stop worrying about being the first, and instead focus on becoming the best. And while her newfound status as an international role model feels overwhelming at times, Ginella is proud to have broken ground for Muslim women with ambition to be perceived as more than passive and submissive.
“We’re not given opportunities to be seen as people, with dreams, skills, and intelligence,” she says. “When I’m on air, I’m not talking about my religion, I’m not preaching to anybody. I’m just doing my job, and I happen to be doing it with my hijab on.”
*Photo by Robin Kuniski