Ayah Galal and I met on a cool breezy Friday afternoon at Hotchkiss Park in Prospect, Connecticut, during the holy month of Ramadan. Gray clouds blanket the troposphere, making the green grass feel closer to the sky. As we walked along the trail path discussing the layout of this interview, Galal’s aubergine headscarf added a touch of joy to the overcast day. We decided not to meet at a local coffee shop because it was Ramadan—the monthlong period of spiritual growth, fasting, prayers, and volunteering. During Ramadan, practicing Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset, while also abstaining from behaviors that could taint their soul like lying. The holy celebration is a purification of the spiritual and physical self.
“It’s not just about wearing the scarf, it’s also how you act as a Muslim.”
We stopped to say hi to a happy dog and its owner. Each of us crouched down to greet the good boy before we sat down to discuss Galal and her groundbreaking career. Galal is Connecticut’s first hijab-wearing television journalist. Earlier this year she was named one of Hartford Business Journal’s 40 Under Forty. “It’s important that our on-air talent reflects the diversity of the communities that we serve. Because journalism is a public service and I do agree that diversity matters and representation matters. And I think for a lot of people it’s a symbol of hope.”
Galal is one of fewer than a dozen on-air reporters in the United States who embody their faith by wearing hijab. The hijab is more than a headscarf, it embodies practices and principles of morality and modesty. To Galal, wearing the hijab is a powerful way to celebrate her faith. It is her choice. “It’s not just about wearing the scarf, it’s also how you act as a Muslim. Being fair, being just, being kind in your words, and being a good person. There is much more to it, and this is an important part of my faith.”
At first, Galal didn’t know she wanted to be a journalist. Her mother, the principal of their local mosque’s school, and father, a local physician, encouraged her to pursue her interests. Galal was involved in the student government at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls, Connecticut. She was the student body president for two years, and a student representative for the board of education. Galal is the middle child of five, and her tight-knit family is extremely supportive of her. Galal’s mother, Eman Galal, radiates joy when speaking about her. “My biggest hope for Ayah, as well as for all my kids, is that they would spend their lives doing something they love and are deeply passionate about. I believe that you’re better able to succeed and have your light shine through when you are genuinely excited about the work that you do. And so, I encouraged Ayah to explore her options, and when she decided on journalism, I knew deep down that this was her calling and that she would be able to excel in it.”
Meeting new people, public speaking, politics, and international relations have always sparked Galal’s interest. From a young age, she watched NBC’s nightly news at 6:30 p.m. with her family while eating dinner. “For years, growing up, I saw how Muslims were quite frankly demonized in the mass media. You would see a horrific terrorist attack happen and all Muslims would get painted with a very broad brush.” Galal wrote a number of papers in college on the effects of Western media on Muslim communities. The Quran condemns horrific acts of violence, and considers all of humanity compromised when an individual takes the life of another.
Galal double majored in journalism and political sciences at Quinnipiac University. She discovered Q30 Television, the student-led station, during Quinnipiac’s Admitted Students Experience. She wrote for the student-run newspaper the Quinnipiac Chronicle, and found enjoyment in the on-air aspects of TV reporting. “Student media helped prepare me for my first internship, my first internship led to my first job, first job led to my next job.” For Galal, broadcasting is a powerful coalescence of all reporting forms, a complete picture of what is happening around the world. “I had tremendous professors at Quinnipiac, who were excellent mentors. And they always did whatever it took to support me and other students.”
Quinnipiac professor of journalism Molly Yanity taught Galal as an undergraduate. “When I hear people talk about journalists being enemies of the people versus whatever it might be, I’m like, ‘you couldn’t be more wrong.’ Here’s a brilliant young woman who could be doing anything she wanted. And I mean that, probably in any field, too. And she chooses to do this. Not make a whole lot of money doing it. And she does it because she wants to tell peoples’ stories.”
Galal’s internship with Talk Media News during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia allowed her to combine her interests in journalism and politics. She heard then-president Barack Obama speak and saw future-president Joe Biden at the event. “All these different stations, different platforms all come together for this big significant event. I think that was definitely one of those moments where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
Gala interned at WTNH News 8 between her junior and senior college years, where she spent the summer understanding the many facets of how a newscast is put together. At that time, Galal looked heavily into producing, because she didn’t think an employer would hire someone who wears the hijab to be on-air.
After a year and a half of producing at WTNH, anchor Anne Nyberg interviewed Galal during one of her fireside chats with behind-the-scenes employees. Nyberg asked Galal if she would want to work on-air. “I think back on that conversation with Anne Nyberg, and that was a pivotal moment in my life. Where here we have this veteran anchor telling me, ‘What are you waiting for?’ That’s a conversation that I always remember because that really pushed me to think ‘Okay, I need to make this shift.’ ”
Galal made her on-air debut at the beginning of 2019 on the local CBS affiliate station, WFSB-TV News 3. I worked with Galal at WFSB when she first started her on-air career. I clearly remember how kind and remarkably calm she was while reporting in the field and newsroom. Her debut happened within a year of the first US on-air hijab-wearing reporter, Tahera Rahman. Rahman, who was reporting in Illinois at the time, is one of the Muslim American women journalists Galal connected with through social media.
Galal started as a producer/multimedia journalist and worked her way up to become Hartford Bureau Chief at WFSB. She made history again on December 25, 2021, when she became the first hijab-wearing woman to anchor a newscast in Connecticut. “In the beginning, it was definitely tough because I didn’t really have many people I could look up to or be like, ‘Oh, I see this person doing this, that’s what I’m going to do.’ I faced a lot of self-doubt; I was kind of my own worst enemy.” Islamophobic comments cropped up in the shared producer inbox when she started on-air. “You want to have tough skin, you want to have thick skin, but, deep down, especially starting out, it hurt and it was disheartening. That was the reality of doing something that hasn’t really been done much before or being different and looking different than just about everyone else on television in the United States.”
Yanity reflected on Galal and her experiences. “Ayah can wear her hijab, she can practice a religion, and she does it in a way where there’s nothing that you can do, but respect her, because she is passionate, and she is going to keep showing up. I’ve seen the stuff that’s on social media. And she and I talked a little bit about it, but she just has this quiet confidence in herself and her abilities and in her beliefs to be able to weather the loneliness, to weather the social media vitriol.”
Finding ways to dress in hijab on-air while adhering to journalistic standards was difficult in the beginning. Fitting in daily prayers also proves challenging in a job where she is constantly on the move. She does her prayers in the car, and her photographer gives her the space to do them. It is still difficult because ideally, she would put a prayer mat on the ground.
Four years later Galal has worked a lot of difficult shifts trying to get out in the community, meeting new people, and finding good stories to tell. She finds viewers are more positive and supportive of a Muslim woman reporting the news. Galal receives very few Islamophobic messages now, and when she does get comments, she doesn’t let it bother her. Galal knows she has so many people who support the work that she is doing.
Galal believes that she has to know a little about everything to be able to succeed as a journalist. She could be covering court one day, sports another, and a human-interest piece the next. “If you want to be a journalist or a reporter, you have to have that curiosity about the world around you and be open to hearing different perspectives and different beliefs and different opinions. It’s all so important to being a good journalist. But I think also just being a good human, listening to each other, and learning from each other. And that’s how we grow at the end of the day.”
Galal reflects on some of the stories she has covered and what they mean to her. This past winter, Galal told the story of a woman who delivered her child in the car on the way to the hospital. She was able to sit down and learn intimate details about a person’s life and to be trusted to tell the story fairly and respectfully.
There are some terribly tough days when she covers incredibly difficult topics. Galal talked about covering the former special education teacher accused of sexually assaulting students, and was outside of court during his arraignment. It wasn’t easy to ask an alleged assaulter questions, but it is a duty, a responsibility to try to get answers for the community and for the children that went through so much.
TV news is not as glamorous as people think. In a twenty-four seven news cycle, Galal said she needs to remind herself to unplug, take breaks, and talk with her support network. “There are a lot of hard days, you cover a lot of really horrific things, from crime and shootings to what I was covering at court yesterday. It’s tough. And it’s not like you can just flip a switch and turn your reporter mode off. You think about the stories, when you’re not at work, you think about what you’ve covered, or the interviews you’ve had, or conversations you’ve had.” For Galal to be able to give her all at work, she knows she needs to take breaks and take care of herself in little ways.
“We can understand each other better when we’re sharing each other’s stories, when we’re listening to each other.”
Technical producer and director Sheba Rodican, a mentor of Galal’s, told me, “She’s a Muslim woman. That alone is a heavy burden on your shoulders to begin in any career. I identify with being a Muslim and a woman, where all eyes are on you and how you have to prove yourself exceptionally well to be seen and heard.” Rodican has worked behind the scenes for the past twenty-seven years. “I feel very proud and represented each time I see a Muslim woman reporting on TV. They are bold, brave, and strong, especially during difficult times while delivering tragic news. They have to set their emotions aside and have this sense of balance and focus.”
Galal believes people can be moved by the stories of others. For her, there is a special power in taking the time to understand different opinions and perspectives, and in showing all the facets of the issues she is covering. “When we tell our stories, and listen to other people’s stories, you learn so much. You will get the world beyond your bubble. And we can understand each other better when we’re sharing each other’s stories, when we’re listening to each other. And that’s the beauty. And I know it’s cheesy, but I do think there’s a special power and magic in storytelling.”
Galal and I watch some people mill about the playing fields while others take laps on the trail. Galal glances to the left at a few kids playing basketball. “It’s an honor to be able to tell these stories, to be a role model in the community, to know a lot of people look up to you. And that is so heartwarming, but I think on the flip side, one of the challenges to being a ‘trailblazer’ at least for me, personally, in my journey, it has been at times lonely.” Shrugging, “And I think for other trailblazers who maybe have gone through the same thing you’re not alone in feeling these kinds of things, because it’s not all rosy all the time. And while there’s so much I’m grateful for and blessed to be able to say I’ve been able to do throughout my career, there are also days where it is incredibly lonely.”
While reading at a local mosque for Read Across America week in March, one of the teachers brought her elementary-age daughter up to talk with Galal about what she wants to be when she grows up. “She’s like, ‘I think maybe I want to become a meteorologist one day’ and to hear that, it just warms my heart. I don’t want other young people doubting they can do a certain job because of how they look or how they worship or what they wear. There are a lot of hard aspects to this job. But when you have moments like that, those are the things in the back of your head—on the really hard days—that you try to keep in mind. I don’t take it lightly, I try not to take that for granted and do what I can.” Her hands flutter near her face. “I do feel like that’s my responsibility to pay it forward and hold the door open for others, because I don’t want to be the last hijab-wearing news reporter. I want to hold the door open for others, make sure others can also enter this profession, because we definitely need it.”
At the end of our discussion, Galal laughs, something she doesn’t get to do nearly enough during hard news days, and says we should get coffee after Ramadan is over.
Holly Harwood Is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Image Courtesy of Andy Halpin