Mar 13 2012

In the Company of Women

Last week, on International Women’s Day, Reuters hosted an event at their headquarters in Canary Wharf, London, to celebrate the publication of No Women Land – On The Frontline With Female Reporters. The discussion was chaired by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, on behalf of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) with Sarah Whitehead (Head of International News, Sky News), Nima Abu Bakher (CNN), Kate Brooks (photojournalist), Andy Roy (Head of News at BBC World News TV) and Maria Golvnina (Reuters). They were all bright and inspiring and their experience in the field invoked invaluable lessons and fascinating anecdotes.

Every few minutes, however, my thoughts wondered to Emily Hobhouse the Journalist who exposed the concentration camps the British forces created in South Africa during the Boer War and the horrific conditions in them for the Manchester Guardian. She would have probably been puzzled. Over a 100 years on, female journalists are still compelled to wonder whether they are an abnormality, or a bit of a novelty. Martha Gellhorn too would have probably raised an ironic eyebrow. The American who covered almost every war from the Spanish civil war of 1936 to the American invasion of Panama in 1979. When the Balkan wars erupted in the 1990s Gellhorn conceded her defeat by age. “You need to be nimble” she explained.

Female journalists at the frontline seem to have been out there almost as long as journalism itself, but the vision of “a chick in a helmet”, as one of the panelist ironically referred to herself, bringing the news from some smoking and troubled part of the world, has certainly become more ubiquitous in the last two decades. In her contribution to the book Galina Sidorova puts her finger on the most feasible reasons for it, which no doubt exceed the boundaries of her homeland, Russia: “it is low paid, and it is dangerous”

After reading the book over the weekend I wondered how many female journalists are on GRNs books, and realised there is no way to find out without counting them manually, as we do not, of course, mark them in any way. I gave up on the counting after two minutes, concluding that about a third of our correspondents are women, and the number seems to be on the rise.

But more interesting than the number, was the quality and prominence of the women who covered the gory and exciting events of the last few years for GRN. Rania Abouzeid and Delphine Minoui followed every Israeli invasion, Syrian intervention and internal scuffle in Lebanon; Ruth Sherlock, Jihan Hafiz and Portia Walker covered Libya, Rachel Shabi was in Tunisia and in Egypt, where she joined Noel King and Marwa Rakha; Alice Fordham and Tina Susman were in Iraq, Orly Halpern in Jerusalem, Jetta Xharra in Kosovo, Iona Craig in Sana’a, and this really is but a sample. Do we hesitate to send a female journalist out to be interviewed in a hazardous zone? No more than we hesitate to send a man. The thought has never crossed my mind nor – judging by the bookings that have piled up in the credit of our female journalists this year – has it crossed the mind of any other GRN editor. Does this have to do with the fact that the vast majority of the commissioning in GRN is done by female duty editors who have worked as journalists in the frontlines of our own homelands.

I doubt it. We do not seem to be unique in that sense. Most women, at least those who work for media in the West, said sending them “out there” never seemed to be an issue with their editors, male or female. However journalists from Africa, the Middle East and Asia still often say they had to fight for the right to go out into the field and felt they were expected to prove themselves every step of the way more than their male colleagues.

But the sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan at Tahrir square did make the elephant in the room very visible all of a sudden. Editors and news consumers are happy to have women reporting wars, but the danger of us being attacked sexually or raped seems to be the main “additional risk” on everybody’s minds. Women on the frontline are compelled to combine addressing this hazard openly on one hand, while insisting that it should not compromise their ability to do their job properly on the other. “Like that black grime you see between the tiles in a damp, neglected bathroom, an attack like this lives with you. The consequences are not to be underestimated or dismissed”, writes Logan in the book, “But it also can be washed away. And the ideal of freedom that drives us as journalists, the freedom of speech that we embody, is what is really at stake”.

Logan says she felt empowered by the way her employer, CBS, dealt with her case, setting the standard: “you have a duty to stand by your employee, an unconditional, honest, unwavering duty”. Other female journalists express similar ideas. If women can feel they can raise such concerns with their editors and discuss the risk without fearing this might infringe on their chances of being sent out to cover war zones, the right balance will be achieved.

Others mention that men can be, and are being, sexually attacked as well. And while there’s a lot of talk in the book about Middle Eastern cultures and the dangers they may carry for women who see independent and liberated (which might read as fair game), many others complain of fellow western journalists, army officials and others, who often pose a similar, if not worse, threat. Sexual assault is not, primarily, a sex crime, it is first an foremost an act of violence aimed to humiliate its victim, as the whole world has been reminded by the photographs of torture from Abu-Ghraib prison a few years ago.

LA  Times correspondent Tina Susman expresses clearly in the book what many female journalists echo.  “Did they rape you” was the first question she was asked by her rescuers who pulled her out of the room where she’s been held captive in Somalia, and they seemed surprised when she said no. Rape, she says, “never featured high on my list of concerns”, before or after that experience. “I worried, and worry – about my plane or helicopter being shot down; being trampled in a stampede; being hit by a stray bullet; getting kidnapped again; or stepping on a landmine. I even worry about giant insect crawling into my sleeping bag”.

There are many advantages to being a female journalist in a war or disaster infested zone in a conservative society. Women are often rendered “invisible” and unthreatening, and may get access to places that men are banned from. They can often speak unsupervised to other women, pass through checkpoints without too much inspection and get briefed by officials who drop their guard.

This may be what prompted the BBC’s John Simpson to dress as a woman when infiltrating Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province with his similarly disguised team. So proud was he of this achievement, that he might have misjudged the danger which making the story known may have posed to his fellow female journalists.

The “tips from women in the field” at the end of the book are useful and alarming. Besides advice on how to dress in Muslim countries and how to choose the right clothes to run in if attacked, there’s a rather long section dedicated to hygiene, thrush avoidance, tampons and the chilling “consider bringing a morning after pill in case of rape if going to high-risk areas”.

Questions of motherhood and family also feature often in the discourse around female journalists at the frontline. Many women feel angered by the notion that editors would bring their family situation into consideration into account when deciding whether to send them on a dangerous mission. Andy Roy said in the discussion at Reuters that his only consideration is who is the best journalist to do the job and whether the journalist in question, a man or a woman is happy to take on a mission, whether they have children or not.

A male colleague provided an intriguing answer to this question. “It is of course a personal choice and I wouldn’t interfere in somebody else’s choices. For me, once I had a family I knew that my days of dodging bullets in hazardous environment were over. I personally think that anybody who goes out to cover wars with children back at home is simply mad”.

I’d recommend No Woman’s Land to anybody interested in journalism in our time. The accounts are interesting, thought provoking and there’s much to be learned from them. My only qualm was about the (very few) articles written by journalists anonymously, without any details about them and the kind of work they do. Nothing in what appears in those sections seemed to justify the anonymity of their writers, though the wild generalizations about Middle Eastern men in one of them may explain why the commentator wished to remain unknown. It is a strange choice for a journalist to write anonymously about her trade and editorially I believe this path should be taken only in extreme cases.

What do you think? Please join our discussion.


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