Women at war

Groped in Tahrir, abandoned in a war zone, women reporters face great danger in Middle East.

Gaza woman photographer 521 (photo credit: Jennifer S. Max)
Gaza woman photographer 521
(photo credit: Jennifer S. Max)
Fairly new to the realm of war zone journalism, Eman Mohammed was working hard to make inroads as a freelance photojournalist.
When colleagues heading to an airstrike location during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, in January 2009, invited her to join them, she eagerly accepted. She remembers thinking that her all-male peers had finally welcomed her into the fold.
“I thought we were moving together to stay safe. We drove to the airstrike location and jumped out of the car. It was under attack and deserted,” Mohammed recalls. “Suddenly the guys got back in the car and locked the doors. W hen I tried to get in, they laughed and drove off, leaving me behind. The joke was on me.”
When she ran into the men a few days later, they told her the hazing was a lesson: “You’re not welcome here,” they stated bluntly.
“This is a male dominated, ultra-conservative place; it’s a no-no to be a female journalist here,” Mohammed says. As the lone female photojournalist in Gaza, she has challenged local convention and withstood verbal and sexual advances in order to get her work placed in The Washington Post, Haaretz, AFP, Le Monde, Abu Dhabi’s The National and the Demotix Agency.
Until now, she has kept silent about the sexual harassment.
A 2011 report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) cites dozens of interviewees who, like Mohammed, have kept silent about assaults. They say there are cultural stigmas about discussing these issues and they doubt their bosses will follow up on their complaints. Perhaps most importantly, they fear being denied future assignments.
As a result, little documentation on the topic of sexual aggression against female journalists exists.
Many credit CBS News correspondent Lara Logan with breaking the silence by speaking out about her vicious sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last February, during demonstrations calling for the ouster of then-president Hosni Mubarak.
“When she went public, it really helped us,” says R., a veteran frontline photojournalist who has covered wars in Afghanistan, Georgia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya, Gaza and Syria. “We don’t have to hide anymore. I tell editors stuff now I would’ve never shared in the past.”
R. was also at Tahrir Square that night.
“There were hands all over me,” she recalls. “I could barely move. People had their hands between my legs. I closed my eyes and pushed.” R. prefers to remain anonymous, fearing prime assignments for Newsweek, Time, Paris Match or The New York Times Magazine might dry up, if editors learn of challenges she faces in the field.
Suffering in silence
 “I’m tough but I’ve had to push off advances and aggression,” she says. “I punched a male colleague, who almost knocked me into an open grave while covering a funeral once. It’s nothing new.”
In some cultures, however, suffering in silence is the standard. “It’s amazing how much discussion goes on in the West about safety and war reporting in general,” a Dubai-based journalist commented in a closed Internet forum. “…getting verbally or physically abused as a woman while reporting is almost normal so that you learn to adapt to it.”
Beyond sexual harassment, women war reporters also face physical danger. Paula Slier, Middle East Bureau Chief for Russia Today, was also groped on Tahrir Square and she has been held at gunpoint in the West Bank by Palestinian gunmen. While reporting live from the Lebanon-Israel border, a Katyusha rocket landed behind her.
“If I was an editor, I wouldn’t send a woman there,” Slier says, referring to Tahrir Square.
So Slier, a seasoned war journalist who has covered Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Kosovo, Serbia, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict and Lebanon, doesn’t share details with her editors.
According to CPJ, assaults against journalists fall into three general categories: targeted sexual violation, mob-related sexual violence while covering public events and sexual abuse in detention or captivity.
“Sexual harassment and groping is an occupational hazard, especially in conflict zones,” reports Judith Matloff, North America Director for the International News Safety Institute (INSI). “Groping in crowds is rampant in certain south Asian countries and Egypt.”
During the uprising in Libya, word of a female photojournalist brutally beaten and assaulted by several men who climbed into her hotel room via the balcony made rounds within journalist circles in hushed tones. The victim chose not to report the incident or go public with information but images that showed her badly beaten were posted on the web.
During the past year, news organizations have revised safety standards and increased training and security guidelines for women covering conflict. But Matloff says there is specific concern about freelancers who lack support and necessary funds for costly training courses, protective gear and security teams.
In March, INSI sponsored “No Woman’s Land: On the Frontlines with Female Reporters” – a panel debate addressing issues surrounding female journalists covering war zones.
A topic high on the agenda was whether war zone assignments are doled out according to gender. Senior news executives denied such discrimination, citing skill, experience and team compatibility as key qualities considered when deploying teams.
Xanthe Hinchey, a camerawoman who covered the Haiti earthquake and Libya’s war for CCTV, Press TV and as a BBC producer says she has never experienced gender discrimination. But she says, there are few women behind the camera.
“I saw one other camerawoman filming for news on the frontlines in Libya, so at times I felt like a bit of a novelty,” she says. “For sure, flattering comments and sexual attention came my way sometimes but it was never threatening… and nothing I hadn’t experienced before when filming in London or other countries abroad.”
There have also been questions about whether women who are mothers should be out there covering the story.
Many journalist moms have been lectured, insulted, or berated regarding career choice by well-meaning friends, judgmental strangers and even colleagues.
Following last year’s widely-publicized assault on Logan in Tahrir Square, online talkback columns were rife with disparaging comments about her mother-of-two status while covering conflict. Similar comments surfaced about mother-of-four Sky correspondent Alex Crawford and countless other female frontliners.
“My editors don’t even know I have a kid,” a single-mom war zone correspondent confides.
Based in the Middle East, she has decided it is better that bosses in far-away Asia know little about her personal life. “The last thing I want is for them to reconsider sending me on dangerous assignments,” she says.
“Yes, I’m a single mother. But I’m also the sole provider.”
R., a mother of three grown children, says she was frequently criticized for leaving them behind while venturing into war zones.
“An Italian colleague literally screamed at me once: ‘Why are you here? Why aren’t you home with your children?!’” she relates.
“Why was he shouting at me when another male colleague right there next to us had just had a baby?” Mohammed, the Gaza photojournalist, gave birth 8 months ago and says she gets the “mother lecture” all the time.
“I wanted to go to Syria and friends scolded me saying, ‘You have your daughter to think of.’ It makes the burden heavier. She’s very precious to me but I had a life before my daughter as well. Even if I explain it a thousand times, they can’t really understand why I do what I do,” she says.
Indeed, many outside – and some inside – the profession don’t comprehend a mother’s choice to cover war.
“I’m not supposed to say this but I don’t like seeing women out there,” one male deputy bureau chief of a prominent American news agency confides to The Report.
“Like children, they need protection. Their place is in the home.”
Another veteran male journalist says it turns him off to see women working war zones. “There’s just something wrong about it. I think most men agree,” he suggests.
Slier of Russia Today sees a different angle.
“I may be very frightened out there and I can’t be honest or show the fear but on the flip side, being a woman has been an advantage,” she says. “I can go into male homes in places like Afghanistan and they talk to me because I don’t think they knew what to do with me, how to perceive me. Women are so oppressed there. I think I get more stories in places like Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Mohammed’s experiences are similar. “I wear a hijab so it’s obvious I’m a local,” she says, referring to the traditional Islamic head covering. “The people accept me and allow me into their houses, especially for funerals when it’s all women inside the home,” she says.
In Haiti, women and girls eagerly seized the opportunity to share their stories with Hinchey, the camerawoman.
“Through me they got to tell the world about the scandal of widespread gang rape of young girls going on in their slums,” she says.
But doubt sometimes creeps in. “When I was in Libya for the first time, alone and frightened, I asked myself: ‘Why can’t you be a normal woman and go buy a dress on sale for $100?’” R. recalls. “You look horrible, you stink and you’ve got $2,000 stuffed into your bra that will get stolen if you’re caught.’” Despite occasional trepidation, women are out there by choice.
“War is terrible. But you get to be part of history. You also bear witness and you get to tell the world what is going on,” says Hinchey.
“My male colleagues hate seeing me in the field,” she says. “But I’m Muslim and I love my religion. Photography is what I do best. There’s nothing in Islam that tells me what I’m doing is wrong.”