Female reporters in the Middle East have shown exceptional courage on the front lines of war, dodging bullets, fending off sexual harassment and lining the corridors of power to deliver the news.
In September last year, Jill Filipovic of the Guardian created a stir with her article "Can girls even find Syria on a map," observing that "The overwhelming majority of expert talking heads and op-ed writers on US intervention in Syria are male."
We picked up that theme and asked 16 of the top women journalists covering the Middle East for Al-Monitor and other publications - Rania Abouzeid, Asmaa al-Ghoul, Deborah Amos, Ayah Aman, Francesca Borri, Yasemin Congar, Tulin Daloglu, Hala Jaber, Zeina Khodr, Mazal Mualem, Laura Rozen, Sarah el-Sirgany, Barbara Slavin, Liz Sly, Bel Trew and Amberin Zaman - what is it like to be a female journalist in one of the most dangerous regions in the world and how gender has played a role in their reporting, if at all?
"As far as I’m concerned, I am a journalist. Period. My gender doesn’t come into it. Judge my work, not my work based on my gender."
Rania Abouzeid has been reporting in the Middle East for the past decade, including the second Iraq war and most recently the Syrian civil war. Rania has spent most of the past three years reporting from inside Syrian rebel zones for TIME Magazine. She now covers the region for other outlets including The New Yorker and Al Jazeera America. She has written for Al-Monitor. Rania is currently a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"I was ostracized, isolated, known as a troublemaker. I wrote reports that my local paper did not agree to publish, so no one could criticize it. At the time, I did not know that I was doing that. Perhaps it was my naiveté, or that I was raised to believe that it was natural to do what is honest. Until now, I am surprised when I see the fear and hypocrisy expressed in the writing of journalists and prominent writers. And I am surprised when they justify this by the need to make a living of fear. I remember they are just human.
"Criticism is always heavy and self-censorship is high, but the stubbornness I grew up with was always easier than giving in. Criticizing someone who resembles you is harder than criticizing your well-known enemy.
"More than two years ago I was arrested and beaten, and my family members were arrested and I received death threats and my reputation was smeared, I knew how influential and strong I was, despite being unemployed and with nothing but my blog.
"I had reached a state of social desperation, but my stubborn resistance did not decline. The first time I smiled after this ordeal was when I saw other women at demonstrations and in the interrogation room with me, and their blogs became the topics of discussion of others.
"Here I knew the value of being in the shade, to transform the ostracized people and put them in the spotlight."
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a columnist based in the Gaza Strip for Al-Monitor’s Palestine Pulse. She received the 2012 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation and a Hellman-Hammet award from Human Rights Watch in 2012 for her work on uncovering human rights violations in the Gaza Strip.
"I believe that female journalists have an advantage over their male colleagues. Particularly in conservative societies, we can cross the 'gender divide' with ease. I saw this in Saudi Arabia when covering the driving ban against females. As we gathered to cover the activists at the center of the story, one male colleague from Bloomberg was asked to leave the group. His presence was a hassle for the organizers because of the strict rules of gender segregation. I am a long-term Middle East correspondent, and over the years, the ranks of female correspondents has grown as editors realize we have better access than our male colleagues. Domain of men? In the Middle East, that is no longer true."
Deborah Amos is an award-winning senior journalist covering the Middle East for NPR. She has reported on a number of issues across the region, including the Iraq war, the rise of Turkey and more recently the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian civil war. Deborah is also a member of the Council of Foreign Relations.
"Concerning your question, actually I partially agree with The Guardian statement. After the Jan. 25 Revolution, [my newspaper] prevented female reporters from covering any violent events in the streets and prefered to assign males to be in the streets, but I choose to work in the field and to be a witness to violence and try to write objectively despite the media blackout.
"I faced a lot of challenges in my work: lack of training on how to deal with violence during field coverage, we work without personal protective equipment. Also, the Egyptian journalism syndicate didn't give us legal protection. Also for me as a female, it was hard to deal with some Salafis during their demonstrations, as they believe it's not permitted to talk with women.
"On the official front, I have many contacts with officials and governmental sources. I don't see a difference if you are male or female journalist; all of us have suffered from a lack of information during this transitional period."
Ayah Aman is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Egypt Pulse and a journalist with Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouk specializing in Africa, the Nile Basin and internal Egyptian social issues. Aman courageously reported from Rabia al-Adawiya square in Cairo during the massacre of protesters in August 2013.
"Quite an unfortunate expression for a London-based newspaper, at walking distance from the empty desk of Marie Colvin. There is no need to reply, however; the brilliant work of Rania Abouzeid makes redundant any comment. The challenges faced by journalists covering Syria aren't related to gender issues."
Francesca Borri is a freelance Italian journalist who is currently covering the Syrian civil war from within rebel territory. Her previous stints include the Kosovo war and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Image: Francesca Borri dons protective gear in Syria, Oct. 12, 2013.
"While female political editors and columnists sadly remain a minority in Turkey, when it comes to playing hardball, Turkish women journalists have been no less forthcoming and effective than their male colleagues.
"It is a sad comment on the state of media in Turkey these days that it does take courage to dissent from the government’s policy lines. Among the few daily newspapers that show this courage, two are currently managed by female editors — namely, Nese Duzel at Taraf and Ece Temelkuran at Birgün. There is also, of course, Eren Keskin, who has been an unwavering leader for the pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem through thick and thin.
"Some of the more inquisitive political shows on TV also have independent-minded female anchors, such as Sirin Payzin of CNN Turk’s 'Ne Oluyor.'
"Last but not least, I should mention the extremely experienced and outspoken Nazli Ilicak, a female columnist who recently lost her job in the pro-government Sabah for refusing to repeat government lines. But Ilicak remains to be an exceptionally strong voice in the Turkish political debate as she continues to write and speak her mind despite the authorities’ relentless efforts of coercion, defamation and isolation."
Yasemin Çongar is a regular contributor to Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse, focusing primarily on internal Turkish politics and human rights issues. Her previous roles include Washington bureau chief for Milliyet and founding editor-in-chief of Taraf.
"If you mean covering the border area, or going to hot spots, yes. But if it is about covering the Gezi Park protests, not at all. Not only the female reporters, but also the Turkish women, were quite visible on the streets. I guess what makes me unique is taking the time to travel to the border areas, or traveling in the rural areas, and really stepping on the ground to be a first-hand eyewitness to these events. Many — men or women — commentators and journalists, unfortunately, still make up their minds reading the news behind their computers. I am totally against it."
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse, covering internal Turkish politics and the Syria conflict. Tulin has done extensive reporting on the Turkish-Syrian border since the crisis erupted in 2011, and has been published in a number of outlets, including The New York Times and Foreign Policy.
Image: Tulin Dalolglu reports from the scene of a bombing at the American Embassy in Ankara, Feb. 1, 2013.
"On a personal level, having worked in both Iraq and Syria, one of the main challenges I face is not so much a problem of being assigned to a story by my company, but from people on the ground, be they tribesmen, leaders, officials, etc. This in particular has been an issue in some parts of the Middle East where men still have an issue with dealing with women in general, let alone one who is a journalist.
"In Iraq, as I interviewed a room filled with Islamists, all refused to look me in the eye or directly respond to me. Instead, they directed their answers to my male fixer sitting by my side, totally ignoring the fact that I was there, even though I was the reporter.
"I disagree that there is a dearth of women voices in Syria. On the contrary — I believe that more women journalists have been covering Syria than our male colleagues. However, I believe that The Guardian's article was actually referring to a dearth of women commentators, in Syria and generally, and this I tend to agree with."
Hala Jaber is a senior journalist for Britain’s The Sunday Times. She received several awards for her coverage of the second Iraq war and has been the paper’s main journalist covering the Syrian civil war, reporting on a number of occasions from within the country.
"More and more female journalists are on the front lines. It is no longer a domain for men. As a journalist, I have covered various conflict regions, and that is because of my reporting rather than gender. The Sky Women in Film and Television Awards named three female correspondents for the achievement of the year prize in 2011. I was among the three. We were reporting under fire, while others seemed to report from their hotel rooftops in Tripoli. The other two winners were Alex Crawford from Sky News and CNN's Sara Sidner.
"This does not mean female journalists don't face challenges. Sometimes it is harder to get access to officials/commanders/fighters, who tend to be conservative and prefer not to talk to women. But there are ways to overcome this."
Zeina Khodr is a roving broadcast correspondent for Al Jazeera English and continues to cover war zones from Syria to Afghanistan.
Image: Zeina Khodr covers the fight for control of Tripoli, August 2011.
"In the course of the years as I’ve become a political analyst, I found myself more and more in a male environment. This is especially felt in the numerical advantage of male political-diplomatic analysts over female analysts, on talk shows and the central media outlets. Today, a number of senior women journalists are active at the top of the pyramid of political coverage, but one can count them on one hand. In Israel, there’s even a public battle led by a group of women journalists, who are demanding that chief editors of the news channels include more women analysts on journalistic panels on diplomatic and political issues.
"I can identify with the argument in The Guardian only where it relates to political coverage on the senior level: There, men have priority. And still the status of women journalists covering the political field in Israel is much better than that of women covering the military here — there is not one female military analyst at the top of the pyramid."
Mazal Mualem is a senior political journalist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. Mazal reports extensively on internal Israeli politics, having worked as chief political analyst for Maariv and Haaretz.
"Covering the Iran nuclear negotiations, it's notable that the lead US negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, and the top international negotiator for the P5+1, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her deputy Helga Schmid, are all women. The Iran nuclear negotiating team, both under Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his predecessor, former Secretary of the Iran Supreme National Security council Saeed Jalili, have always been respectful to and taken time to answer questions of the press — male and female, Western and Iranian.
"Zarif has also appointed a female spokesperson for Iran's Foreign Ministry. And the top two State Department spokespeople, Jen Psaki and Marie Harf, are women. It's also notable that some of the leading journalists covering the Iran issue in the United States are women, among them Al-Monitor's Barbara Slavin, Robin Wright, CNN's Christiane Amanpour and NBC's Ann Curry, as well as some of the leading US Iran analysts, including Brookings' Suzanne Maloney and the Asia Society's Suzanne DiMaggio."
Laura Rozen runs Al-Monitor’s Back Channel, focusing on Middle Eastern affairs from Washington, DC. Laura’s main focus has been the P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, covering several rounds of talks, including the most recent in Geneva. She has previously written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy.
"Mob assaults on women in mass demonstrations made the gender-based threat unavoidable. 'I’d rather be shot than sexually molested' is a statement I often heard and repeated. It’s difficult to shake off that fear, but it can be pushed to the back of the mind. I come from a newsroom that was dominated by women, which cemented the idea that gender is irrelevant to the job. And this is what I choose to believe every day."
Sarah el-Sirgany is a contributor to Al-Monitor's Egypt Pulse and an independent Egyptian journalist based in Cairo. Specializing in internal Egyptian affairs, Sarah has been a prominent journalist covering Egypt since 2004. She was the deputy editor of the Daily News Egypt, and now primarily works with CNN and Al-Akhbar in Lebanon, as well as contributing to other outlets.
"There have always been women covering the Middle East, but I would say the numbers are increasing. Women like Anne Barnard of The New York Times and Liz Sly of The Washington Post, based in Beirut, as well as Rania Abouzeid (formerly of TIME) are great examples. From my own generation, there have been Caryle Murphy, Robin Wright and Elaine Sciolino.
"In general, we have focused more on the diplomatic than the military side of things, although there are examples there too, such as Marie Colvin, who was killed covering the Syria war a year ago. Women who are willing to put themselves in harm's way are just as likely to find employment as men. It just depends on the individual journalist and her sense of her reporting strengths and weaknesses."
Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses on Iran. Barbara regularly travels to Iran, having recently reported from Tehran on the inauguration of newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani.
Image: Barbara Slavin meets with Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Tehran, Aug. 29, 2012.
"I have reported on wars and especially in this region for many years, and never have I seen such an abundance of women's voices on a war. The biggest challenge of being a female war correspondent these days is having to explain, over and over, when pieces like that Guardian one appear, that it is not a challenge, that this is now effectively women's work. There are also many Syrian women writers whose work has had a big impact on how Syria is understood. Men are fighting this war, but women are writing it."
Liz Sly is a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post with extensive experience in the Middle East. She covered the Iraq war from 2003 to 2010, and has since been based in Beirut reporting on the Syrian civil war. Prior to The Washington Post, Sly worked for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.
"So much is written about women in the Middle East that is inaccurate and, dare I say, Orientalist. For me, as a woman journalist based in Egypt, I feel a responsibility to use my writing as a platform for Egyptian women to speak truthfully about what is going on here to the world. At the same time, as an outsider (I'm British), it's difficult not to fall into the well-worn traps of talking for people — but I try. During moments of political change and unrest, women's rights are usually put to the bottom of the priority list. In Egypt, women's rights advocates have been trying to enforce basic legislation criminalising violence against women since before the ouster of [former President] Hosni Mubarak. Each successive attempt, under Mubarak, military transitional rule and [ousted President] Mohammed Morsi was scuppered when the parliaments were dissolved. Meanwhile, on the streets, brutal sexual assaults against women are on the rise. As a female, I feel it and am often better placed than a male colleague to discuss it — simply because these are tough subjects to open up about. All journalists have a responsibility to play to their strengths; this is one of mine."
Bel Trew is an independent journalist based in Cairo who has extensively covered Egypt since the January 25 Revolution in 2011. She has covered a number of pressing Egyptian issues, including the sexual harassment of women at Tahrir Square. Her work has appeared in a number of outlets, including the BBC, The Times, The Independent and Al Jazeera English.
"I disagree with the premise that hard political and conflict reporting remains the domain of men for reasons intrinsic to the female sex. It is so because men continue to dominate most professions, thanks to centuries of firmly entrenched patriarchy. On the contrary — I think women like Marie Colvin, Orla Guerlin, Christian Amanpour, among others, have proven that women can be every bit as successful, brave, resourceful and enduring in a conflict zone.
"As women, we seem less threatening, and in my own war reporting, I have discovered that this can be turned to advantage in a conflict situation. The sole difference may be that we are a more likely target of sexual assault and less likely to be able to physically fend this off.
"By the way, I covered conflicts in Nagorno Karabakh, Iraq and in southeast Turkey."
Amberin Zaman is a columist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse and Turkey correspondent for The Economist. She is a senior Turkish journalist who specializes in Turkey’s foreign policy, the Kurds and Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Zaman has also reported from the Turkish-Syrian border during the Syrian crisis.
Al-Monitor asked 16 of the most prominent women journalists covering the Middle East about the role of gender in their work in the region.