Rosie the scribbler

Why women are leading coverage of the war-torn Middle East

Her beat Photojournalist Andrea Bruce, of The Washington Post, crosses a bridge in southern Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Mark Fayloga / Marine Corps)

Liz Sly, the Beirut bureau chief of The Washington Post, was sitting in the lobby of a Damascus hotel a couple of years ago, discussing the civil war in Syria with a group of female colleagues, when in walked a male reporter they knew. “What are you doing here?” Sly deadpanned. “This is a woman’s job now.”

It was a joke. But it underscored the reality that many of the journalists covering what arguably is the most dangerous story in the world today are women. But it isn’t just Syria. Women employed by the Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, NPR, CBS, and other Western news organizations are leading the coverage of conflicts throughout North Africa and the Middle East. “All the dinners of journalists I go to now are women,” Sly says.

Women have been covering war at least since Margaret Fuller’s eyewitness accounts for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in the late 1840s of the revolution that unified Italy. In the 1930s and ’40s, a number of prominent women journalists covered with distinction the brewing tensions, and subsequent fighting, in Europe, from Margaret Bourke-White to Virginia Cowles, Martha Gellhorn to Helen Kirkpatrick. And some of the most famous female journalists of our time, such as Christiane Amanpour, got their starts in war zones.

But never before have women dominated coverage of a war the way they are in Syria. Never has their ability to do the job of war correspondent been less controversial, more a part of the natural order of things in the news business. Sly and others interviewed for this piece say the question of whether a woman can do this job is pretty close to obsolete. “We proved ourselves over time,” Sly says. “Editors no longer have any qualms about sending women into war zones.”

In some ways, this phenomenon isn’t so much about bursting through glass ceilings: There isn’t the same surge of female bylines out of China, for instance, and they’re not dominating the sports pages, let alone the management jobs at media companies. The Women’s Media Center released a study this year that showed 64 percent of bylines and on-camera appearances at the top 20 American news organizations were male in a country that is 51 percent women.

In Iraq, when things grew more dangerous as the situation devolved into civil war, I felt safer navigating the country as a woman. I covered my hair and walked unnoticed through the streets.

Rather, it is more about supply and demand: Wars have always been a way for ambitious young reporters to make their name, or build their brand in today’s parlance. And America has been at war now in the Middle East and Central Asia for nearly 13 years and counting. And since 2011, revolutions have swept through the region, prompting change and terrifying battles, like the one raging in Syria. In other words, there has been a lot of war to cover, and women—the vets and the newbies—got their piece of it.

National Public Radio’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who is now based in Brazil, started covering Iraq before the US invasion in 2003, and says that in the early days of the conflict her presence was still a little surprising for some members of the military. She heard things like, “Hey little lady, don’t you think this is a big war for you to be covering?” “There was still a sense that war was a man’s business,” she says, “but I think Iraq changed that.”

In some ways, though, all this overdue battlefield equality has obscured the fact that women do face a somewhat different set of challenges than their male counterparts when covering war. The obvious one is the threat of sexual abuse. A global survey of nearly 1,000 journalists released this year by the International Women’s Media Foundation found that more than 14 percent of respondents said they had been victims of “sexual violence” on the job, including two instances of rape. A British journalist who covered the Arab Spring said, “I have been cut on the waist, masturbated on, held in a taxi while the driver locked the door and masturbated, mobbed in Tahrir Square, smacked on my behind . . . .”

The foundation is developing programs to help keep women safe in conflict zones, but the very fact that women, and men, in the media are talking publicly about this issue is an indication of the broader acceptance of women covering war. As recently as 2007, when Judith Matloff, a former foreign correspondent who teaches at Columbia Journalism School, wrote about the problem of sexual violence for CJR, there was a sense of broaching a taboo. “[E]ven when the abuse is rape, few correspondents tell anyone, even friends,” Matloff wrote. “The shame runs so deep—and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong-that no one wants intimate violations to resound in a newsroom.”

Arwa Damon, a senior international correspondent for CNN, says that the threat of sexual violence when she was covering the uprising in Egypt was “the first time I felt different than my male counterparts. Because of the mob mentality, because of the kind of rabidity that would take over the mobs when it came to sexually assaulting women, and because it seems to be accepted there and done deliberately.”

In conservative Muslim societies of the Middle East, women journalists face other, less dangerous, issues, too. In extreme conservative portions of societies, men sometimes will not speak directly to a woman reporter, which can make interviews tricky. In Libya, for instance, it took me two days to arrange an interview with the leaders of the extremist militia Ansar al-Sharia following the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. The group was accused of having a hand in the attack and the death of US ambassador Chris Stevens. At first they refused, saying that it was inappropriate for them to speak to a woman.

They considered doing the interview by phone, but it was for NPR, so I needed higher-quality audio than a phone connection would provide. I finally convinced them to do the interview in person, but I had to wear a black face covering, a head covering, and black gloves and socks. Even then, during the interview the two men only addressed the Libyan producer, a man, who was working with me. When I spoke, they would turn their chairs away to avoid looking at me, even though every inch of me was shrouded in black.

But the same ingrained conservatism that segregates men and women can also work to the journalists’ advantage. In Iraq, when things grew more dangerous as the situation devolved into civil war, I felt safer navigating the country as a woman. I covered my hair and walked unnoticed through the streets. At checkpoints, soldiers never asked me questions or addressed me at all—that would have been considered inappropriate. So they never noticed my accented Arabic, a dead giveaway that I was not Iraqi.

And, as CNN’s Arwa Damon noted, in more conservative parts of Middle Eastern societies women journalists from the West “tend to fall into this gray space. The men can’t quite put us in this female category, so we have access to the men, and then we can turn around and talk to the women.”

The first time Damon snuck into Syria, the rebels took her to a safe house in Homs. They ushered her to the back room where the women of the family lived, but Damon told the men she wanted to stay up front, in the room where injured fighters were ferried in and out. She spent the days in that room, listening to the rebels strategize. Every time a new man came in, the others would explain that she was a journalist, and they would continue with their business.

At night, though, she sat in the back with the women, where none of her male colleagues could go. There she was able to immerse herself in this family and learn how women were helping the cause by providing food and medical supplies.

One thing that has definitely changed for women working in war zones is how they deal with the issue of family. Previous generations of female correspondents were often childless, frequently unmarried. “It used to be that you could not under any circumstances be a mother and a foreign correspondent covering dangerous situations, simply because the editors wouldn’t promote you or hire you if you had a family,” says NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who is a mother. Liz Sly says that her editor on her first staff job as a foreign correspondent for a mainstream newspaper told her he would send her abroad, but that she couldn’t get pregnant.

News organizations today are adopting a more family-friendly attitude, perhaps in part because there are more female editors. The first television reporter into Tripoli with rebel fighters was Alex Crawford of Sky News, a mother of four. She rode into the city on the back of a truck of rebel fighters in a bulletproof vest and helmet.

“It sends an extraordinary message to women that you can do both. Is it easy? No. But it can be done,” Garcia-Navarro says. 

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Leila Fadel is NPR's international correspondent based in Cairo