The images are as old as human history. Soldiers on the battlefield. Rebels on the run. Correspondents on the alert. Ready, set, go. War is on. But wait! Something is not right. Someone stands out on the frontline. A woman.
For centuries, wars have been “made by men” as Alia Ibrahim, senior correspondent at Al Arabiya News Channel says vehemently. They have been decided by men, fought by men and even reported on by men. But today, the tide is changing: women – sometimes more than men – are covering wars, witnessing the fiercest battles and immersing themselves in conflict zones to tell the kind of tales previously told only be men.
This “unstoppable wave of women foreign correspondents”, as Jenan Moussa, roving reporter for Arabic Al An TV calls it, has stirred countless debates on the issue of gender on the front line. Should it matter? Does it have a direct impact on war reporting? Are there differences between men and women in that field? Or is it a major faux pas to even raise the question?
For Mayte Carrasco, freelance journalist specialized in international topics, the answer to that last question would be yes: she openly admits that she now boycotts any invitation to talk about her experience as a women war reporter to only focus on the stories she covers. Mary Fitzgerald, foreign affairs correspondent at The Irish Timesconsiders it “a very old question that most women that do that type of work are tired of being asked about”. Indeed, 60 years have passed since women have proven their worth in the field by covering against all odds the battles of World War 2 and yet this topic is still too recurrent for many. “If I had a euro for every time I get asked this question, I would be very wealthy.” laughs Fitzgerald. “There is a fascination with women in war; they remain a novelty for some”.
But why is society fascinated by women war reporters? According to Dalal Mawad, Beirut-based correspondent for The New York Times, it is because of common perceptions about women rather than concrete issues, and the debate on gender on the frontline revolves around the former and not the latter. For instance, even if Mawad would accept that women might be physically weaker than men in general – if proven scientifically – this fact is irrelevant when it comes to war reporting, since most of the women we see on the field are as physically fit – if not more – than men. “On a battlefield, women and men would act the same especially after appropriate training”, Carrasco confirms. “It is not an issue of gender but of age and endurance – for instance, I’ve had less difficulties than some of my male colleagues on the field, when crossing mountains or walking all night”. Even emotionally, woman are not frailer than men and gender is not an accurate variable when looking at post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as Anthony Feinstein and Mark Sinyor reveal in their study on PTSD amongst war reporters: “Female war journalists are not more likely than their male counterparts to develop PTSD, depression or psychological distress in general.”
Additionally, the idea that men are rougher than women when it comes to facing the harsh life on the ground is also nothing but a myth according to Ibrahim. “Yes, as a woman on the field personal hygiene can be a luxury. Having your period, is a major inconvenience. However, you adapt the same way men do. In Syria, for example, we were two women sharing a house with 15 men – reporters, fighters and civilians – so washing our hair was a problem in that context, but a room was made for us”, she recounts. Training can also be crucial in making sure none of this is ever an issue – a report by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) even recommends women and male journalists take into consideration feminine supplies when going on the field.
Another myth that women are successfully breaking is the idea of a ‘female angle’ to war reporting that Janine di Giovanni, renowned foreign correspondent, frequently mentions in her depiction of female war reporting. In an interview for The Independent, she defines female war reporting as the “softer side of war to report, feeding into the stereotype that women are more ‘caring war reporters’ than men”. Sanaa El Jack, freelance trainer and columnist at An-Nahar newspaper disagrees: “The human side of war sells more, and so, on the field, both men and women report on this aspect of conflicts”. Fitzgerald goes even further to say that not only do both men and women cover this softer side of war, but both genders also talk about the heavier issues. “I know many women reporters who are fascinated by the different types of artillery, bullets and all those military details,” Fitzgerald said. “Look at Lara Logan,” says Dalal Mawad “she decided to embed with troops in Afghanistan.” Consequently, choosing what aspect of wars to discuss does not depend on gender, once again, but on style and demand. Alia Ibrahim disagrees and considers that “women pay closer attention to little details; the more human side of war because, especially in the Arab world, women reporters have more access than men”.
Indeed, all of the women journalists interviewed agreed that gender differences are always in their favor when it comes to uncovering behind the scene stories in conflict zone, especially in Muslim majority countries. “Women in the Arab World can be off limits to men reporters but as a woman you can be allowed to enter their worlds” confirms Jenan Moussa. “Women do open up more to other women and engage in conversation more easily with them” says Ibrahim. As a result, Fitzgerald affirms that even as a foreign journalist she “can straddle male and female sphere, sit with and interview Taliban fighters and easily penetrate women’s quarters, something men would not be able to do”. “In Syria, I was able to talk to women who were raped, to teenagers who were revolutionary girls or ask mothers what they thought of the war or the revolution” recalls Carrasco, who adds: “ I might have been more interested than men in the future of Libyan women after the revolution, but this still doesn’t mean that I’m an expert in the topic”. Additionally, El Jack thinks that women war reporters can be seen as less of a danger than their male colleagues and can therefore have more access to fighting scenes. “A woman’s situation is better than a man’s when she is travelling; she has less chances of appearing as a threat. During the Lebanese civil war, for instance, I was allowed to go to new places without anyone asking about my intentions there.”
However, the common assumption is that if women might have more access than men on the ground, they are more exposed to risk in similar situations. If it is true that “bullets do not differentiate between men and women”, as Mayte Carrasco and Jenan Moussa emphasize. On the frontline danger is an inherent part of the job regardless of gender; the issue of sexual violence inevitably comes to mind when a woman is concerned, which does heat the debate and affects not only the ground work, but the media industry in general. “As long as there are editors viewing their female correspondents as potential rape victims, it’s bound to affect staffing decisions” notes Tina Susman in her article on the issue, “War reporters: prepare us, rather than caution us.” Reporters Without Borders (RWB) even issued a statement last year after sexual assaults on women correspondents were reported in Tahrir square – the most infamous one being on Lara Logan – advising media outlets not to send women on the field. Fitzgerald recounts: “We were appalled. I am a member of RWB, and was disappointed that they would send such a damaging message”. Yes women are subject to sexual violence, and this might hinder their work on the field at times – Jenan Moussa acknowledges that fear of sexual harassment prevented her from doing her job in Tahrir square, but she concedes that these are rare cases. For the most part, women are respected and well treated. “When I was in Libya, for example, the rebels were very decent; they are respectful of women because they see you as a sister or a mother and thus take care of you”, Fitzgerald, a western woman – supposedly more prone to sexual harassment because of the commonly held ideas that Middle Eastern men do not respect foreign women – confirms what Moussa said.
Furthermore, most of the journalists interviewed agree that this threat is not gender specific. Mawad gives the example of Steven Farrell, kidnapped with three of his colleagues (amongst them Linzey Adario) last year in Libya who came forward about having been sexually abused. “Men just don’t talk about it,” she says. Fitzgerald also confirms that many of her male colleagues have been badly groped in crowds and reaffirms the idea that both men and women are subject to sexual violence. “Rape is already a big taboo for women, so imagine how it is for men!” clarifies Carrasco. As a result, there are almost no testimonies coming from male reporters of being sexually assaulted, despite it happening.
Well then, why is the idea of women war reporters not yet entrenched in our societies? The issue of motherhood comes to mind. “When it comes to children, it is embedded in our cultures that men leave kids behind while women stay to take care of them” begins El Jack. As a result, “many editors would be more reluctant to send a mother to war but the same doesn’t apply to fathers,” continues Mawad. Indeed, most of the women in the field tend to be single and without children, according to datacollected by Feinstein and Sinyor. “If a mother goes to war zones, she would be called a bad mother. But this does not apply to men,” remarks Fitzgerald. “So many people have asked me, you have little kids, how can you leave them?” testifies Alia Ibrahim, mother of two. “But no one can guarantee me anything. For all I know, I can get sick tomorrow, and not live to see my daughters grow up! Additionally, when you go to cover a war, you don’t think you’re going to die; you don’t put that idea in your head. I was even pregnant when I reported the events of Nahr el-Bared in Lebanon” she recalls, laughing. The most notorious mother war reporter is Alex Crawford, who manages to go to conflict zone despite having four kids; she concedes in an interview for the British Telegraph that “she finds the ‘mum of four goes to war’ line sexist”. So why should a big deal be made out of it? If fathers also leave their children to go report conflict, why wouldn’t women do it?
It is clear that the debate about gender on the frontline only revolves around easily refuted myths. Nevertheless, it still remains ever present and women foreign correspondents still have to bear with pressure derived from their patriarchal societies. But when they, who put their lives on the line to give others a voice and shed light on the injustices around us, do not “make being a woman on the frontline a concern”, as Ibrahim says with a smile, “why should others?”