Edited by Zahra Hankir, a Lebanese-British journalist, this collection of 19 essays by female Arab journalists delves into the concepts of identity and relation from a perspective which is rarely given prominence. Women’s voices in the Arab world have been talked over, misrepresented, and reinvented to suit cultural or mainstream narratives, depending on the audience. These essays acquaint the reader with Arab female journalists’ perspectives, showcasing the professional, personal, social, and cultural influences which form part of each woman’s identity.
Hankir’s introduction to the book reflects upon the perpetual misunderstanding of female Arab journalists, noting that choosing this profession bears the risk of being ostracized by family and society. “To be a woman reporter in this part of the world can sometimes mean you are defying not only the state but also your society, family, and the role you are expected to play within your home,” Hankir writes.
Female Arab journalists have exposed the experiences of women in the Middle East, and their own narratives of oppression, harassment, and derision.
Indeed, the essays shift from personal experiences to how these influenced their choice of career. Earlier defiance of social expectations resonates throughout the book, as the journalists reflect on their experiences on the field, as well as their personal identities and struggles.
In the changing geopolitical context, particularly the War on Terror and the Arab Spring, female Arab journalists have exposed not only the experiences of women in the Middle East which would have otherwise gone undocumented, but also their own narratives of oppression, harassment and, at times, also derision. Hannah Allam, who reported from Iraq, was derided by her male colleagues for prioritizing “humanitarian stories”.
Yet it is the personal and collective trauma which binds this array of female voices. What is overlooked and disregarded by male society needs to be brought to the fore, to understand the impact of oppressive cycles at every level of society as well as the role of women. In war-torn Iraq, for example, Allam describes the women’s role thus: “Every time Iraq began to unravel, it was the women who worked the hardest to stitch it back together.”
“Every time Iraq began to unravel, it was the women who worked the hardest to stitch it back together.”
Mada Masr co-founder Lina Attalah gives a thorough description of her own journey through identity. Her father described her as a journalist, not a daughter, to a nurse in the hospital as he neared his death, seemingly negating the family ties. On the other hand, her identity as a journalist to Western society is also restrictive, which she describes as “an extension of the object of the typical Western gaze.” “Invitations to speak,” she says, “often made me feel trapped in place, identity, and body.”
In reporting, Natacha Yazbeck explains, there is a choice that often leaves the unpalatable away from public scrutiny. She compares the willingness to publicize the death of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi – an image which has been widely shared on social media and turned into a symbol of refugee tragedy. Pictures of dead Yemeni babies, however, were deemed “too graphic to publish.” On trauma and journalism, Yazbeck ponders, “And maybe there is no possible way to tell the stories we should.”
Yazbeck awareness of politics, journalism, and the ramifications of war are summed up as she criticizes her role in disseminating the stories and how swiftly dissociation can happen, even as a journalist pursues the intimate details that would otherwise remain unknown. In the end, she mulls, the journalist is also part of the complicity that ravaged countries and lives. “My tax dollars,” she explains, “fund the wheels on the planes bombing the babies of my people.”
“My tax dollars . . . fund the wheels on the planes bombing the babies of my people.”
How does the journalist reconcile with the human aspect of a story and when are boundaries meant to be crossed? Furthermore, how does the journalist experience her country through her profession and not as a citizen?
Syrian-American journalist Nour Malas describes the contradiction when reporting about Syrian refugees: “At first they were just black shadows cast across the desert expanse. As they drew nearer, they came into focus as a trudging mass of humanity.” Yet, there is also a US bias which is exposed when she tries to convince a displaced Syrian that “the US was less involved, less strategically calculating, in Syria than many Syrians assumed.”
This bias comes out in other essays. Jane Arraf, a Palestinian-Canadian journalist who reported for CNN from Iraq from 1998 until 2006, explains, “When I would try to argue from my Western perspective that, however misguided, the Iraq war wasn’t a conspiracy to destroy Iraq, my Arab friends would often look at me with pity.”
“When I would try to argue from my Western perspective that . . . the Iraq war wasn’t a conspiracy to destroy Iraq, my Arab friends would often look at me with pity.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Libyan journalist Heba Shibani, who was targeted by Islamist militias after the NATO coalition intervened in Libya to depose leader Muammar Gaddafi. In the post-Gaddafi era, Shibani asserts, media coverage was pro-rebels, despite the atrocities they committed against Libyan civilians. “To report on post-Gaddafi realities that depicted the revolutionary groups in a negative light, it seemed, was unacceptable, even though these stories needed to be covered.” Shibani was attacked in the streets for “defending pro-Gaddafi loyalists” and fled to Malta in 2014.
It is difficult to acknowledge the fact that the majority of female Arab journalists in this book have worked for powerful mainstream media outlets. However, each essay offers a dearth of knowledge and, at times, acknowledged biases that make this collection an authentic contribution of the personal experience of female Arab journalists. To prevent the ongoing marginalization of women in the same way minorities are shunned, female voices must be brought to the helm by whatever means and whenever possible This book is to be read and re-read to appreciate the depth and breadth of experiences and humanity it offers.
“Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World” by Zahra Hankir (Editor) includes essays by: Donna Abu-Nasr, Aida Alami, Hannah Allam, Jane Arraf, Lina Attalah, Nada Bakri, Shamael Elnoor, Zaina Erhaim, Asmaa al-Ghoul, Hind Hassan, Eman Helal, Zeina Karam, Roula Khalaf, Nour Malas, Hwaida Saad, Amira Al-Sharif, Heba Shibani, Lina Sinjab, and Natacha Yazbeck