Syria’s Women Journalists Fight For Their Country

On this year’s International Women’s Day, eight years into the Syrian revolution, the country’s women journalists defy gender-based violence and criticism and continue, courageously, to report on Syrian life and the cruelty of the Assad regime.
Syria’s Women Journalists Fight For Their Country
Milia Eidmouni, Khouloud Helmi, Rula Asad, and Zaina Erhaim. Behind, copies of Enab Baladi, a leading newspaper started and mostly run by Syrian women.

Since the Syrian revolution first erupted against the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Syria’s female journalists have taken on a vital role, risking their lives to report on the war and show the dark reality of the Syrian crisis.

Assad’s regime has long forced the Syrian media to be loyal to its narrative, arresting, torturing, and killing those who present it in a negative light. The revolution prompted independent local media to blossom in defiance.

Many jumped into journalism with revolutionary hopes. One Syrian female journalist, Khouloud Helmi, explained, “We were taking to the streets and organizing demonstrations. We were not just witnessing but participating in everything that was happening.” Activists saw their documentation of the regime’s repression as a form of active resistance.

In late 2011, Helmi teamed up with 24 others, two-thirds of whom were women, to start a newspaper called Enab Baladi. The regime had blocked international reporters from entering Syria and state media had ignored the repression. Helmi’s team decided they needed tostart [their] own platform in order to provide an opposing perspective.” The project began over Skype because their movements were heavily restricted by the regime.

Enab Baladi is now one of Syria’s most prominent newspapers and an internationally-recognized news source.

Enab Baladi is now one of Syria’s most prominent newspapers and an internationally-recognized news source. It is also still primarily run by women; a rare distinction for Syrian media. The emergence of revolutionary media provided new opportunities for women, even though men still dominated the industry. In 2015, women accounted for 35 percent of the independent print media and 54 percent of the radio workforce. Nonetheless, only four percent of senior journalists were women.

Ignored Voices

Male editors kept women journalists on the sidelines, refusing their requests to work in the field and giving priority to male colleagues. They also limited their assignments to “suitable” matters and ‘soft’ topics like cultural events or “women’s issues,” not politics or frontline reporting.

Consequently, many important women’s stories were ignored, explained Zaina Erhaim, a prominent Syrian journalist. Many women took up journalism precisely to raise their silenced voices.

The prevailing coverage had portrayed Syrian women as little more than victims, rather than the activists and aid-givers that they were. In truth, they had consistently risked their lives to lead humanitarian missions, run schools, fight radicalization, and care for communities.

Journalist Rula Asad told A Plus that she had witnessed women who were deeply involved in the revolution, but were overlooked in the male-dominated Syrian media.

Opening Windows

Asad co-founded the Syrian Female Journalist Network (SFJN) in 2013, which offers courses to counter stereotypes and sexism, trains women journalists, and empowers them to be leaders.

As part of its work, the SFJN has published audio stories (mostly in Arabic) by and about Syrian women.

As part of its work, the SFJN has published audio stories (mostly in Arabic) by and about Syrian women. One tells the story of a young woman who defied social restrictions to become a journalist during the revolution, survived multiple imprisonments, and is now studying human rights. Another tells of a detained Syrian woman aid worker who convinced her interrogators to stop torturing prisoners.

Similarly, Erhaim produced a series of short portraits of Syrian women as agents of change, rather than silent, powerless victims.

Arming the Media Revolution

By becoming journalists, women like Erhaim, Helmi, Asad, and SFJN co-founder Milia Eidmouni also became teachers.

After studying journalism in London and compelled by an unwavering sense of responsibility to “help [her] country and [her] people,” Erhaim returned home to report in Aleppo in 2013. Since then, she has personally trained hundreds of Syrians — many of them women — in journalism.

Erhaim witnessed horrific violence and suffered constant fear of regime bombings and ISIS attacks. But she needed to help “media activists get their voices heard,” while reporting on Aleppo’s “complete chaos” in the absence of international journalists.

Many women she trained had no journalism experience but, like many Syrians, had become de facto reporters, broadcasting what they witnessed via social media. Erhaim saw it as an opportunity to give professional training to people already on the ground.

The SFJN and the Free Women Assembly in Daraa also train women in journalism. One SFJN member told News Deeply that Syrian women journalists are “in dire need of a supportive environment” that values their hard work.

Hard Work

Women journalists revealed a changing social fabric. With many Syrian men in combat, killed, or seeking asylum abroad, more women had to provide for their families and some chose journalism to do that.

Traditional cultural norms both helped and hindered their work. Reporting required certain mobility and proximity with men that were typically denied to women and constantly put them in danger. Women journalists were often called “whores” and “insulted” for their work, said Erhaim.

At the same time, women journalists could report on women’s lives in ways that men could not. They painted a fuller picture of the challenges unique to women: such as reduced mobility and access to medical care, increased familial responsibility, and instances of sexual violence.

Helmi explained that until 2012, women walked unrestricted through checkpoints, whereas men had to take long detours through the countryside.

On the upside, Helmi explained that until 2012, women walked unrestricted through checkpoints, whereas men had to take long detours through the countryside. To report on atrocities or smuggle newspapers in her bag, Helmi often pretended to be only carrying “feminine items.” “I had to risk my life many times to circulate [Enab Baladi],” she said.

Sarah al-Hourani, a journalist in Daraa, told the Atlantic Council, “I advise women journalists in Syria to be ready to carry a heavy load, face even heavier challenges, and find a way to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.”

Words of Resistance

Over the years, Syrian female journalists have been killed, beaten, kidnapped, arrested, or threatened. The regime assassinated several Enab Baladi editors and journalists.

Some take on pseudonyms, like the Syrian woman founder of Humans of Syria (HOS), who goes by Marvin Gate. She told News Deeply, “We lived in constant fear of being discovered.”

Like so many journalists living under the regime, Gate eventually fled to Turkey. She now runs HOS using a network of citizen journalists still based in Syria. The SFJN and Enab Baladi both fled to Gaziantep, Turkey, where they continue their work. Enab Baladi still has reporters, many of whom are women, working all over Syria.

Erhaim, who was adamant about staying in Aleppo, finally left in 2016, to protect her newborn child. She too lives in Turkey now and documents the lives of Syrian refugee women.

The revolution so many Syrians had hoped for appears out of reach as the Assad regime persists. Helmi told Elle, “Many times I lose optimism. But being pessimistic is like a crime against the friends I have lost.”

Most of all, I am driven by the need to ensure that justice is served to the criminals who have committed countless crimes against the Syrian people.”

So, she and her fellow women journalists persevere. Al-Hourani said, “Most of all, I am driven by the need to ensure that justice is served to the criminals who have committed countless crimes against the Syrian people.” The hope that their reporting might ultimately bring the regime to the International Criminal Court is still alive, and the “media is an important weapon” in achieving that goal, al-Hourani said.

Whether exiled in Turkey or under fire at home, Syria’s women reporters have demonstrated that the regime has failed to silence their voices.