The Sharpest Lens on the Arab World Belongs to the Arab Women Reporting There

“Our Women on the Ground,” a new anthology of essays, brings much-needed nuance to coverage of the Middle East and North Africa.

The home of a vegetable seller, his wife, and their eight children 14 months after the Saudi-led coalition bombarded the Al-Fulaihi area of the UNESCO World Heritage site in the old city of Sana'a, Yemen, on Dec. 20, 2016. Photo: Amira Al-Sharif; Courtesy Penguin Random House

In late 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, and Zahra Hankir started a Google Doc titled “Mideast Reporters.” Bouazizi’s self-immolation, an act of protest against police corruption, would become the catalyst for anti-government protests across the Middle East and North Africa. Hankir, then a reporter at Bloomberg News, wanted to keep track of the journalists documenting that pivotal moment in the region’s history.

As the years wore on, some of the region’s dictators fell from power, while others maintained their ironclad rule, setting the stage for protracted regional wars that took an enormous human toll and had global reverberations. Hankir, meanwhile, continued to add to her list of journalists covering the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, and she began to notice a pattern.

“Soon I observed that not only were there more men than women reporting on the region for international media, but most of the reporters were Western,” writes Hankir in the introduction to “Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World,” which the Lebanese British journalist edited. “The gap came as no surprise to me, but to see it in such plain form was a shock nonetheless.”

The U.S. cover of “Our Women on the Ground.”

Image: Courtesy Penguin Random House
The result is the anthology, published this week, which features contributions from 19 “sahafiyat,” or women reporters, who have reported from across the Arab states of the Gulf, the Levant, and North Africa. Their diverse personal and professional experiences bring much-needed nuance to coverage of a region whose trajectory has, for decades, largely been shaped by U.S. foreign policy, and whose stories reach the general public through the filters of Western media gatekeepers.

The sahafiyat, Hankir writes, “intrepidly crush stereotypes” in the age of Donald Trump, the rise of the far-right across Europe, and ISIS. This framing does not do justice to the trailblazing journalists. To say that Arab, Middle Eastern, and North African women are disrupting stereotypes is as cliche as those stereotypes themselves: These women ought to be appreciated for their impressive accomplishments without couching it within Western assumptions about them as docile and subservient. The essayists, in fact, seem unperturbed by how the West may see them and appear beholden only to the communities they come from and whose complexities they seek to explore.

To say that Arab, Middle Eastern, and North African women are disrupting stereotypes is as cliche as those stereotypes themselves.

The contributors to the anthology hail from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – where a shared linguistic heritage brings people together despite cultural and religious differences. In their essays, the women — some of whom report on the societies in which they were born and raised, while others are daughters of the diaspora — reflect on a wide range of challenges. Their careers have put them in the crosshairs of patriarchy and sexual harassment. Some have confronted a lack of media independence, and others have paid dearly in their personal lives as a result of their work. They grapple with the morality of packaging the misery of some of the world’s most vulnerable people for public consumption, and they wonder whether they’ve done the subjects of their reporting justice. The common thread across their vastly different experiences is the authenticity and knowledge that come with their personal ties to the region.

“Unlike many of the foreign correspondents covering Syria who had never been to the country before the war,” writes Zeina Karam, a Lebanese journalist with the Associated Press, “I had been visiting Syria ever since I was a little girl.”

In an essay on her coverage of the Iraq war, Palestinian Canadian journalist Jane Arraf ponders whether her Arabness contributed to the strength of her reporting on U.S. troops who spoke virtually no Arabic and lacked basic cultural awareness. “Would it have been equally painful to watch the train wreck unfold had I not been Arab?” she writes. “I think the tragic miscalculations of the war would have been. But I might not have been as conscious of the depth of misunderstanding as worlds collided.”

Working Under Pressure

The sahafiyat work across different mediums, some of them for local news organizations that publish in Arabic, and others for international outlets that cater to an English-speaking audience. The tracks are different but equally important: The women producing journalism in and for their home countries often find themselves battling the patriarchy, while those writing for Western audiences play a critical role in improving public understanding of an oversimplified region.

Lina Attalah, an Egyptian journalist who co-founded the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013, finds herself at the intersection of both of those roles. Her work in English made her “an extension of the object of the typical Western gaze,” she writes, “albeit an exciting extension because of the irregularities I presented: I was an Arab woman whose activism was visible to the public, against the odds of the prevalent conservatism and patriarchy associated with the region. Speaking and writing invitations on the back of my gender started rolling in one after another. You may even consider this essay to be one of them.”

Two young women are harassed by group of men on Qasr el Nil bridge, where the Nile boats offer a cheap outing for Egyptians. The bridge leads to Tahrir square and the downtown area where young people hang out.

Two young women are harassed by a group of men on Qasr el Nil bridge, in Cairo, Egypt, in January 2015.

Photo: Eman Helal; Courtesy Penguin Random House

Egyptian photojournalist Eman Helal, meanwhile, recounts facing deep misogyny and sexism within her newsroom, where her male colleagues made fun of her work on a project documenting sexual harassment in the streets of Egypt. Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist, found that, despite the promise of freedom that came with her country’s 2011 uprising, she was pressured to conform her style of dress to the expectations of “strange, armed men” while working as a journalist in rebel-held regions. The result was constant self-censorship, even after she fled Syria and found refuge in Europe. “Over the past four years, I have barely had ten articles published, even though I have written eighty pages of outlines and notes saved in a file on my laptop entitled ‘Can’t Be Published,’” she writes.

“I have written eighty pages of outlines and notes saved in a file on my laptop entitled ‘Can’t Be Published,’” she writes.

The countries from which the women reported are among some of the worst countries for press freedom in the world, according to the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index; Sudan, for example, ranks 175 out of the 180 countries on the index. Sudanese journalist Shamael Elnoor writes about working at Al Shorooq, Sudan’s national broadcaster, and being pressured to report on unrest in the country in the light most favorable to the ruling party. “Our youth were being shot dead by the ruling militia, and the police were calling them ‘vandals and criminals,’” she recalls. “As an editor and producer at the channel, I was instructed to repeat those expressions and inject them into my news reports, with no regard to ethics.” She eventually quit that job, but she continued to be critical of the regime in her reporting, leading to a massive, coordinated harassment campaign — encouraged by an imam who was supportive of ISIS in Sudan — in which she was labeled an infidel.

It is the apparent fate of reporters in the Middle East and North Africa to find themselves constantly covering conflict, from Yemen to Palestine, and from Libya to Iraq. “In hindsight, it seems so facile to see Iraqi women only through the prism of their war-ravaged lives, but how else do you report a story where pain is etched on the face of every woman you interview?” reflects Hannah Allam, an NPR reporter who was McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau chief during the Iraq War. The stories she didn’t get to report, about how “witty or sweet or vulnerable Iraqi women could be,” Allam writes, were “written in my heart if not my notebook, and the ones that I recall more easily than any I published under a Baghdad dateline.”

Amira al-Sharif, a Yemeni photojournalist, has made it to her life’s work to tell those seldom-told stories. “Western photographers tend to be drawn to the carnage,” she writes about the war that has gripped her country since 2015, “but I have continued to seek out the other part of Yemen that is full of life, love, and hope.”

Saadiya Eissa Soliman Abdullah has an early dinner with her children at the Detwah Lagoon in Socotra, Yemen, on May 30, 2014.

Photo: Amira Al-Sharif; Courtesy Penguin Random House

Bylines and Identities

Like Hankir, I, too, began to keep tabs on the Mideast reporting corps in the wake of the Arab Spring, paying particular attention to coverage of Syria — the country where my parents were born and from which their families were exiled decades ago. I kept a mental list of Arab writers covering the revolution-turned-war; they became my personal heroes as I set out on a career path toward journalism.

There was Raja Abdulrahim, a Syrian American who reported from inside the country for the Los Angeles Times before moving to the Wall Street Journal. And Alia Malek, another Syrian American who reported discreetly from Damascus and documented her own family’s history in a compelling memoir. There was also the Lebanese Australian Rania Abouzeid, who last year published a masterful, character-driven book based on her years of reporting from Syria’s rebel-held territory. Although not a journalist, Lina Sergie Attar, who initially wrote under the pseudonym Amal Hanano, is in my mind one of the defining writers of the Syrian conflict; her essays, published in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, Politico, and elsewhere, capture the deep pain of the Syrian experience, of watching our home country unravel from afar and being helpless to stop it.

Seven of the journalists who contributed to Hankir’s anthology spent some portion of the last eight years covering Syria; three of them are of Syrian descent. Their reflections on the evolution of their relationships with Syria felt deeply familiar to me, and their exploration of the links between the personal and the professional are likely to resonate with all journalists whose work intersects with their personal identities.

Nour Malas in 2019.

Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House
“Syria: never the country I called home, but certainly my homeland,” writes Nour Malas, a Wall Street Journal reporter. “I would untangle the many shades of this identity at the very moment the country was coming undone.”

Like Malas, I always knew I was from Syria, but I never felt fully Syrian. I was, after all, born and raised in the United States and barred from visiting Syria due to decades of entrenched political repression. It was the protests of 2011 that led me down the path of exploring my relationship to the country of my parents’ birth. I suddenly found myself bonding with people through our shared cultural heritage. I straddled the line between activist and aspiring journalist, using Facebook, Twitter, and Skype to forge connections with young Syrian protesters and media activists, many of whom eventually joined the exodus out of Syria.

As a student, I wrote a handful of articles about Syria for niche publications like Syria Deeply and The Majalla. As my journalistic career developed, my interest in Syria persisted, but it became clouded by fears that my personal connection to the country would be seen as a liability — not a plus.

My interest in Syria persisted, but it became clouded by fears that my personal connection to the country would be seen as a liability — not a plus.

This is a feeling Malas reflects on in her essay: “I was so aware—even paranoid—of my personal connection to the story that I strained to project unreasonable neutrality, sometimes to the point of pretending I had no sympathy for any tragedy, on any side.”

Empathy is a key journalistic trait, particularly crucial where reporters are interacting with deeply vulnerable populations. It is, of course, possible to develop empathy without a personal connection to a story, but there is little that can come close to the feeling of being invested in adequately portraying the story of one’s homeland.

I think often of the ways my familial background helped me forge relationships with Syrian strangers. Whether it was the Syrian refugees in Chicago who let me into their homes when I was a graduate student of journalism, or the Syrian women in Turkey who shared their experiences with me when I was on assignment for The Intercept, I have no doubt that my Syrian identity — and the fact that I spoke in Arabic in the same dialect as they did — opened those reporting doors for me.

Which brings me to a more difficult question: Who benefits from these stories we tell? Who benefits when we use our proximity to the story to produce content for the Western gaze? Natacha Yazbeck reflects on this ethical conundrum: “I get thanked a lot for my dedication to the little Alis,” Yazbeck writes, remembering a young boy who was the sole survivor in his family of a massacre in Syria. “It is useful when you can talk to them in their own tongue, because it’s like you are one of them. It’s our capital in English, our brand. Our raseed in Arabic. Our capital. We force our own names over little Ali’s and call it a byline.”

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