On the front line: Arab women in journalism

On the front line: Arab women in journalism
International Women's Day: Arab women journalists are breaking boundaries by reporting from battlefields. Al-Araby spoke to some of those doing difficult jobs.
6 min read
08 Mar, 2015
Documenting the destruction of Aleppo was very difficult says Waed [Anadolu]
They say dangerous jobs are solely restricted to men. They also say women are to work in the media only as beautifully dressed anchors and hosts inside air-conditioned rooms.

However, many Arab women journalists have proven otherwise. The following are only examples of women who did things differently and challenged the stereotype in the media, both behind the cameras and inside the studios.

From Iraq to Afghanistan

Tania Mhanna stands out among Lebanese correspondents. She is a former reporter for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and veteran correspondent of many international conflicts.

She left Beirut over a year ago to settle in Italy where she works in research and journalism. Mehanna, who first earned her stripes covering Lebanon's 15-year internecine fighting, garnered more kudos reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years.

Speaking to al-Araby al-Jadeed, Mhana says: "It all started with the Lebanese civil war in 1988. I used to escort the crew to learn how to report on news and deal with militias and gangs."

She also speaks about her experience in the Philippines and the 2000 hostage crisis. After that, she became a war  reporter. In 2001, she escorted an LBC team to Peshawar, gearing up to make it to Afghanistan.
     We used to get those surprising looks all the time. We were also harassed and ridiculed.

"I was among a group of female journalists including my colleague Diana Moukalled. But it was very awkward and we used to get those surprising looks all the time. We were also harassed and ridiculed," she says.

Tania however was determined to go to Afghanistan to report on the US invasion. Her mission was difficult as she did not speak the language and does not know where to get information from. After Afghanistan, she moved to Iraq.

"I drove a car from Jordan to Iraq along with dozens of vehicles carrying foreign journalists. We managed to cross the borders and make it to Iraq."

Mhanna's work in Iraq was very hazardous and many people found it surprising for an Arab woman to work as a war reporter. "I refused to give up."

"In south Lebanon, a member of one of the parties refused to address me when I was interviewing him. He was looking at the photographer all the time and insisted on overlooking me because I am a woman."

Tania has become one of the most prominent female war reporters in Lebanon and although she left the country, he name is still associated with bravery and reporting from dangerous war zones.

Living and working in a war zone

Waed al-Khatib was 22 when she left the regime-controlled neighbourhood she lived in and moved to the liberated regions in Aleppo city. She worked as a journalist and a relief worker and until this day, she still works at one of the field hospitals. She is also a journalist filming documentaries and preparing news stories.

Speaking to al-Araby, Waed says her life "is filled with adventures and risks".

"My only obsession is to document whatever I see. A barrel bomb had once fallen between the hospital and an adjacent building. The ceiling fell down and I could not see anything. I crawled to reach out for my mobile to film the scene. But I was so appalled by the scene that I forgot my phone's password," she said.

"Men I work with look at me in different ways. Some are proud of me and others are astonished at my lifestyle. A few men even ridicule the job I do."

She adds: "In my job, I am often the only woman among a group of men who act with reservations. A female correspondent reporting in war zones among rebels is
not an ordinary thing. This hinders my work.
     Some [men] are proud of me and others are astonished at my lifestyle.

"When I am with them, I have to be a man and never let them feel I am weak. I try to get over my fears."

Waed says she can document and film the most dangerous and worst moments people experience in these zones. When she has to wait for the militants to come back from the battlefield, she just wishes she is not a woman at all.

Asked about the most difficult situations she has ever faced, Waed reveals: "It was when I had to film the death of a friend. I lifted my camera with tears rolling down my cheeks. But I was very determined to capture these moments. Also, filming people being taken from under the rubble was something very difficult for me."

Technical advances

Souad Ben Meftah, the technical director of Radio Tunis Culture, started working in radio technical broadcasting 20 year ago. "I was the first Tunisian woman to work in the central technical room for Radio Tunis Culture Radio," she says.

Working in radio and in the media in general is very difficult because of the shift. You also have to make a balance between your family and work.

"I was a night shift worker and I used to finish my work at 5am, go back to home and sleep for four hours then do household chores," she says.
     I used to finish my work at 5am, go back to home and sleep for four hours then do household chores.

Souad earned a Masters Degree in Telecommunications and Technology from University of Pavia in Italy and she was an instructor at the Tunisian University. Although her career has a masculine character, Ben Meftah was passionate about it. She also excelled at work.

Her determination and resolve to succeed were both the core of her motto in Life. She also strived to prove herself in a field that has always been monopolised by men. She set this challenge in front of her eyes and she successfully became the first technical director of Radio Tunis Culture. She was supported by her colleagues who tried to help her early on in her journey.

"Tunisian men have been used to women working along them ever since the independence. Tunisian women therefore have no trouble merging into their work."

The women of the Arab Spring

In the last four years, particularly since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, names of many young journalists emerged in different Arab countries. When it comes to experiences, there is so much to talk about.

Aya Abdullah, 26, has been the social media director at al-Masry al-Youm newspaper for two years. She started working as a journalist one month after the Egyptian uprising, on February 25, 2011. Her mission was not easy, especially in the years that followed the revolution and the ban imposed after July 3, 2013.

But this Egyptian journalist succeeded and is now the director of social networking sites in one of the prominent newspapers in Egypt. For her part, Lina ben Mhenni is one of Tunisia's most famous bloggers. She was one of the few who blogged from ground zero of the revolution in Tunisia and through her accounts and photos, she managed to mirror the situation inside the country in the media worldwide.

Gazan Blogger Farah Baker was also among the young bloggers whose name came to the forefront during the recent aggression on Gaza. The teenage Palestinian blogger attracted thousands of followers on Twitter and drew the attention of all the Western media after posting her famous tweet "I might die today".

Farah was blogging and tweeting about what is happening near her house during the aggression, shedding light on both the battles and humanitarian aspect of the aggression. Many media outlets relied on Farah's tweet to have access to information on social media.

This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.