Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2019

Our Women on the Ground, Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, edited by Zahra Hankir

Just recently, Twitter brought my attention to a review at The Asian Review of Books: a collection called Our Women on the Ground, Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, edited by Zahra Hankir. I bought a Kindle edition of it there and then.  Because just as I found Mercé Rodoreda’s fiction set in the Spanish Civil War compelling, I wanted to read women’s points of view about the conflicts in the Middle East.  After all, in modern conflict, it is nearly always women who bear the brunt of it.

The collection comprises nineteen Arab women journalists reporting on their homelands.  The foreword by Christiane Amanpour reminds the reader that the Balkan Wars of the 1990s brought an end to immunity for journalists.  They were no longer considered objective witnesses. Regardless of gender, they became targets.  Journalism has become a very dangerous profession, perhaps especially so when reporting on movements for reform in a corrupt regime or in a murderous genocidal state like Islamic State a.k.a. Daesh.   We are told in the introduction by Zahra Hankir that some of the journalists (sahafiyat) featured in this book have been sexually assaulted, threatened, propositioned, detained or even shot at while on the job.  The book pays homage to those who have died as well.  The Middle East and North Africa is the most dangerous area anywhere in the world for journalists.

It is obviously more difficult for women to be journalists in some cultures than in others.  In the Middle East and other conservative societies, societal norms discourage women from journalism. It can mean defying family and community, and it brings unique challenges and entails sacrifices specific to women.  At the same time, in pursuit of getting a full understanding of a story by including the female perspective, women can sometimes enter places where men cannot go, and they can sometimes access people more freely than men can.  (Geraldine Brooks wrote about this in Nine Parts of Desire, if I remember correctly). The first piece, ‘The Woman Question’ by Hannah Allam, begins by introducing the spaces where she found her stories during the Iraq War: in kitchens without electricity; in a bedroom with a mortar crater in the ceiling; in a beauty salon, or during ‘Ladies Hour’ in a hotel swimming pool.  And then she goes on to say that her reports are more representative because the years of war have resulted in a population where more than half the people are women, and many of them are heads of the household because their men were dead or missing or exiled.  

The footage of car bombings that was on our screens throughout 2006 seems different when you look at it from a woman’s point-of-view.  Daily car deaths often had death tolls of eighty or more, and most casualties were men because of the venues where the bombings occurred.  That meant eighty new widows and dozens of newly fatherless children. Each week 500+ Iraqi women became the breadwinner.

At their most desperate, some women entered into so-called temporary marriages that weren’t intended to last long.  Essentially, these marriage were prostitution with a thin veneer: men with money to spare would pay the women in exchange for sex, but because the couple was technically ‘married’, however briefly, the arrangement was deemed legitimate according to some Shi’a Islamic rulings.

A widow named Nisreen told me her hands shook and her face reddened with shame when she signed a temporary marriage contract in exchange for fifteen dollars a month plus groceries and clothes for her five children.

‘My son calls me a bad woman, a prostitute.  My children have no idea I did this for their sake,’ Nisreen said. (‘The Woman Question’ by Hannah Allam, p. 4)

I think that many Western feminists will bristle at the hypocrisy of this, in a society that forces women to cover up in the name of modesty:

Even in wartime, women in Najaf wear abayas, long billowy robes that leave only their faces, hands and feet exposed.  I remember sweat trickling down my back as I crouched in the courtyard listening to gunfire.  Running in an abaya was a special skill that we honed each time we had to take cover: you use your left hand to hold the silky fabric under yoru chin to keep it in place and your right hand to hike up the bottom to free your feet. (ibid, p.10)

Time and again these journalists refer to ‘before’: the time when Lebanon was at peace; when there were hopes of an Arab Spring; before Syria tore itself apart; before Iraq descended into sectarian violence.  A time when sources were friendly instead of suspicious; a time when the names of friends and colleagues weren’t annotated ‘dead’ in a contacts list; a time before fanaticism and fundamentalism destroyed so many lives.  Hwaida Said has a picture of a cake on Skype to remind her of her dead friends once a year on their birthdays. Her story of a would-be suitor who became a fighter for Daesh is chilling.

Over time, the frequency of Abu Bilal’s Skype messages decreased, until finally they stopped altogether, a few months before his suicide mission.

The last things he wrote were exultations of Daesh’s foreign operations, such as the attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.  (‘What Normal’ by Hwaida Saad, p.36-7)

What’s it like, I wonder, to write about a man who was once a friend who carried out a suicide attack that killed more than 30 people and wounded about a hundred others?  And to maintain a WhatsApp correspondence with a confused and frightened young soldier in Palmyra having nightmares about being captured by Daesh? And then to wait, and wait, until finally news of his gruesome death comes through?

Lina Attalah writes movingly about the way her relationship with her father deteriorated after she became a journalist, even to the extent of identifying her as that and not as his daughter, when he was on his deathbed.  She struggles to sort out her feelings about her father with her ideas about societal patriarchy and the violence of parenting. She struggled with the trivia of conflict about curfews and safety and study at home, compared to the importance of the protests against the Iraq War.  She could not reconcile her parents’ interference in her personal life with the significance of contentious politics outside the home.

… I couldn’t live one life.  I had to carry on living these two lives, bouncing between constant negotiation, compromise, and resistance.  One was a life of choice, with an open-ended shimmering horizon, while the other was a life drawn solely in the imagination of one’s parents, an imagination that at times can seem like a prison of some sort. Living two lives meant constantly guarding them from each other, safely insulated, for one risked defacing and assaulting the other.  It was exhausting.  (‘On a Belated Encounter with Gender’ by Lina Attalah, p.48)

Her essay is about her journey towards understanding how identity politics operate on the collective consciousness.  They had to be dealt with, not denied altogether. But I must admit that I found it too chilling to read her Foucauldian analysis of power in relation to the massacre of thousands in Egypt when the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood. It seemed a rather too abstract when there were all those bodies on the ground…

Jane Arraf was the only Western journalist based in Iraq in the last years of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

As a Palestinian Canadian, I was expected by Iraqi citizens to be more Palestinian than Canadian.  The Iraqi government saw me as a US agent, while the US government saw me as an Iraqi apologist.  I was kicked out of Iraq a few months before the start of the war for coverage that was less sympathetic than the Iraqi government demanded, but made my way back through Kurdish-controlled territory to northern Iraq through Iran to cover the conflict for CNN.

A few months after Baghdad fell in 2003, invasion turned to occupation, and the soldiers on the ground — generally well-meaning guys from small towns in America — realised how far they were in over their heads.

[…]

Would it have been equally painful to watch the train wreck unfold had I not been Arab?  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. (‘Maps of Iraq’ by Jane Arraf, p.60)

It is heart-breaking to read how those naïve American soldiers blundered around with a laminated cheat sheet called the Iraq Culture Smart Card as a substitute for interpreters.  It beggars belief that some clown in the Pentagon thought it helpful to include the phrase ‘Ihna Amerkan’ (we are American) as if the Iraqis wouldn’t immediately grasp that when confronted by a GI in uniform…

In one house, a soldier urgently questioned the bewildered Iraqis with a single word from his smart card — mujahedeen or ‘jihadist fighters’ — to try to determine whether any of them had seen al-Quaeda fighters.  In another, the soldiers asked Iraqis whether there were any Palestinians with them.  (There are tens of thousands of Palestinians in Iraq). (ibid, p.61)

One last excerpt, because this post is way too long.  Eman Helal is one of a handful of photojournalists in Egypt:

The irony of being held back from covering ‘hard’ news and forced to work in an office for my own safety was that I sometimes didn’t even feel safe in my place of work, when I took public transport, or when I walked on the streets.  I have found that most Egyptian men do not respect women.  They treat us as if we were their possessions, and therefore have the right to do whatever they please with us. This way of thinking starts and is cultivated at home, where men are taught — even by their mothers — that they are in charge and they are protectors of women.  Their power goes unchecked. (‘Just Stop’ by Eman Helal p.114)

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that harassment doesn’t happen in Australia, but it beggars belief that at the 2011 Arab Spring protests, the Egyptian attitude was that if a woman was protesting, she should expect to be harassed and that the military forced virginity tests on some female protesters.  There’s a confronting photo of a woman who’s been assaulted during a march for International Women’s Day.  Some of the crowd of men around her are her harassers, some of them are trying to help her.  It must have been terrifying.

The most confronting essay was by a Sudanese journalist, whose arrest reminded me about letters that as a member of PEN Melbourne I have sent to the Sudanese government about their treatment of journalists just doing their job.  In fact, over the last decade, my record of letter writing to governments in breach of the UN commitment to freedom of expression includes: Algeria, Bahrein, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE and Yemen.

If you would like to get involved too, you can locate your local PEN here.

Editor: Zahra Hankir; foreword by Christine Amanpour;
Title: Our Women on the Ground: Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World
Publisher: Vintage Digital, 2019, 287 pages
ASIN: B07LGM8RPK (Kindle edition)
Purchased from Amazon.


Responses

  1. Not too long, a great post! It is an absolute tragedy the way we’ve meddled in the Middle East and the mess we’ve created. Messes. These are very brave women to put themselves in harm’s way in societies where their assault is condoned by authority, and as you say, often by the men of their own families.

    Like

    • Yes, and you see a different world when they report it.
      However, I think they’ve done a fair bit of their own meddling as well, allowing fundamentalist regimes to take control and ruin the lives of so many.

      Like


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