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Our Women on the Ground: A Review

March 27, 2019 at 3:52 pm

  • Book Author(s): Zahra Hankir
  • Published Date: August 2019
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143133414

“When ISIS soldiers arrest me and kill me, it will be okay, because while they will cut off my head, I’ll still have dignity, which is better than living in humiliation.” This was the last daring Facebook post of Ruqia Hasan, a citizen journalist based in the Syrian city of Raqqa who was subsequently kidnapped and executed by Daesh in 2015.

Hasan, like many across the Middle East, had no formal background or education in journalism, nor was she employed by any media outlet. However, like others across the region, she eagerly embraced social media and used it to document her experiences. Her Facebook posts provided a chilling insight into life under Daesh’s rule, and she paid the ultimate price for it.

Journalism in the Middle East, whether by professional or citizen reporters, can often be a game of Russian roulette. With the region featuring at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index, many face harassment, imprisonment, exile or death. While white, male war reporters and foreign correspondents dominate Western screens and by-lines, the crucial journalistic work done by Arab women often goes unappreciated and, yet, their work is essential to understanding the dynamics of the region.

‘Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World’ by British-Lebanese writer and journalist Zahra Hankir collects personal stories of women who cover the news, from Iraq to Morocco. The essays reflect everything from the human cost of war and sexism in the workplace to tackling gender norms and the personal cost of reporting.

The challenges women face when covering the Middle East are varied and, at times, oddly contradictory; some local media outlets try to prevent their own female employees from reporting certain stories. In Eman Helal’s essay ‘Just Stop’, we learn of her eagerness and tenacity as a photojournalist seeking to cover protests and civil strife in Egypt, despite her senior editor actively trying to stop her from going out on “dangerous” assignments which are “no place for women”. However, despite attempts to confine her to the office for her “own safety”, Helal finds that in fact the office is far from a safe space, often having to deal with harassment from her male colleagues.

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Media environments in the Arab world can be stifling for one’s journalistic career, but to be a female journalist in the region also has its advantages. Women can often get stories their male counterparts cannot get. At the height of conflict in places like Iraq, for example, female reporters were often able to pass through checkpoints and enter militia-held areas, which was unthinkable for their male counterparts.

These female journalists are therefore able to offer a fascinating insight into spaces rarely open to the outside world. One particularly gripping account is offered by Hannah Allam, who managed to enter Imam Ali’s shrine in Najaf, southern Iraq, during the US assault on the city in 2004. US troops surrounded the religious compound, while members of the Shia Mehdi Army were battling them in the streets.

While all the men were outside fighting, inside the shrine became a sanctuary for women. However, the women were not passively hiding from the violence outside, but were in fact undertaking relief efforts. It was here that Allam met extraordinary people keeping both the fighters of the Mehdi Army and US soldiers alive, showing empathy to soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Allam used her time in Iraq to talk about the effect of war on Iraqi society beyond the explosions; we meet Egyptian hairdressers and encounter Iraqis’ dark humour. By doing so, Allam allows the reader to see a side of Iraq that many do not think is worth reporting, even though this tells us more about the daily life of Iraqis than much of what is reported.

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The personal impact of covering the Middle East during troubled times comes out in multiple ways for each reporter. While some are directly threatened with violence for doing their jobs, others are forced into uncomfortable positions while covering conflict from afar.

Hwaida Saad’s essay on how her interpersonal relationships with sources in Syria changed over time, as the 2011 Syrian Revolution turned into civil war, captured the dilemma faced by many journalists. As sectarianism became more salient in Syria, sources who had come to think of Hwaida as a friend became more suspicious of her and demanded to know what her sectarian background was. Being Lebanese, with her personal experience of conflict in Lebanon, she refused to answer these questions, but found that many of her sources stopped talking to her as a result. Personal boundaries cost her sources for stories and even friendships.

‘Our Women on the Ground’ is a compelling and gripping read; it is, however, not an exhaustive compendium on female reporters from the Arab world. What the reader is being given is an insight into what is out there, a drop in a very large ocean; I have come to regard the book as an introduction into what is possible. By the simple act of reading what these women have to say, we are able to visit spaces, places and meet people that are otherwise beyond our reach.

The diversity of voices out there is even greater than one book can capture, but where the book succeeds is bringing together different voices, allowing them to tell stories of their own choosing, each one being alluring in its own special way. As Zahra Hankir says in the introduction, “I created this long overdue anthology because it’s a book I desperately wanted to see on bookshelves everywhere”. If the key to a good book is to produce a book that you would like to read, I think Hankir has created a book that we are all desperate to read.

‘Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World’ will be released on 6 August 2019.

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