One of the last books I read in the first quarter of 2021 was, at the same time, also one of my reading highlights to date — and next to the likes of Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison (as well as Agatha Christie’s multiple appearances in the area of mysteries), that is truly saying something. Our Women on the Ground is a collection of autobiographical — indeed, highly personal — essays by women reporters from various parts of one the world’s most fractious and fragile regions, the Middle East and North Africa: Syria, Iraq, Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and, yes, even Saudi Arabia; and it simply blew me away. Not only because even going in, I had realized how little I really knew about Middle Eastern women’s lives (which was why I had wanted to read this book to begin with, after all) — but because words just cannot describe the amount of respect that these women, and their sisters in the Middle East and Arab world generally, deserve.
There is a widespread perception of Middle Eastern women as either victims of an overbearing male-dominated society, doomed to passivity and submission, or, if they have freed themselves from the yoke, as rebels fighting for the feminist ideal that the Western Women’s Lib generation has made its own once and for all ever since the 1960s. The reality is, of course, infinitely more complex; and it utterly defies simple, one-size-fits-all answers. Lina Attalah, editor of a Cairo-based news website (Mada Masr — “Egyptian Matter(s)”), in an essay framed as the letter to her deceased father that she found herself unable to write during his lifetime, captures the issue from her personal perspective like this:
“Women in Egypt, as well as in other Arab and Middle Eastern countries, are often depicted by the Western world as nothing but victims of patriarchy. Through the privilege of social status, and, more specifically, my family’s middle-class insistence to invest in a good-quality education (in other words, a French school and an American university), I had direct access to that Western world. I worked in English, the lingua franca of the globe. I became an extension of the object of the typical Western gaze in that context, albeit an exciting extension because of the irregularities I represented: 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. […]
These invitations often made me feel trapped in place, identity, and body. I felt as though a form of bourgeois or liberal feminism was being imposed upon me and I had to constantly free myself from it. I almost never had something smart to say as an answer to that nagging question: What is it like to be a woman journalist in Egypt nowadays? I didn’t want to recount stories of sexism, patriarchy, and oppression that would feed into commonplace Orientalist essentialism and render me a heroic survivor. Nor did I want to engage in a short-sighted defense of th Arab. But I had no third story to tell, no nuanced explanation of how we live a life of public engagement through the lens of gender. […]
My tongue spoke a lingua franca, but my mind was refusing to speak its dominant mind-set, which tends to represent the society I come from as static.”
Each of the contributors to this book had to find her own individual path, and none of the “third stories” they tell as a result is even remotely like any of the others. None of these women is content with the shorthand quip “Well, I’m not a male journalist, so I can’t compare” as an answer to the “nagging question” mentioned by Lina Attalah in the passage quoted above (though said quip does seem to be a handy and not uncommon replacement for “f*ck off” if annoyed by that “nagging question”, if another essay is to be believed). Most of them were born and have grown up in the Middle East; some however, while of Middle Eastern descent, have grown up in the West and returned to the region as grown-ups. Some, but not all of them bow to the demands of the societies in which they live, or used to live during the times about which they write: Few had (or have) to go so far as to balance the freedom required for doing their job with the extreme limitations of wearing a burqa, confining their activities to the daytime hours, and / or moving around outside their house only with a mahram (literally, “an acceptable escort”, i.e. a male protector, who has to be close blood relative), whose absence may cause them to be arrested for contravening Islamic law, as may the choice of a fake mahram, which will instantly also subject both of them to the gravest charges of indecency — and yet, that is a risk they routinely incur in pursuance of their job. (And if these are restrictions that make a reporter’s life hard even under ordinary circumstances — as they do — imagine how much more crippling they must be when reporting from a war zone!) Others, by contrast, refuse entirely to (e.g.) cover their hair; one of the anthologies’ contributors was all of 15 years old when she took this stance in defiance of her entire family, rejecting “all the women in our town do” as a good enough reason to follow precedent. Some eventually had to accept various forms of compromise (headscarf, long dark coat) or made their peace with the hijab in the interests of their job. Many of these women, even those who went to university with their families’ consent, have encountered the sharp opposition of their nearest and dearest for their choice of profession. (“We wanted you to have a decent education, but we didn’t mean you to do that with it, you ungrateful wretch!”) Some, however, are able to combine the role of a journalist with that of a wife and mother, whereas others — particularly in the more orthodox Islamic societies — are paying for their chosen path with a life of permanent singlehood, as their profession is considered way too freewheeling and liberated to make them acceptable “marriage material”. Yet, all of them display a deep devotion to their calling, which is clearly the ruling passion of their lives; a devotion that has been tested, sometimes up to or beyond the breaking point, by their experience on and off the job; by harassment (sexual and otherwise), misogyny, and violence of every form, from fist cuffs and beatings to bullets, bombs, and an Islamic terrorist executioner’s blade.
- The book’s editor, Zahra Hankir, in the introduction tells the story of Ruqia Hasan, a 30-year old philosophy graduate who — under the pseudonym Nissan Ibrahim — in 2014-2015 posted fearless, detailed “citizen journalist” inside reports from her home town Raqqa on her Facebook page during the Islamic State’s occupation of that part of Syria … until the terrorist group caught up with her and abducted and murdered her; a fate that she had knowingly taken into account, as to her constituted a death “with dignity”, as opposed to remaining silent or trying to flee the city.
- Hannah Allam writes about the experience of being a female war correspondent in Iraq, and about the women she met there; suddenly made sole providers for their families after their husbands and male relatives had been blown up by car bombs (80 dead men per day, on average, during the height of the sectarian violence in 2006 alone).
- Nada Bakri writes about the experience of losing her husband, New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, during his final (secret) reporting trip into civil war- and terrorist-destroyed Syria.
- Hwaida Saad writes about the jihadis she met and interviewed, and whose path into fanaticism — and occasionally, their ultimately futile attempts to escape from the tangles of terrorrism — she chronicled, after the so-called Islamic State had taken hold of large parts of Syria: Like other native speakers she refers to the group as “Daesh“, which, though facially an acronym of the Arabic version of its name, is considered derogatory, as it recalls the words daes and dāhis (respectively referring to “one who crushes something underfoot” and “one who sows discord”).
- Jane Arraf writes about the difficulties, anxieties, insecurities and absurdities brought to the fore in Iraq by the attempt to bridge ocean-wide cultural gaps when it became apparent that a mere military approach was not going to be anywhere near enough to accomplish anything of even short-term use to the country and its people after the American invasion.
- Natacha Yazbeck writes about her family’s escape from “what [was] not yet Lebanon” (“there is hunger, and there are the Ottomans”) and her own return to the region — Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen — to report on its seemingly neverending conflicts and the floods of refugees, each one an individual with their hopes and dreams, yet even collectively not seeming to make much of a mark.
- Nour Malas writes about the disconnect between origin and national identity (or the absence of one), about watching Syria (from in- and outside the country) disintegrate into civil war, and about the European (specifically: German) end of the refugee crisis.
- Hind Hassan writes about her own wanderings between two worlds, growing up in the Northwest of England as a child of Iraqi descent and returning to Iraq to cover the aftermath of IS / Daesh terror, and about learning to reconcile the conflicting elements of her own identity as a result.
- Eman Helal, a photojournalist, writes about using her camera to expose everyday sexism, misogyny, and sexual harrassment in Egyptian society.
- Aida Alami writes about the tightrope walk experience of being a North African (Moroccan) immigrant in France, and about her and her two best friends’ wanderings between these two worlds (mentally and physically alike), which for one of these friends, as well as for the other friend’s brother, ended with a salvo of bullets (in one case, courtesy of Al Qaeda; in the other, at the hands of the French police).
- Shamael Elnoor writes about her experience of traveling to Darfur to interview the spiritual leader of the infamous Janjaweed militia, Musa Hilal, and about being persecuted by the uncle of the Sudanese president (with the presidential nephew’s and the local Islamic clergy’s decidedly more-than-tacit assent).
- Amira Al-Sharif writes about the daily challenges of being one of only a handful of women photojournalists in (even for the Arab world, ultra-conservative) Yemen and about the effect of the civil war that has been raging in that country since 2015.
- Asmaa al-Ghoul writes about the life-changing experience of being both a journalist and a mother in the violence-ridden Palestine Territories, torn apart by religious strife and by the rivalry of the more secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas.
- Heba Shibani writes about male violence and about the near-insurmountable difficulties of telling women’s stories and of keeping an objective stance between the political and religious battle lines in Libya.
- Lina Sinjab tells the inside story of growing up in 1970s’ Syria and, like Zeina Karam (whose story, in turn, begins with her childhood in Beirut and the contrasts between Lebanon and Syria noticeable even then), writes about the experience of the country’s falling apart in the cataclysm of civil war, shortly after Bashar al-Assad had come into power and the short apparent spring of the very early days of his rule exploded into the bullets of police brutality, when he began to show his real face.
- Zaina Erhaim, similarly, writes about the experience of being a photojournalist in Syria — in the middle of a civil war at that.
- Donna Abu-Nasr writes about the vagaries and surprises involved in finding her feet as a woman journalist in Saudia Arabia, of all places, and the changes — subtle at best, unrecognizable at worst to the outsider; but monumental to the local population — which the country has undergone since she first began reporting from there, a decade years ago.
- Roula Khalaf, finally, whose personal experience includes a childhood in civil-war-torn Lebanon and whose career as a reporter began with the 1990s unrest in Algeria, highlights the importance of foreign correspondents, of reporters “on the ground” — of both sexes — even in the age of the internet and social media sites:
“The [foreign correspondent’s] role is vital in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment where events move rapidly and shift unexpectedly. […] In the age of fake news and political manipulation, it is more important than ever for foreign bureaus to be staffed with reporters who develop expertise in a domestic story,”
she writes. And Zahra Hankir says in the book’s introduction:
“A journalistic and historical narrative on the the Arab world and the broader Middle East dominated by male or Western talking heads is, simply put, incomplete. Failing to expand that narrative to sufficiently incorporate the voices of Arab and Middle Eastern women in the global media landscape obstructs an inclusive dissemination of ideas about the region. And yet the public needs precisely that diversity of voices to formulate insightful views on the area and its people.“
All of the contributors to this anthology, incidentally, hold degrees from highly distinguished universities, both in the Middle East and in the West, and most of them have been employed, or are currently still employed, with institutions and news organizations of worldwide renown (New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, CNN, NBC, PBS, Agence France Presse, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Sky News, Foreign Policy magazine, UNICEF, Oxfam International, Reuters, Newsweek, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Financial Times, and Forbes magazine, to name but a few). More than one of them have won high awards of their profession. — But I didn’t pay any attention to their credentials while reading and listening to their stories; rather, I let those stories and their deeply personal experience stand for themselves. For the same reason, I’m not listing any of their individual credentials next to their names: I don’t want to create even a sliver of an appearance of their being appropriated for the West via their Western-owned employers — they simply do not need this. These are stories that should be read, not because they happen to be told by award-winning journalists who have managed to land jobs with world-famous news organizations, but for their authenticity and intrinsic value alone.