Women Journalists in Gaza: A New Niche for the “Third Gender”

An interesting reflection on the new and central role of female Western reporters from Gaza. I’ll add some comments about the role of honor-shame culture in producing (and shaping) this encounter, and conclude with some questions about the implicit role of intimidation.

The unique advantage of female war reporters in Muslim countriesMost of the first correspondents to file reports from Gaza when the latest conflict began last week were women. Emma Barnett discovers what their unique advantage is over their male colleagues in Muslim cities and countries.

Destroyed house after an Isareli air strike in Gaza

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Phoebe Greenwood is currently reporting for The Telegraph from Gaza City – where she has noticed the majority of correspondents are female. Photo: EPA
Emma Barnett

By , Women’s Editor

4:04PM GMT 21 Nov 2012

Phoebe Greenwood was frantically filing her latest piece for The Telegraph in Gaza City earlier this week when she noticed something.

Sat in the main lobby of the Al Deira Hotel, which has become effectively become a big newsroom in the war-torn strip of land, Greenwood observed that all of the correspondents of the American, Australian, Spanish and British broadsheets writing around her were women.
Jodi Rudoren (New York Times), Ruth Pollard (Sydney Morning Herald), Harriet Sherwood (Guardian), Ana Carbajosa (El Pais), Abeer Ayyoub (freelance Palestinian journalist) and Rolla Scolari (Sky Italia) have all been Greenwood’s comrades during the latest troubles in the Middle East. On the job she has also been accompanied by Heidi Levine, whom she describes as a “ridiculously tough war photographer” and worked alongside Eman Mohammed Darkhalil, an award-winning and heavily pregnant photographer.
Let’s not forget Karen Laub of the AP.
At the start of the latest Israel-Gaza conflict last week, Greenwood, a freelance reporter based in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, said the majority of the correspondents first on the ground were women and what’s even better, it’s no longer remarkable.
“I think this high number of female correspondents in a conflict zone is as a result of gender-equality finally filtering down – making it totally normal for women to report from the front line,” she explains.
Interesting formulation. The fact that it occurs in the Arab-Israeli conflict where one can be most secure that Israelis will not target you if you don’t report according to their liking, that, as Stephanie Gutmann put is, Israel is the only place in the world where you can comfortably be a pregnant war correspondent, does not seem to factor in here.

“Obviously there were the superstars who paved the way such as Kate Adie, Marie Colvin and Olga Guerin but now we are on a total equal footing to the men when it comes to reporting in conflict zones.”











Marie Colvin paved the way for female war correspondents

This reality couldn’t have been more clearly on show than during the Libyan revolution last year – when the first three reporters into Green Square, Tripoli, were all women: Alex Crawford of Sky News, Sara Sidner, of CNN, and Zeina Khodr, of al-Jazeera English.

That, I’ll grant, was quite an act of courage. But I’m willing to bet that none of them were pregnant.

That unique advantage: the third gender

However, interestingly, Greenwood reveals that women war correspondents do have a unique advantage because of their gender when reporting in Muslim countries. “We sort of become a third gender and in some ways are safer because we are women,” Greenwood discloses. “The Muslim men treat with us a kind of deference and actually talk to us about the war, their strategy and their weapons – which they wouldn’t do with the women of their country. At the same time they would very rarely harm a female journalist as most Islamic militants don’t want to behead a woman or kidnap them.”

I’m not sure where she gets this. They may not “want” to behead women, although I suspect that’s related to the nature of the reporting these women do (more on that below). Certainly, given the experience of reporters in Tahrir Square – a particularly grievous example of a problem that numerous commentators agreed, represents a common problem for women reporters (and travelers) throughout the Arab world – it would have been nice to get a bit more of an analysis here. I suspect that the respect paid these women represents a level of discipline in Gaza that is not the case in Egypt, not because they’re more chivalrous and respectful that the Egyptians, but because the guys in charge of public order appreciate the value of journalists, female and not, in their cognitive war.

Moreover, in war-torn Muslim countries, the majority of the women and children only feel comfortable opening up to women reporters as they are not allowed to be seen talking to men outside of their families. Greenwood says this means female journalists can often get better access to the whole story.

“It’s very difficult for the male journalists in Muslim countries to talk to the women and children. As a result women can often get more colour about a conflict or the latest situation with greater ease.” She describes the feeling amongst the women reporters in Gaza City as very collegiate and compares it to a “sisterhood”.

They may well have a privileged access, but not necessarily. Getting the woman’s side can be valuable if it’s independent, not just if it’s that the women also get to participate in the cognitive war without inciting the anger and jealousy of their husbands by talking with male reporters. Given how much of the cognitive war strategy of Hamas depends on appealing to our empathy for their suffering, Gazan women talking to Western women about how terrible their suffering at the hands of Israelis has immense value.

If these women journalists probed, then they might actually bring some value added. Women might express their unhappiness about Hamas, and what it’s like to see them move into the neighborhood and start shooting from below their apartment windows. But we don’t always that kind of result. (Have we ever, so far?)

Take for example the following piece done by Sarah Sidner of CNN, in which she wears a head-covering. Not a hint of the possibility that the child was killed by “friendly fire” (actually several hints to the opposite), despite the evidence that this is more probably the case, that this was one of the more grotesque performances in the cannibalistic strategy of Hamas. Note at the end, the lengthy appeal to the empathy and outrage of CNN’s audience by the good doctor: “Why? Why?” No follow up question about the possible role of Hamas in the answer to his anguished question.

I’d be interested in this phenomenon of female reporters wearing head-coverings. I’m sure they feel it’s just “showing respect” for the local culture. I’m not sure, however, that it’s not also (and almost certainly, from the perspective of Hamasniks) a form of dhimmi behavior. Yvonne Green, when she went into Gaza was advised by journalists who realized she was going for the first time, to bow low and apologize constantly, in other words, to behave like a dhimmi.

This is, of course, a key issue, because it gets to the problem of whether these women, any more than the men reporters, are capable of asking their interlocutors difficult and challenging questions, and reporting to us on matters that contradict to “narrative” so critical to Palestinian war efforts.

Who in the sisterhood of journalists is willing to ask whether these women are the victims of their men?

Being a mother and a war correspondent

And yet despite all the progress on the equality front, balancing motherhood with a career reporting from the front line is still understandably really difficult. Obviously starting a family proves very tough for both men and women working in warzones – says Greenwood who is not yet herself a mother. However, she does disclose, from watching her female journalist comrades who do have children, it is “just different and harder” for mothers. “My female colleagues who have children really do struggle with their kids being so worried about them while they are working in a conflict zone. It is really tough for dads too but there is just something different about potentially losing your mother on the front line of reporting. I know that being a mother and having that parental responsibility informs some of my journalist friends’ decisions about where they place themselves during the conflict. Some will take fewer risks.” Greenwood says the key to mothers being able to continue being war reporters is a really understanding partner – someone “who gets their job” and all it entails. When asked why she left her magazine-writing days behind her and headed for conflict zones, Greenwood doesn’t miss a beat. “Why would you want to be anywhere else other than in the eye of the storm? There is nothing better than reporting on the critical moments of our era.” And on that note – her Gaza mobile phone crackles a little – and she needs to go. There’s a new explosion to write about.

And, of course, mother or not, woman or man, it always helps when you can stay in the eye of the storm, away from its destructive force. Noted Anderson Cooper in an interview with Wolf Blitzer:

There is targeting involved in, you know, where the Israelis are striking. You can make arguments about whether it’s effective or not. You can — people will take me to task for this, but even Gazans will tell you, you know, I’ve stood with many Gazans watching bombs going into buildings, and they were taking pictures

They had a sense of this is non-indiscriminate shelling. There is a specific target, whether it’s the correct target, whether other people are going to get, women and children are going to get killed in the process, that is going to happen. But it’s not that sense of, you know, indiscriminate.

The flip side of that is you never know where a Hamas or an alleged Hamas person may be, where they may have an office in a building like this where, you know, do they have an office on the floor below you? You don’t know. And so, Israel considers that a target. And so, they’re going to — if they file missiles into your building, you can very easily get killed.

As for the recent allegations that Israel was targeting legitimate journalists, see this analysis. Alas, the complicity of journalists with Hamas’ cognitive war strategy seems to have few boundaries.

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