In a small hotel near the Turkish border with Syria earlier this year, four female journalists shared a bottle of wine and some tips on entering what has become the world’s most dangerous war zone for reporters.
Two were going in, and the other two had just come out of Aleppo. Their tips ranged from the usual war correspondent fare — safe roads and trusted translators — to the specific concerns of women in war zones: Which areas had recently become more conservative and required wearing a hijab, or other head covering? Who among the Syrian rebel commanders was more welcoming of a female journalist embed? What was the rumor mill saying about the local mayor known for getting a bit too hands-on with female reporters in the past?
“For the first time I look around and I see as many female journalists as males. Of course, we have specific security needs and issues, but finally the debate has moved on from ‘should we go cover war’ and into ‘we are here covering war, how do we make it safer,’” said one British journalist with over 30 years of experience in conflict areas. “We might still be fighting to get noticed at awards and debates or to convince our editors that we should be on the frontlines, but to everyone who pays attention, women are taking the lead in Syria.”
That’s why she, along with dozens of other journalists, was infuriated when a Guardian article earlier this week asked, “Can girls even find Syria on a map?”
The author, feminist blogger Jill Filipovic, suggested that female voices have been absent from American conversation about Syria:
Can girls even find Syria on a map? If you’re reading Syria coverage and opinion writing in major news publications, the answer would seem to be “no”. The overwhelming majority of expert talking heads and op-ed writers on US intervention in Syria are male. It’s not because men know more about the Middle East or foreign policy or war and security, it’s because of long-standing and often unconscious assumptions about male power and competence, and how our media reinforce and perpetuate them.
Flipovic’s column article quickly circulated around the foreign press corps, who weren’t shy about going online to protest.
Rania Abouzeid, a former Time correspondent and regular contributor to the New Yorker whose work on Syria has been at the forefront of public debate and nominated for awards, took to Twitter:
So did Liz Sly, the Washington Post bureau chief and longtime correspondent in the region.
There are no statistics kept on male vs. female reporters in the Middle East. But a quick look at the full-time staff members for American and British publications shows that women far outnumber men. In Beirut, where many of the journalists covering Syria live, the bureau chiefs of the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, and Telegraph are all women. Clarissa Ward of CBS, Lyse Doucet of BBC, and Arwa Damon of CNN are just a few of the television correspondents who anchor their network’s coverage of Syria.
One woman, the legendary Sunday Times of London war reporter Marie Colvin, lost her life covering the conflict.
“There’s nothing we need more than tough women war correspondents to show some of these men how it can really be done,” Colvin told this reporter in 2012, not long before she died.
So where is Filipovic getting the idea that women’s voices are absent from the coverage?
Part of it comes from the ranks of freelancers, where men make up more of the bylines.
“Women do make up less of the freelance war correspondent community then men,” said Emma Beals, a British freelancer who often covers Syria. “Some of the best work coming out of Syria at the moment is from women. Those who are in the business are just as committed, brave, and talented as their male counterparts, and I hope they put themselves forward for the recognition they deserve.”
But the broader issue, many women in the field said, is that despite the numbers, women are less likely to nominate themselves for awards or promote their work on television and radio shows where journalists appear on expert panels.
“I will always say yes when someone calls me for an interview, but I’ve never pursued it,” said an American freelancer currently based in Cairo. “I was so shocked when I found out one of my male colleagues regularly calls shows and puts himself up as an expert on this or that topic. It had really never occurred to me to self-promote like that.”
Among the various committees who hand out awards, it’s well-known that women are much less likely than men to nominate their work. Last week, journalists were upset when the most prominent award to celebrate and acknowledge the work of freelance journalists — the Rory Peck Awards — failed to include a single female journalist among its nine finalists this year.
“That’s just shameful,” said one Spanish female reporter, who asked not to be identified by name because she didn’t want to offend the Rory Peck Trust, an organization she said she admires.
“I know so many talented women who applied, but it just seems that they get overlooked. It’s so discouraging,” she said.
In a Facebook group dedicated to journalists, NGO workers, and academics who cover conflict zones, the lack of female finalists was immediately raised.
A spokesman for the Rory Peck Trust confirmed that it is “broadly accurate” that only 17% of the submissions received this year were from women.
“Women have a habit of putting themselves down. Some women are worse than others about it,” said Sarah Topol, an award-winning freelancer based in the Middle East. She said she’s also noticed a strong trend of men promoting themselves and their work.
“When I look back on some of my interactions with male colleagues, I can’t tell you the number of times a man has sent me one of his stories and said, read this!” she said. “I don’t know if a woman has ever done that.”
She said that last year, when she nominated herself for the Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism and won for her work in Libya, she had to be pushed to apply by a friend.
“I did it because a female friend urged me to apply. Then, after I won, I spent a significant amount of time worrying about the award ceremony and having to give an acceptance speech,” Topol said.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, an award-winning journalist for NPR, said she’s noticed a similar trend.
“What women do in the field is extremely dangerous. They are the toughest of the tough. Yet when it comes to self-promotion and recognition they always seem to lag behind men,” she said, remembering the ceremony last year in which she won a Peabody Award.
“A lot of those awards are group awards, and plenty of times there are prominent women involved. But somehow it always seems to be the case that men go up on the stage and give the goddam speech,” she said.
She said that a lot of awards are more likely to notice the type of “bang bang” frontline journalism usually done by men, instead of the wider-angle stories often presented by women.
“A lot of women do is big picture stuff, how does a war affect families, children, and women? Women are interested in contextual stories. But year after year what makes award ceremony lists is frontline hard stuff, the blood and gore,” said Garcia-Navarro. “I think in conflict reporting — as someone who has done it for most of her career — that the frontline stuff is the easy stuff. All you have to do is be at the scene. It’s wider-angle stuff that takes a real eye and skill.”
One American freelance photographer recalled being in Aleppo shooting a feature for a magazine when a gun battle broke out near the family home she had been staying in.
“I immediately picked up my camera and started taking pictures of the family, cowering in doorways and hiding under beds as bits of concrete went flying off the walls when stray bullets managed to make their way into the house. The kids were scared, crying on the floor, looking at us adults with this wide-eyed confusion children often have in war. To me, that was the real story of the war in Syria,” she said. “The same day a male colleague took a shot from the street in front of the house of a Syrian rebel soldier shooting his gun in the direction of the Syrian Army. He was sweaty and dirty and looked like Rambo.”
Despite being on assignment, the magazine took the photos of the soldier in the street instead of her shots of the family in the home.
“Maybe I just see it differently? I mean there are some women who love bang bang frontline reporting, and some men who love softer stuff. There are always exceptions. But I think most women I come across want to show real life amid war, and as women we get better access to doing that,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time — as far as I am concerned — that people let go of their old school ideas of how war should be covered, and start recognizing what we bring the table as women.”