CHICAGO: Journalist Zahra Hankir began collecting reports of conflicts in the Middle East in 2010 before she decided to put this anthology, “Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World” together. From nineteen sahafiya, women journalists, are accounts of their tireless work to report the news from some of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. From different backgrounds and experiences, these journalists have risked their lives for “their pursuit of truth and their desire to disseminate it,” Hankir states.
While there are disadvantages to being a female journalist at times, dealing with male egos, misogyny, and social restrictions, there are also many advantages, as Hannah Allam points out when reporting in Iraq. After years of warfare, more than half the population of the country was female in 2006, shifting the dynamics of Iraqi society into the hands of resilient women, who ran households and put themselves in harm’s way for their children. Heba Shibani followed Libyan women whose children faced deportation because of laws that did not allow women to pass on their Libyan citizenship to their children, and Zaina Erhaim had access to women in Idlib to tell their stories when none of her male counterparts could.
Within the accounts, no sahafiya is short of heroic, as they’ve challenged gender biases for their space in the media world, like Eman Helal and Amira Al-Sharif, with their cameras in their hands in Egypt and Yemen respectively. Lina Attalah, too, fights conservative society to do her job.
Many of these journalist have had to grapple with themselves to understand why they do what they do after years of reporting on traumatic events. Nour Malas, for instance, struggles with her professional and personal self, Hind Hassan had trouble understanding her family until she began reporting, and Shamael Elnoor believes journalism is “our destiny, and we remain ever devoted to it.” Asmaa al-Ghoul and Nada Bakri have dodged bullets and, like Aida Alami, lost friends and loved ones, and Natacha Yazbeck finds that sometimes “it’s not just war. It’s the rest of the world that leaves you traumatized.”
From herculean careers, like Jane Arraf becoming Baghdad’s first bureau chief in 1998 and Donna Abu Nasr becoming AP’s first Saudi bureau chief in 2008, to Zeina Karam who began her career in 1996 and Roula Khalaf who reported from Algeria in 1995, reporting has changed them, as they’ve moved through the world and its conflicts. Hwaida Saad’s contact list has dwindled over the years as informants joined Daesh, fled to Europe, or died, and Lina Sinjab who, despite being blacklisted in Syria, continues to fight for justice.
From Lebanon to Marrakesh to Iraq, their lives have been forever altered, as Arab women who have forced themselves into public spaces to be heard. Their lives begin and end with their reporting, and because of the nature of their job, tomorrow is never guaranteed. Their bravery goes beyond these pages and this anthology will undoubtedly be one of the most important reads today.
Manal Shakir is the author of “Magic Within” published by Harper Collins India.