George Readings reports on No Woman’s Land, a book documenting the experiences of female journalists; it was launched today to mark International Women's Day.
Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin gave several television interviews on February 21st about the situation in Syria; her vivid description of the Syrian Army’s assault on Homs horrified audiences around the world.
Just hours later she was dead, killed by the same artillery barrage she had reported on the previous day.
Marie Colvin’s death serves as a reminder of the dangers journalists face on a daily basis. The fact she died alongside French photographer Remi Ochlik underlines the fact artillery shells, like so many other risks, are gender blind.
The courage with which she reported on her experience helped put sexual harassment and safety much higher up the agenda. Indeed, she has inspired a new book, No Woman’s Land – launched today to mark International Women’s Day – for which she wrote the foreword:
“I remember begging for my life. I remember giving up. I remember fighting back. I remember accepting my death. And I remember clearly, making a decision to go down fighting with my last breath…”
“I want the world to know that I am not ashamed of what happened to me. I want everyone to know I was not simply attacked – I was sexually assaulted. This was, from the very first moment, about me as a woman. But ultimately, I was just a tool. This was about something bigger than all of us – it was about what we do as journalists. That ancient tactic of terrifying people into submission or silence.
“I do not believe it should stop or deter women from doing this kind of work.”
No Woman’s Land allows a diverse collection of women to describe their experiences of working as journalists. Often gender is of little significance.
Associated Press Mexico correspondent Adriana Gómez Licón writes about her experiences reporting from crime-ridden areas on the US-Mexico border:
“Once, I visited a rough neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez an hour before two shootings happened and seven people were killed. I also learned later that a hit man had been killed there just hours before my visit – but I was unaware of the dire situation at the time.”
Others report more gender-specific issues.
This is the experience of one contributor who chose to remain anonymous:
“I went with a female colleague to a crowded market street in Mumbai. A bomb had gone off two days before and we wanted to interview witnesses… we were instantly surrounded and, after one bum grab too many, decided we had enough quotes and left.”
A second anonymous contributor describes the problems associated with body armour:
“Body armour is usually designed to fit men rather [than] women… ill-fitting body armour can leave key areas of the body vulnerable – in one case it was so big on me, it exposed the area of my chest and heart, which seemed rather pointless.”
However, she is also keen to challenge negative preconceptions about female journalists’ experiences of reporting from Arab and Asian countries:
“I am often asked how hard it must be to work in these conservative countries as a woman – a question which always irritates me because of its prejudice and preconceived ideas.
“Rather than experiencing difficulties, I find that as a foreign woman, I am treated with great respect in these places.”
Some of the stories in the collection are almost funny.
“I was told the BBC was welcome but women were not. Searching for a compromise, I quickly offered to dress like a local man with my hair tucked up in the traditional Afghan flat cap. The suggestion was accepted without too much fuss…
“I still don’t know if his son Sirajuddin, now said to be behind most of the attacks on Kabul, would accept an interview with a female journalist. He is mostly in hiding, on the run.”
Other contributors enter into a more academic discussion. For example, al-Jazeera’s Zeina Awad – whose experiences covering street battles in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian camp mean she is no stranger to hairy situations – discusses the tendency to sexualise women and how this underpins the way violence against journalists can – and does – take the shape of sexual assault.
She also addresses the concerns which some may have about a book which (inevitably) tends to focus on female journalists’ negative experiences:
“This is not about different treatment for anyone; this is about discussing things that we have only just started exploring. It is factually wrong to say that these dynamics do not exist – one only needs to look at how many female journalists were attacked in Egypt to see recent and graphic evidence that they do.
“Equally I don’t think we’re served by turning the discussion into a narrative of female victimisation.”
This is the point of No Woman’s Land. Victimisation narratives and defeatism help nobody; the book instead provides practical advice to help journalists do their work safely. At the same time, there are serious issues related to gender and journalism which need to be discussed.
International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to start this discussion.
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• “One of the finest foreign correspondents of her generation” – Marie Colvin, 1956-2012 – Shamik Das, February 22nd 2012
• The World Outside Westminster: “If you do not help us, we will be killed” – Chris Tarquini, February 12th 2012
• Amidst the burning flesh of Homs, Syrians plead: “We are getting slaughtered, save us” – Shamik Das, February 7th 2012
• Anti-Assad activist: “We need help… We need a no-fly zone… ASAP” – Shamik Das, February 1st 2012
• Syria: When will the West act? – Shamik Das, January 2nd 2012