Beyond the veil

Canadian women journalists meet hospitality, hostility in the Muslim world

Afghanistan’s dusty, pock-marked plains. Syria’s festering civil war. The crowded squares and rallying cries of the Arab Spring. Western audiences have seen them all through the lenses of cameras, have watched reporters clad in flak jackets speak calmly as plumes of smoke tower in the background.

In front of the cameras and behind the words of many of these stories are women journalists. These journalists not only face the dangers of reporting from conflict zones, but can be particularly vulnerable working in countries perceived as hostile to foreign women.

Stories of sexual abuse and the mistreatment of women journalists reporting from Muslim countries are common. Yet many of these journalists tell another tale: one of camaraderie, of courage and of the people wrenched apart by conflict.

A 2009 study by Toronto psychologist Anthony Feinstein — War, Journalism, and Psychopathology, published in the online SAGE journal Traumatology in 2013 — surveyed 218 frontline journalists from news agencies around the world. About three-quarters were male. A 2016 followup study found a more even split, with 55 men for every 45 women.

These growing numbers of women foreign correspondents often cover stories unfolding in Muslim countries, from high-risk assignments in Syria to Tunisia’s mostly peaceful transition to democracy.

In reporting from the Muslim world, women journalists have a distinct advantage: according to the strictest interpretations of Islam, local women cannot talk to men outside their families.

“It’s incumbent on women journalists to try and get into these communities and tell these stories,” says Canadian journalist Mellissa Fung. She believes the state of women and children is a barometer of a country’s progress.

Fung talked to countless women in a decade of reporting from Afghanistan. One story in particular sticks vividly in her mind. Before telling it, she takes a deep breath.

It was a sunny afternoon in late 2015, in a Kabul women’s shelter. Fung sat across from a beautiful young woman, who had several teeth missing from her unlined face. A group gathered to listen; some cried quietly.

The woman across from Fung had escaped a nightmare marriage. Her husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law beat her, raped her and kept her in their house as a sex slave.

Whenever she tried to run away, her husband and his family would track her down and beat her even more savagely.

One day, she finally made it to a police station, where an officer brought her to the shelter.

“How long has this been going on?” Fung asked.

“I have been married six years, so for six years.”

“And how old are you?”

“I think I’m about to be 18.”

Sexual abuse

For all the tales of rape and harassment that journalists report, they leave one story untold: their own.

Gender, Risk and Journalism­ — a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Journalism Practice in April — surveyed 150 foreign correspondents from five continents. Of these, 68 per cent of women had experienced sexual harassment on the job. Eight per cent of men could say the same.

The sexual abuse of journalists is rarely discussed without mentioning Lara Logan, a CBS anchor who worked in Cairo at the height of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. Logan reported from Tahrir Square — the heart of the Egyptian revolution and a gathering place for more than 250,000 anti-regime protesters.

In the midst of the packed square, she was sexually assaulted.

Susan Ormiston, a senior correspondent for CBC, was working in Tahrir Square at the same time. Ormiston was heckled and mocked, yet says she never felt the sense of extreme danger that Logan faced.

The two experiences were vastly different, but shared the same foundations: men threatening women journalists.

Judith Matloff, a journalism professor at Columbia University, has spent nearly ten years researching the sexual abuse of foreign correspondents. In an email, Matloff described assault and harassment as a major concern for “many, if not most, women who venture into regions of turmoil.”

In order for women journalists to try and protect themselves in volatile situations, Matloff suggests they follow a series of safety tips.

Respecting local customs

In a sea of sweeping black veils, a colourful T-shirt can be a spotlight. For foreign journalists working in conservative Muslim countries, dressing like they would at home brings unwanted attention and even danger.

Culturally appropriate dress “defines whether you’ll be taken seriously or given access to something,” says Laura Bain, a Canadian program editor for Istanbul-based TV news channel TRT World. Over the past five years, Bain has lived in Ghana, Qatar and Turkey.

These countries’ cultural traditions and Islamic practices vary greatly, but Bain found one similarity: her clothes affected people’s perceptions of her. Respecting local customs is not just a matter of personal safety for journalists, but of ensuring interview subjects feel comfortable speaking with a foreign reporter.

“If you want people to tell you their most intimate stories,” Ormiston says, “you can’t come across as threatening.”

In some cases — such as in the conservative south of Afghanistan — respect can entail wearing a full burka. The powder blue veil serves as a shield, allowing women journalists to blend in with a crowd. The small, grated eye slit of the head to toe garment gives a rare vantage point into life as an Afghan woman.

“You see the world differently,” says Fung. “You feel more safe. You feel more invisible.”

The ability to camouflage is advantageous for women journalists reporting from Muslim countries. Yet, sometimes, simply being foreign women allows them to speak with local men.

The reason for this access lies in the Islamic value of hospitality. Speaking with a foreign woman may be uncomfortable, but to not welcome her into the home would be worse.

In these circumstances, Fung likened foreign women to a third gender. They are not placed under the same strict rules as local women, nor are they considered as threatening or interrogative as male journalists.

Stereotypes and misperceptions work in the favour of women reporters: they gain access to high-level interviewees based on the assumption that, as women, they won’t be confrontational.

Yet these women journalists brave bullets and bombs to pursue stories. Would they shy away from asking a tough question?

Psychology of conflict reporting

The skill and bravery of women journalists — particularly those working in hostile environments — has been underestimated for nearly 200 years.

For foreign correspondents working in volatile countries like Syria and Afghanistan, reporting can be an exercise in machismo. The high-risk lifestyle is stereotypically viewed as a man’s world.

“Men are more attracted to risky things than women,” says Toronto psychologist Feinstein.His study War, Journalism and Psychopathology found post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was common among frontline journalists..These reporters must speak to the camera and appear unperturbed while the scent of burnt flesh lingers in the air. They must try not to sob while interviewing girls who were married and raped at the age of twelve.

One in five of these journalists suffer from PTSD.

In civilian life in Europe and North America, women face rates of PTSD twice as high as men. Among conflict journalists women and men are diagnosed with PTSD at nearly identical levels.

Feinstein’s research suggests women journalists in combat zones are particularly resilient people, and less affected by trauma than women back in Canada. “The female journalists who do this work,” he says, “are a highly select group.”

Warmth and hospitality

Despite the pressures of working in Muslim countries, what leaves the longest-lasting impression on many women journalists is how often they encounter kindness.

Susan Ormiston entered a modest home in Kandahar province, dressed respectfully in loose-fitted Afghan pants, “about as wide as they were long.” But Ormiston had not purchased the traditional belt to keep up these baggy, pleated pants. The moment she entered the courtyard, her pants fell to the ground.

She stood in front of a conservative Afghan family, her pants on the floor, with nothing but a pair of shorts underneath.

Instead of reacting with anger or shock, a woman whisked Ormiston to a side room and sewed elastic into the waistband to prevent another gravitational mishap. She handed them back with a shy smile, not saying a word.

The two women had no language in common and lived wildly different lives. But to Ormiston that smile said, “I feel your pain. You needta get those pants up, girl.”

The Canadian idea of Afghanistan is one of a rogue nation, left scarred by years of war. A Canadian, thinking of an Afghani, might be expected to picture a hardened Taliban fighter, or a child bride shrouded in blue. Most Canadians would not think of a kind woman, fixing the pants of a foreign journalist.