DUBAI: Journalists, whether they are men or women, have a duty to find out the truth and to tell the human story behind major world events, including the harsh realities of war. But, by virtue of their gender, are women better equipped to tell those stories?
The view of women as the more “emotional” sex can sound dated to modern ears. But when a female journalist enters a war zone, it is often acknowledged that her access to the private lives of her sources, particularly families caught up in conflict, is often markedly different to the reception experienced by a male correspondent.
Arizh Mukhammed is a Moscow-based war reporter for Sky News Arabia. Over the past few months, she had been deployed to the front lines in Ukraine to report on the Russian invasion, braving armed conflict and the human tragedies of war.
“It is not easy to cover war, because, like any human being, you feel fear. And I feel fear,” Mukhammed told a panel discussion a session entitled “Storytellers from the war front” at the Arab Women Forum in Dubai on Tuesday.
Mukhammed, who is half Russian and half Syrian, says wars bring journalists “closer to peoples’ suffering,” making it all the more difficult to remain objective about what they are witnessing.
But the ability to empathize with the men, women and children a reporter encounters while deployed in a war zone undoubtedly gives their coverage a powerful human dimension that allows viewers to experience the agonies of distant conflicts.
The question is, are women better equipped than men to document such accounts?
“Women war journalists give a deeper dimension to human suffering,” Mukhammed told Arab News at the forum.
“While men might surround themselves with the impression that they are strong and fearless, women have actually shown they are much more patient.”
Christiane Baissary, a senior news anchor for the Al-Hadath news channel, said there is a common misconception that women are not suited for war coverage.
“A soldier once told me that women should not be in a war zone. He was trying to convince me that I should not stay to cover the war,” she said.
“This mentality is not just in the Middle East but everywhere,” Baissary said, adding that things have since changed and women are gaining more opportunities to cover conflict zones.
The image many harbour of the intrepid war correspondent is patently masculine — a gung-ho adventurer who risks kidnap, injury, or even death to get as close as possible to the blood and gun smoke of war.
Indeed, the role of a war correspondent can be extremely dangerous. On May 11, Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead in the West Bank city of Jenin while reporting on an Israeli arrest operation, despite wearing protective gear clearly identifying her as a member of the press.
“The killing of Abu Akleh is another serious attack on media freedom and freedom of expression, amid the escalation of violence in the occupied West Bank,” UN experts Morris Tidball-Binz, Reem Alsalem, and Irene Khan said in a statement on May 13.
They called for a prompt and impartial investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh, in full compliance with UN regulations.
“The role of journalists, especially in a context of heightened tension and marked by continuous abuses, like the occupied Palestinian territory, is critical,” the statement read.
“Lack of accountability gives carte blanche to continue the litany of extrajudicial executions. The safety of journalists is essential in guaranteeing freedom of expression and media freedom.”
Of course, Abu Akleh was only the latest reporter to be killed while on duty. According to the press advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders, scores of journalists are killed every year worldwide in connection with their work. Nearly a thousand have died over the past decade alone.
“I think it was really important for us to highlight female war correspondents and women correspondents because what they are doing is out of the ordinary,” said Noor Nugali, assistant editor-in-chief at Arab News, who presided over Tuesday’s panel.
“Usually when people think of correspondents, the first thing that comes to their minds (is that) women are too soft, women are incapable of handling such situations.
“But, in reality, it shows the resilience of women, strength of women, and their capability of getting all angles and facts straight.”
This evolving image of women, particularly those in the Arab world, was a key feature of the Arab Women Forum, and a special session, entitled “Saudi women pioneers: Change from within,” explored the issue in depth.
“I think the creation of Vision 2030 is life-changing, honestly, for a lot of women and young people,” Lama Alshethri, editor-in-chief of Sayedati, one of the best-known magazines in the Arab region, told the panel.
“I think we, our generation, have been able to reap some of the fruits of Saudi Vision 2030. And we were prepared for the change.”
Vision 2030, the social and economic reform agenda announced in 2016 by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, emphasizes the need to inspire and empower all members of the society to realize the Kingdom’s full potential.
Subsequently, women’s empowerment in the Kingdom has expanded rapidly. Saudi women are now more active in different spheres of the public and private sector.
“I have not seen the change. I lived it,” Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, said in a special address opening Tuesday’s forum.
“I know how important it is to open the workplace for women,” she said.
“(However,) I realized that opening the doors wasn’t enough. Women had to be prepared to take advantage of those open doors and we have to equip them with skills.”