Life of A Female Middle East Reporter (Part 1)

Anna Therese Day is a freelance journalist covering women’s issues and youth movements in the Arab Spring. Since 2007, her coverage has taken her to Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya. Safely back to her home base of Cairo, Day discusses the challenges involved in covering the Arab world as a young woman in this two-part series with PolicyMic.

The Risk Assessment

Decisions, Decisions...

At the end of March, my colleague David and I were consumed by an unending debate over our next destination: Libya or Yemen. When we asked for a deciding opinion, our friend responded, “You’re asking me which way I’d prefer either of you to commit suicide — jumping off a cliff [Yemen] or shooting yourself in the face [Libya].” 

A week prior, NATO had begun bombarding Gaddafi forces with airstrikes in response to his violent crackdown on protests in the east that killed over 200 Libyans within its first week. In Yemen, public demonstrations were continuing into their fourth week, and nearly 50 people had been killed by government snipers.

Method to My Madness

I wanted to jump off a cliff, that is to say, I was on Team Yemen. For me, the decision included two considerations. The first: I’m interested in political organizing in closed societies, and thus, I prefer to cover movements as opposed to armed conflict. Though Libya’s upheaval undoubtedly started through youth organizing, the situation had deteriorated into a civil war with foreign military intervention. Internet communication was down in east Libya, and I was out of touch with my contacts — youth organizers whom I had met through Twitter. Those Libyans of the resistance movement, who were not arming themselves to fight as rebels, were dispersed to their homes, confined to the indoors as urban warfare consumed many of the dissenting towns. 

In Yemen, Friday demonstrations persisted despite the danger of sniper fire, and internet communication kept me in touch with local cyber-organizers and women’s activists. In short, I could better cover a movement in Yemen instead of a war in Libya. 

My second consideration was my preference for urban over rural coverage, a bias that stems from my gender. Though a woman’s safety is sadly always subject to circumstance, I cling to a “safety-in-numbers” mentality, if only for my own sanity. In a city, someone will hear my scream. I even take it a step further using little tactics that, I’ve convinced myself, turn my weaknesses into strengths, like smiling with wide-eyed curiosity and a horrible Arabic accent in order to get close enough to authorities to snap pictures of the detained. 

Or, for another example, asking nonsensical “dumb blonde” questions when a conversation gets too heated in a room full of Hezbollah fighters. Other times, I use timeless gender roles to my advantage (think Madonna-whore paradox), and when one man begins harassing me on the street, I quickly turn to another and frantically beg for help. Though my appearance as a Western woman immediately relegates me to the “whore” category in the Arab world, this region’s culture is even more protective of their women’s “honor” than the West. Thus, when I innocently and desperately ask for protection, these men’s “Muslim sensibilities” (as they’ve described it) kick in, and they rally around me, shaming and sometimes attacking my aggressor.  

(Note for other women travelers: When asking for help, pick one man, make eye-contact, and point at him, as if to demand: “You help me.” This strategy ensures that someone in particular feels responsible — we’ve all heard horror stories about the inaction of crowds so this helps to hopefully address that tendency in some small way.)

Though flirting with the enemy or playing damsel in distress hardly represent new tactics for working women in a man’s world, I rationalize that, in many cases, the end (my Middle East coverage) justifies the means (behavior that is usually beneath me). To summarize, these are sacrifices and maneuvers I make in order to keep up with the risks my male colleagues are able to take without much thought, and, resulting from my safety thus far, I tell myself that I have in fact adapted to the foreign urban setting. Thus, while Yemen included danger and uncertainty, that uncertainty included enough familiarities to score it lower on my risk assessment than a car ride through the rural, Eastern Libyan countryside, where a kidnapping for money could easily escalate into a sexual crime.

Part 2 coming tomorrow: "The Lara Logan Reality Check" and "Lessons from Libya".

Photo Credit: Anna Therese Day