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Stories From Arab Female Reporters In 'Our Women On The Ground'


Often when we hear or read stories from the Middle East, the reporting is from the perspective of Western journalists, and often they're men. But when journalist Zahra Hankir was working in the region during the Arab Spring, she followed reporters who, like her, were women from the Middle East.

ZAHRA HANKIR: It was a little bit selfish in a way because I wondered what these women were experiencing on the field, what they were feeling about what they were seeing, considering that they were from those actual countries. And also I felt that they had a unique set of challenges that they had to contend with.

MARTIN: So Hankir decided to make and edit a collection of 20 essays written by 20 female journalists from the region. It's titled "Our Women On The Ground: Essays By Arab Women Reporting From The Arab World." When we spoke with her earlier this week, Hankir talked about those particular risks that these reporters face.

HANKIR: Some of these women, particularly the women from Yemen and Egypt and Syria, they faced situations where they had to at first contend with the fact that their families were opposed to the careers that they were choosing for them. So Eman Helal, for example, the Egyptian photojournalist, her family did not want her to be a journalist at all because she would have to navigate spaces that were male-dominated, that it was expected of the woman to not be in those spaces, to be at home.

Similarly, in Yemen, Amira Al-Sharif, also a photojournalist, she had to conceal from her family that she wanted to be a journalist. She ended up being a fixer for international media, but much of her work initially was just her going to the streets taking photographs, moving from place to place with a male chaperone who would not be her relative. That was a risk in and of itself, and then having to contend with the fact that her family was opposed to that work.

MARTIN: So even though, as women in these countries where women have been historically, if not presently, subjugated, they face all these challenges, at the same time, their gender gives them unique access to people.

HANKIR: I completely agree with that. And I actually love and admire that about the women, in that they faced their challenges, but they decided they were going to overcome them in their own unique ways. Eman Helal, I go back to her essay a lot because she decided to embark upon a project about sexual harassment that Egyptian women were facing during the revolution and then in the aftermath. And that was in part because she experienced sexual harassment herself, so she decided she wanted to raise awareness on this subject.

MARTIN: I was also struck by the essay from Hwaida Saad, who explained how she developed all these sources, really, these men who became fighters in Syria. And they would share with her details of their life that it becomes clear it's not even - you don't even know if they're sharing those with their own friends and family.

HANKIR: These were ISIS soldiers. These were men who would come to join ISIS. These were soldiers who - you know, they fought with the Syrian regime. These are not voices you would expect to hear from in such an intimate way. And Hwaida got so close to them. She essentially, in her essay, writes about other people but reveals a lot about herself in doing that because, essentially, she's also realized that she has that advantage as a woman of becoming closer to these men than, let's say, a foreign male reporter might. And she navigates that really beautifully in a very fascinating way.

MARTIN: Amira Al-Sharif, again, wrote this in her essay - Western photographers tend to be drawn to the carnage, but I have continued to seek out the other part of Yemen that is full of life, love and hope. I mean, I guess it's unfair to say that that's a quality that is exclusive to women. But have you found that that is a tendency in the coverage, to find those more personal stories, especially in war?

HANKIR: It's interesting that you ask that because I feel generally that there is a lot of tragedy in this book. And there's somewhat hopelessness in some of the essays, whereas there's a lot of hope and light and resilience as well in the essays. And that's why Amira's essay is actually in the resilient section because she felt that she wanted to be telling those positive stories because the world had been flooded with all of these horrible images of what was happening in Yemen. So this was a space that she thought that she wanted to focus on. I do think that resilience is a very strong theme in the book, and that's why there's an entire section devoted to it. And I think Amira's in particular really, really brings that to light.

MARTIN: As journalists, we all strive for some kind of distance in the storytelling, right? But there is such a personal essay in here from Nada Bakri, who writes about the death of her husband, reporter Anthony Shadid of The New York Times. Can you just talk a little bit about that piece?

HANKIR: I never approached any of the essayists with ideas in mind in terms of what I wanted them to write about. I wanted them to speak to their own truth to whatever they felt was the most poignant experience for them. And that was it for Nada, and Nada wrote so honestly about what she'd experienced. And it was all tied as well into her own career. It wasn't just about losing Anthony. It was about how all of those different threads came together in her life - the Arab Spring.

And that takes me back to the idea of hopelessness because that's Nada's story. She felt that way, and she was speaking to her own truth. And some of the women have similar feelings about the region, where it's almost like, well, this is just - the losses are too steep.

MARTIN: We mentioned resiliency. Are there other themes that connect these essays?

HANKIR: I think identity is a big one. All of them definitely feel very strongly about where they come from. I tend to say there's this idea of a homeland - and it's quite poetic in the Arab world - where, I'm from here. I want to be telling the story. This is the truth of what's happening in my homeland.

And then there are also women who have dual identities. I'm personally one of those women, where I was born in the U.K. during the Lebanese Civil War. You've got Jane Arraf, who's Canadian and Palestinian. You've got Hannah Allam. She's Egyptian. She's also American. And there's this feeling that you have kind of a duty to kind of be telling that story.

And you - you're living in privilege yourself because you didn't experience what many of your - you know, the people from your homeland experienced because you were born elsewhere. And in many ways, that's also part of the story of the region because displacement and forced exile is part of that. Guilt is a running theme as well throughout the book, where there's a lot of guilt from all of the women, really, about what they're seeing and whether or not they're really conveying the truth in as powerful a manner as possible.

MARTIN: It's a beautiful collection of essays. It's titled "Our Women On The Ground: Essays By Arab Women Reporting From The Arab World," edited by Zahra Hankir. Thank you so much for talking with us.

HANKIR: Thank you for having me. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE TRIO JOUBRAN'S "MASAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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