Women and War Zones with Zahra Hankir
How do we know what happens in a war zone? Most info comes from journalists—white, Western, male journalists. Zahra Hankir thinks it’s time we heard from a very different group: Arab women reporting from their communities.
Zahra is the curator and editor of a new book: Our Women On the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World —a collection of powerful stories about living and working in conflict zones, all written by women.
She first realized how important this work was in 2011, when she was a journalist working at Bloomberg in Dubai, holed up in a highrise trying to report from afar on the Arab Spring. Now she’s collected the work of 19 different journalists—from a Syrian American straddling multiple cultures during tremendous strife to a Yemeni woman explaining the perils of attempting to travel her country without a male relative as chaperone.
The stakes are so high with so much of the coverage that these women do because they’re writing about their homelands and they’re writing about their neighborhoods and their villages… There is a level of intimacy there and there is a level of personal connection to the story that informs the way they approach the story, and they go through the struggle of having to remain impartial at the same time, even though it feels impossible.—Zahra Hankir, editor and curator of Our Women on the Ground
We talk about:
- Why it matters who we hear from, and which stories are centered in conflict reporting
- What it means to be impartial in journalism—and what to do when that’s impossible
- The challenges of being a reporter and a woman in the Arab world
- Why so many women journalists feel guilty pausing from their reporting to tell their own stories
- How hearing women’s stories changes our conception of the truth
Plus: Passing the Bechdel test, black girls and horror films, the problem of avoiding politics talk, and, on a lighter note…it’s finally clog season, baby!
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
SWB Shout out to our friends at Harvest for sponsoring this episode of Strong Feelings! We use Harvest here at Strong Feelings to manage invoices and keep track of payments. In my consulting company, I use it for time tracking and for ensuring projects are scoped right. And thousands of other companies large and small use it for all kinds of things. So, check it out today! Visit GetHarvest.com/StrongFeelings and you’ll get 50% off your first month. That’s GetHarvest.com/StrongFeelings. [theme music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey, everyone, I’m Sara!
KL And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism––and what happens when you bring them all together. Today we are talking with Zahra Hankir, the editor and curator of a new book called Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World. And, Katel, you’re the one who told me about Zahra. So, how did you hear about this book and what first attracted you to it?
KL Yeah! So, I remember seeing Zahra’s book on a really good summer reading list––and, of course, I can’t remember the exact one now––but I was really intrigued right away. I think because it reminded me of working at National Geographic and just being around such incredible photojournalists. I got to hear them talk about what it was like traveling all over the world and having these wild experiences like getting too close to animals or scrambling down a mountain in the Sinai in the dark and almost losing a camera because they just had to get this final shot before sunset. [both laugh]
SWB I really love that Zahra’s work highlights how so many of those stories though––those stories from places like National Geographic or places like mainstream journalism––are just super western.
SWB Not just at Nat Geo, but most of what we hear about the Arab world comes from Western sources. And she talks in the interview about how so much war reporting, for example, is basically a white guy dropping in, reporting from a war zone for a little while, and then coming home and writing some big memoir about it, and being lauded as this super courageous person who “went there.” And that means that a lot of reporting ends up being from that very white male perspective and isn’t actually from the perspective of the people who are there. Not the ones who “went there” but the ones who “live there.” And how little we end up hearing about women’s lives and how little is told from a woman’s perspective.
KL Yeah, totally. There was a photographer who did this huge project at Nat Geo like twenty years ago where he trekked across the Congo. And all his stories about doing the actual project were so amazing, but he was with all these Congolese guides who helped him hike through the jungle and at the end of the trek, they get to the outer edge of the forest and to a beach. And none of the guides he was with had ever seen the ocean. And it sounded like this really beautiful moment, but it also kind of felt weird because he’s a white man and would he have been able to do that trek and have that beautiful experience without those guides?
SWB I mean, probably not.
SWB Yeah. And that expedition was about conservation issues, right?
SWB And so, yes, conserving the Congo matters, but it’s still a very colonialist perspective to go off and to explore a space and to want to assert some kind of opinion about how that space should be run. It might be a better intentioned thing to do than going in to “civilize” a people, but it’s still a very colonial lens on the world. And it just makes me think about how National Geographic is so fascinating as a publication because it’s iconic, because the photography is amazing, but it’s also super problematic.
SWB I am not the first person to mention that! [laughs]
SWB But there’s such a sense of “othering” that happens when you depict people outside of your group. When you come in with this white, male, Western gaze, and that gets photographed and that ultimately becomes what people understand as being real or accurate about that place, rather than understanding it for what it is, which is one very narrow external lens.
KL Yeah! And I realize now that even when the photographer was a woman, there were some of these same issues because there are, obviously, going to be things a woman can get access to and document that a man might not be able to. So, you are breaking the male gaze, but definitely not the white Western gaze in a lot of situations. There was another photographer whose work I was really moved by and I got to hear her speak about a project she’d done about Afghan women that had been really complicated and challenging for her. And at the time, I thought, “wow, her work is so important and has this huge impact,” but I didn’t really think about the fact that she’s still a white woman reporting on Arab issues. And what did she maybe miss? Why wasn’t one or more of her stories photographed by an Arab woman?
SWB Mmm, right. And I wonder, did anyone ask that question at the time? Would they even ask it now?
KL Right, yeah. I mean, Zahra’s book makes me feel a lot of concern for the Arab women who are reporting from these really dangerous places because they’re probably getting much better and definitely different access than non-Arab and especially white reporters, but it also seems like they’re the most vulnerable in those situations.
SWB Right. Fundamentally, I think that is also a problem of them not being centered––not seen as “normal” reporters––because if they were and their work was taken more seriously, we would do more to fund it, we would do more to make sure that they have protection, that they’re less vulnerable as they’re going out and reporting these stories. And the fact that they’re doing this sort of on the fringe makes them even more vulnerable than the situation would ultimately call for. And, gosh, this just brings so many other parallel issues for me way beyond reporting on global unrest.
SWB There’s this problem of a very narrow gaze being presented as the normal perspective…everywhere.
SWB I think about how books by and about women are labeled as chick-lit, but books about men are…for everyone?
SWB And I think about things like have you seen the stats about how in Oscar-winning films, seventy percent of dialog belongs to men typically? [KL sighs] Or even in films where there’s a woman lead or it seems like it’s a woman-centered story, that there’s still actually less dialogue for women than there is for men? Or in some Disney movies where a girl or a woman is the lead character, her name is the name of the movie––[laughs] that kind of thing [KL laughs]—it still has this huge imbalance in terms of who is actually speaking in the movie. And it’s mostly men.
SWB It’s wild.
KL Yeah. So, you’re saying it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. [laughs]
SWB Most things don’t! It’s pretty sad.
KL [laughing] Yeah. That’s so not surprising. [SWB laughs]
SWB It’s just everywhere! I was listening to a podcast the other day called Unladylike, which I’m sure some of our fans are also fans of, it’s very good. And they were interviewing Ashley Nicole Black, who is very funny. You probably know her from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee or now she’s on A Black Lady Sketch Show. But she told this story [laughs] about trying to get a sketch okayed once––not on A Black Lady Sketch Show because that was all black women. But [laughs] it was on some other project and the sketch was spoofing Scandal…and it was killed by someone in charge who didn’t know what Scandal was, [KL laughs] and assumed no one watched it. And she’s like, “it was the number three show on TV at the time!”
SWB It was on ABC!
KL [laughing] I mean.
SWB And she talks about this idea that she is supposed to get jokes about something from Mad Magazine from the ‘80s, but a white guy can’t be expected to get a joke about Scandal. And then there’s this assumption that if he doesn’t get it, that it’s not something “the audience”––whatever that means––would get.
SWB So, she basically makes a point that it’s not that there isn’t an audience for this, it’s not that there’s not an audience out there to appreciate a spoof on Scandal, but rather that there are always these gatekeepers in place, and that the gatekeepers are particularly non-diverse. The gatekeepers are particularly good at keeping the status quo in place. So, when they assume that if they don’t get the joke, the joke isn’t funny, things just die. And I think that’s what we see everywhere; I think there was a time not very long ago––probably just a few years ago––where even getting a book like Zahra’s published would have been much harder. People would have been like, “who cares? Who wants to hear about this?”
KL Yeah, totally. I also think about this in relation to something I noticed earlier this year. We featured a woman named Jessica in one of our newsletters a while back, who runs a site called Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. There she talks about being a mega-fan of frankly this huge genre that happens either to not represent black people well, especially black women, or if they are represented at all, they’re the first to die. And hers isn’t the only fan blog; there are a bunch created by black women specifically. And it just seems like horror movie makers should check into this untapped and underserved market.
SWB I know! See, for example, Jordan Peele.
KL [laughing] Yeah! [SWB laughs]
SWB It just seems like there’s always so much surprise when movies or shows that center people of color do well. It’s like, “umm yeah, there are audiences there.” And, also, we can all appreciate stories that center people of color, that center people who are different from whoever we are. People of color have to do it all the time, right?
SWB They have to be able to find themselves in white stories. And that’s the thing––when a Western, white, straight, male story gets centered as being “neutral” and gets told as if that’s “normal,” we really do expect everybody to identify with it. Anybody who is not that has learned to identify with it because you need to identify with something! And it just actually takes so little to get to a place where you can appreciate and identify with and learn from other kinds of stories and other people’s humanity. You just have to be open to it and not expect to see yourself replicated on every single screen and every single page. You just have to stop imagining yourself as neutral or normal in the center and then it’s really easy actually [laughs] to enjoy all these other perspectives!
KL Yeah! It’s really unnerving to think about how long the idea of quote-unquote “neutral” has been baked into our culture.
SWB And you mean white culture.
SWB Yeah, yeah! In my mind, it is definitely related to this idea that politics don’t belong at work, for example. Or “oh, I think it’s impolite to talk about politics”––those kinds of conversations. Because they might come from good intentions of wanting to keep the peace or not make things divisive or prevent tension, but it creates this culture that by default, ends up reinforcing one set of politics, which are white, cis, het, male.
SWB And that reinforces one type of power structure to the detriment of everyone else.
KL Yeah. I definitely used to be someone who would say, “I don’t talk about politics.”
KL And I’m so embarrassed by that! Now if I hear that, I equate it with statements like, “I don’t see race.” It just translates to “I’m choosing to ignore this huge issue that is extremely pervasive, but because it doesn’t affect me specifically today, I choose not to think about it.” It’s so fucked up because, as you were pointing to, it’s so many people’s everyday lives just having to contend with the results of racism, which are institutionalized by way of political structures!
SWB Right, yes! I am always thankful to the people of color who specifically call out that they don’t get to choose to not, quote, “talk about politics.” That their existence in a space is political, their bodies are political, and that it is a privilege to be able to avoid topics because they don’t affect you. That’s because you live in a space where you’re not actually affected by that much.
SWB Not many things are harming you. Do you remember when that actually changed for you? When it clicked for you that you needed to be able to talk about politics? [both laugh]
KL A while back we talked about when we realized we needed to become better educated about race and racism and I feel like it was probably around that same time––understanding that it’s all inextricably linked and that politics––how you vote regardless of affiliation, who you put in power––directly affects which systems persist. And, honestly, that’s when I realized that all the time I’d spent just kind of choosing not to talk or think about politics, I’d actually been taking advantage of my many privileges and actively harming marginalized people. It especially crystallized for me at one point when a conference in our field earlier this year told its speakers to keep politics out of their talks.
SWB I know who you are talking about and that was very disappointing. But I will say, I was pleased to see them get a bunch of backlash for it because I want people to be able to say, “no, this is not acceptable in the year 2019, we know better.”
KL I mean, we really do, come on. [SWB sighs]
SWB We really ought to and some of us definitely do not.
SWB You know, the thing is, when I hear that, I think, everything is political, existence is political, and in fact, this guy’s perspective is also political! His white, male, cishet, Western perspective is also political—he just doesn’t identify it as such!
KL Uh, he definitely doesn’t, it’s very myopic.
SWB Right. And these guys have just gotten away with acting like their existence isn’t political for so long because their perspective has been the only perspective that we’re hearing from. And I think that brings us back to Zahra, and Our Women on the Ground, because we have to hear from and learn from so many more perspectives in every aspect of life. Because I think it’s only when we start to see these perspectives that we start to recognize the biases that are inherent in our perception of what normal is. So, I’m really glad that we’re starting to see wider ranges of work get published. And I hope everyone listening today thinks about how they can also be part of that change. How do you make sure that as you go through your life––especially if you’ve amassed some set of privileges, some bit of power––how do you end up not being the gatekeeper who is going to keep voices like this from being heard? That’s what I’m working on. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Zahra Hankir
KL Zahra Hankir is an award-winning journalist focusing on the intersection of politics, culture, and society in the Middle East. Her work has appeared in BBC News, Al Jazeera English, Businessweek, and Vice, and she’s also the curator and editor of a new book: Our Women On the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World. We are thrilled to talk with her today. Zahra, welcome to Strong Feelings!
Zahra Hankir Thank you so much for having me!
KL So, let’s dig into the book. As we mentioned, it’s a collection of essays by Arab women from the Arab world, but can you tell us what that really entails?
ZH My goal with this book was to really amplify the voices of Arab women journalists who had been doing incredible work on the ground from the region for decades really, and their voices haven’t been I would say appreciated in the same way that the voices of their western counterparts have. Western journalists tend to come to the region, write a report about it for a year or two, and then to go on to write memoirs or authoritative nonfiction narrative books about the region. And I felt that there was a gap in that narrative and that Arab women, specifically local women who live and work in the region, have a really unique approach to their coverage and also face a unique set of challenges. So, my goal here was to collect those voices and to allow those women to speak for themselves and to tell their incredible stories.
KL Was there a particular catalyst that inspired you to really focus in on these stories?
ZH Absolutely. I was a journalist with Bloomberg News in Dubai during the Arab Spring. Part of my job was to monitor regional and local media to get a real feel for what was going on on the ground because, essentially, I was covering the region from my desk. From highrises in Dubai, I was covering finance and economics, I was not at all on the ground. So, as I was monitoring this media coverage, I started to follow closely some incredible women who were really risking their lives on the frontlines to do incredible work that I feel was somewhat different from what their Western counterparts were doing. They were often telling stories that others were not telling, whether they were Western or male Arab journalists. So, they were telling stories about women in the region. And I kind of felt these are stories that are important and that are often not elevated when you have discourse on war and conflict. And that was when the idea was born. And then over the years––I wasn’t sure how to package it at the time, whether it would be a podcast or a website or a blog or so on and so forth. I eventually decided a book would be the best way to do it. In terms of the plurality of voices, I really wanted the diversity of the region to come through with this book; I want anyone who is maybe not so well versed in the region to pick up the book and come away from it feeling like they’ve learned an incredible amount in terms of the social, political, and cultural history of the region. And also to illustrate just how diverse the women of the region are. These are 22 countries and we’ve got over 400 million people in the region. So, it was quite a task, but I feel like I did choose quite a good cross-section there.
KL Yeah. And you are Lebanese British, right?
ZH I am, yes. I was born in the UK during the Lebanese civil war and I grew up watching news. My parents constantly watched the news because it was their only real way to keep in touch with what was going on on the ground. There was no internet, oftentimes phone lines would be down, they wouldn’t be able to keep up with anything unless they were watching the news. So, for me, journalists were kind of heroes––like portals into another world. And also into my own identity because I had a dual identity, so I was learning about my country through the stories that these journalists were telling. And as I grew older, I think that interest and fascination deepened. I definitely would say I have one foot in the West and one foot in the Arab world. That also allowed me to analyze the narrative of the region from a journalistic perspective and to spot that there were certain gaps that I believed needed to be filled.
SWB So, you mentioned a minute ago that there’s just such a wide range of women who you feature in the book that are reflective of such a wide range of women across these 22 countries. And I’d love to talk about that a little bit. So, you’ve got some folks in there who are more veteran reporters with a lot of experience, you have people who have maybe even left journalism, but you also have people who are new to journalism working at different kinds of media companies, working in different kinds of capacities as journalists. And I’m curious about how you came at figuring out what that range would be and what was important about having so many different perspectives in the mix.
ZH It was a tough one because I really was thinking about multiple variables. I was thinking about the ages of the women, their nationalities, their religious backgrounds, the type of journalism that they do, when they entered the field, when they left the field––because as you rightfully said, some of them have left the field––the types of stories that they were telling, and whether or not they had a dual identity like myself. Some of the women in the book do. They are in a section called Crossfire––those are women who are caught between two identities who have covered or experienced war. I felt like I wanted them to be part of the story, the broader story of the Arab world. There’s such a huge Arab diaspora. Now, you have the refugee crisis and there is so much displacement and forced exile that I feel that the stories of these women as well are part of the broader story of the Arab world. And that all feeds into really what I was trying to do with this book, which was to illustrate how layered and how nuanced this story is. There is no one story, there is no one Arab woman, there is a plurality of voices and there are multiple stories. And that was really my goal here.
SWB Yeah! I mean, I love that because I do recognize that in Western media there’s often a very narrow depiction of an Arab woman and there isn’t that much diversity of what that means, diversity of experience, and diversity of religion, and diversity of a lot of different facets. So, I really appreciate you trying to bring that out, while also tying some of those stories together and showcasing some of the ways that all of these different lives experience at least some shared challenges or similar challenges. And I’m curious––was there anything that you felt as you put this collection together that really jumped out at you as a theme that tied a lot of these stories together?
ZH Guilt was a very big one. I think a lot of the women felt immense guilt that perhaps they weren’t doing enough to tell the story of the region. The guilt was also in relation to their own personal lives. Perhaps they as mothers or as partners or as daughters that they were disappointing their families. So, I think in terms of privilege too, a lot of the women feel much more privileged than some of the people that they are covering. I, for one, struggled with guilt myself when looking at the women and their stories because I was editing this book from the comfort of my London apartment with all the privileges that accompany having a Western passport. So, I think it was quite meta in that sense. I was feeling guilty, they were feeling guilty, [laughs] there was just…there was a lot! It’s unfortunate. I really don’t think men experience guilt in the same way when it comes to these subjects that it was definitely quite a poignant theme in the book. There’s also another very positive strong theme, which is resilience. I don’t focus too much on guilt because resilience is for me what shines most throughout every single page, every paragraph, every word in this book. These women are faced with these challenges, but it’s what they do to overcome them, to surpass them, to tell the stories that they tell that really makes this book so incredible and so unique.
KL Something else I was really surprised at was the breadth of writing style. There’s one essay that I really loved by Natacha Yazbeck that read almost like a poem, and it was just so moving. And I really love that all of these different views and perspectives allowed me to get to know each woman and her writing, but it also painted really vivid pictures of who they are. How did the stories take shape? Did the contributors have an open-ended assignment or did you collaborate more hands on to shape the kinds of essays they’d write?
ZH It really depended on the woman. I worked quite heavily with several of the women and then with others, I didn’t work much with them at all. It just depended on the extent to which they felt they’d already formulated an idea of were comfortable with telling their own stories. Those who were away from the field I feel struggled a bit less than those who were on the field. A couple of them––a couple of the women who were enduring trauma as they were writing, I had to work so closely with them to the extent that I would speak to them almost daily. They would be sharing things with me like nightmares they were having or dilemmas or having been detained. All of those stories filtered into the book, but they wanted guidance from me as to how to package their stories and whether or not they could be told in the chapter as they had it in their minds. So, it really did vary. I would say with a couple of the women, I barely even worked with them in the sense that it was almost like they had the story and were ready. And then with most I would say I worked closely with them, but with a few I worked incredibly closely with them. And I feel that actually we formed quite a strong bond even though I hadn’t met many of these women.
KL Yeah. I think that process can be so raw. And when you get to a point when you are either stuck or there are things in your way of telling those stories. Was there anything that you did to kind of help move that along and encourage them or help them make space to do it?
ZH I think it was a matter of figuring out when they needed space from me and the editorial process because I would kind of help push them along or nudge them. And occasionally perhaps they weren’t quite ready to address the suggestions that I would make, so they would need time. And I would never push them, so there was an exchange over a period of months with a couple of the women where it worked out beautifully, but I really think it was because I was sensitive to their needs in terms of actually accepting that they were first telling a story. Some of them questioned the notion of telling their own stories––that goes back to guilt because they felt, “why is my story more important than anyone else’s? Why should I be telling my own story?” And then having to contend with the challenges that they’re questioning and reflecting on, and then technically having to write. So, there were so many obstacles for some of the women that I really had to give them a lot of space. But then I would have to chase them for deadlines and I would have to make suggestions here or there. So, there was a lot of back and forth; I would say it was a delicate balance of being an editor and also just being highly sensitive and acute to what they were going through.
SWB Yeah, being an editor is tough! [all laugh] It’s hard!
KL It is. [laughs]
SWB So, something I’m really curious about is that you have a bunch of essays from people who are reflecting on experiences, reporting from warzones or conflict zones, and that I think in general is a very difficult job. As you mentioned, it’s historically something that is pretty male-dominated. So, I’m really curious about what you learned from women who were doing this kind of reporting and what it’s like for them, particularly when they’re doing that kind of reporting from a place they actually live in and come from.
ZH I actually would love to read very quickly from one of the chapters, which I think beautifully captures what you’re saying. It’s from Zaina Erhaim, the chapter is Hurma, she’s a Syrian journalist. And she says:
The journalistic norm of keeping a distance with your sources is, to me, an abstract concept as removed from normality as living alone on an island. My sources are my schoolmates, relatives, and family members, and those death counts flashing on your screens contain my first lovers, teachers, neighbors, and friends.
I think that that sentence stands out in particular in the context of what you’re saying. The stakes are so high with so much of the coverage that these women do because they’re writing about their homelands and they’re writing about their neighborhoods and their villages. Not all of them––some of the women write about other conflicts in other countries––but it’s that idea that there is a level of intimacy there and there is a level of personal connection to the story that informs the way they approach the story and they go through the struggle of having to remain impartial at the same time, even though it feels impossible for some of them. A couple of the essays actually delve into that idea of, how can I be impartial when this is my homeland? One of the authors, Nour Malas, she is Syrian American––she straddles that line. “How am I going to write this story as a Syrian American? How do I remain as impartial as I should be as a journalist?” So, it’s a fascinating question, and a very difficult one, and I would say it’s one of the challenges that many of the women face. They don’t have that one-step-removed privilege that other people have. And many of them don’t have the privilege of the passport that offers them protection as well.
SWB Yes, yes. I’m so glad you’re talking about this because this is something Katel and I were discussing before this interview about this book––the way in which it makes me question at least what exactly is the role of that journalistic distance and is that always the right thing? Do we just privilege that or prioritize that or think that that’s the best way to do journalism because that’s the perspective that has been normalized in the West? And why is it that we tend to believe that that might be better than letting yourself into the story? Sort of questioning a lot of assumptions that I think are pretty baked into the culture about what it means to do journalism well.
ZH This discrepancy and difference comes out in the book. Because as I said, the women work for Western media organizations or they have a foot in the West and a foot in the Arab world. And you can see there’s a bit of a difference in terms of how personal I would say the locals are when they’re talking about their coverage. You feel that there is a bit more distance between the story and the women who write for Western media. Perhaps because it’s just the norm for them. These are Western media organizations they’ve been working for for years, so it affects their approach. But there’s still a struggle there, and that struggle I would say is universal.
KL Yeah. Even in the very beginning, you tell us about a journalist named Ruqia, and how she “wavered between reporting what she’d witnessed and how she felt.” And I think this really ties to what we’re just talking about––navigating neutrality and emotional distance. Because a lot of these essays are about events happening in these women’s homes and to their people and themselves. Is there space to bring feelings into journalism and should there be?
ZH I very carefully refer to Ruqia Hassan as a citizen journalist because I do think there is a big difference there. If you are utilizing social media to tell the story of what you’re witnessing, you have more flexibility in the tone and how you approach the story, particularly in polarized situations in which perhaps you might be against a certain regime, or a certain Islamist group, or so on. At the same time, the risks are very, very high for those women-–for the women who are doing that sort of journalism. I think journalism should remain impartial, even though it’s incredibly difficult to do so in certain situations. I do think that there’s a space for telling stories in different ways that are not necessarily mainstream journalism, but they might be memoir or nonfiction narrative. Which is what this book presents really. It’s essentially them telling stories journalistically, but really what they’re telling is the stories of their own lives as well. And I think that sort of storytelling offers a different level of nuance and intimacy for the reader; they will learn about a conflict or a particular society in a different way. And I think there’s a lot of value in that sort of writing, even though it isn’t straight-up journalism. It sort of straddles the line between nonfiction narrative and journalism.
KL Is there a support system? What kind of support are these journalists getting to manage the stresses they’re going through?
ZH I think it’s quite difficult to generalize because there are so many different contexts; it’s more difficult for some of these women to be journalists in some societies. It’s more difficult to be a journalist in a society in which there’s an ongoing war. Some societies are more repressive than others, some fare worse when it comes to women’s rights. Generally, I find that the women find support with each other––women supporting women in the region, particularly in this industry, is very big. And also once they overcome certain challenges within their own families where some of the families might be resistant at first to the idea of them being a journalist because of the risks that they are aware that their daughters or wives or partners may be taking. Once they come to terms with that, they often then––at least based on the stories in this book, the families then become a huge element of support for these women. And friends too! You have stories in Yemen, for example, of a photojournalist, who gets around the country––she goes from one place to another—with male friends who drive her around pretending to be relatives because in some societies, these women can’t move from point A to point B unless they have a male with them who is a relative. Similarly, in Syria Zaina Erhaim had friends who would drive her around and she would pretend that they were her relatives. So, the support is there and the belief and the importance in journalism is there, but so are the challenges. And they’re ongoing; they continue to worsen in many countries across the Middle East.
SWB Yeah. I was really interested in hearing about how women make it work—how they can get out there and figure out how to do this thing that they want to do despite the fact that they’re not necessarily in a place where that is easy for them for a lot of different reasons—you’ve touched on some of them. And it also made me think a little bit about your impetus going into this project. We talked earlier about how you’d been working as a journalist and started talking about this collection back in 2011 when the Arab Spring was happening. As that was starting to cross your mind, how were you first thinking about this project? What were you first hoping to be able to accomplish and how did that evolve as it came together?
ZH I think mostly at first I felt that some of the stories that these women were telling were not getting enough attention. So, for me, it was first seeking out those stories and seeking out the coverage by these women. And then seeing the sorts of stories they were telling. And then on a personal level, wondering what the stories behind those stories were. So, I can give you an example. For example, the Libyan journalist Heba Shibani, she became a journalist after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. She eventually started to host a show that was focused on women’s issues. So, she turned her attention away from the quote-unquote “bang bang” of war and she was focusing on stories that were not really being told prominently in the media. For example, Libyan women not having the right to pass on their nationality to their children. And then Amira Al-Sharif is a photojournalist in Yemen––she turned the camera towards women. She was going into private homes realizing that she could access certain spaces that males could not access and taking advantage of that and realizing that that’s the story that she wanted to tell––stories of resilience among women. And there’s another one also in Egypt––a photojournalist who turns her attention towards sexual harassment where she experienced it herself and then decided that she was going to be telling that story at a time when the media was focusing perhaps on other things in the aftermath of the revolution and the uprising there. So, I was so amazed and in awe of these women that partially this was a project of celebration for me where I wanted really to amplify their voices on the global level to really elevate the work that they’re doing and to appreciate them in the way that I believe that they should be, whilst also wanting to learn about how these women came to do that kind of work, knowing myself as an Arab woman the challenges that they must have been facing. So, I would say, yes, it’s partially a project of celebration. Actually, it’s hugely a project of celebration of the work that they were doing.
SWB Yeah, yeah. And I think that comes through, even though it’s not necessarily all an upbeat tone because there’s so much that’s really difficult about it. But I think celebrating these stories and creating more space for them is so wonderful. And I wanted to ask a little more about your career––you mentioned just now being an Arab woman in journalism and some of the challenges that that has entailed for you. And I’m curious if we could talk more about that. So, can you tell us a little bit about becoming this journalist that you became? How did you get there?
ZH Sure. So, we returned to Lebanon in the mid-nineties when the civil war had died down, and I immediately knew that I wanted to be a journalist; I really didn’t have any other career in mind. When I started at the American University of Beirut as a student, I became an editor and then the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper there at a time of great political uncertainty, a string of political assassinations, polarization––nationally and also on campus. And I led a newsroom that was filled with men, but also some of the women on my team were just incredibly, incredibly tenacious women and did some of the best work. That for me was a really formative period. That was really when I decided, “okay, women are not necessarily taken as seriously as men in this space, but we should be.” And I continued to pursue this line of work. I had definitely experiences in which I was not taken seriously, in which I experienced harassment myself. I would say, however, that I am lucky compared to some of the women in the book because Lebanon actually has more press freedoms than other countries in the region when it comes to journalism. That said, there’s a lot of self-censorship as well in the country. So, when I say that I experienced some of the challenges, I would still say that I was quite lucky compared to others. But my feeling as a journalist covering the country, whether it was as the editor of the student newspaper or later on when I worked as a local journalist for a local website was that this work needed to be done and more women needed to be heard in this space, and so many women were already doing incredible work in this space. And I was also facing the same thing where I was tied or connected to the stories that I was writing about and all those issues of impartiality as well having to keep that distance from the story, but also feeling very connected to it. So, all of those personal experiences for me all informed the editing and the curation of this book. And I went on, obviously––I went to Columbia, I studied journalism there, and then I worked in Dubai with Bloomberg News, which was a little bit I would say––it was a fascinating experience, but I was covering the economy and business and that wasn’t my main interest really, so I broke away from that and since then I’ve done more cultural-type journalism. But yeah! I hope that kind of captures what you asked. [laughs]
SWB Yeah! And I’m curious thinking about that career a little bit. So, you were a student journalist in Beirut and then you were in graduate school in the US, is that right?
SWB At some point, you ended up back in Dubai and then now you’re back in London. How has your perspective shifted as you’ve moved between these different cultures and different spaces? Like you mentioned, working on more of a local news site versus working in very international organizations. How has that impacted the way that you see the Middle East or the way that you see yourself within this broader world?
ZH Sure! I mean, I think I have quite a decent understanding of the differences between local journalism in the Middle East and then how the story of the Middle East is then told by global, Western media organizations and how those organizations command the narrative on what’s unraveling in the region. Local journalism is problematic in the Middle East; it’s highly polarized, it’s often state-controlled, journalists face extremely repressive measures. As I said there’s self-censorship, journalists are often killed. I have an understanding of both of those landscapes, so for me, working in the region as a local journalist and then also working for international media organizations, I saw that discrepancy and experience, that discrepancy and also noted the gap in the narrative in terms I think of a lack of complete understanding of what’s going on in the region. And that’s really what led me to this book because there is a big divide I think in terms of the story that’s told––the top-level story that’s told––the one that we have access to in the West and really what’s unraveling on the ground. And I think that this book fills part of that gap.
SWB Yeah, definitely. It’s one of the things I really like about it. And I’m also curious now with your perspective both as a woman in journalism from the Arab world over the past several years, as well as putting together this book and working with so many women—do you feel like the landscape for Arab women in journalism is shifting? Is there starting to be more space for women’s stories? You mentioned these women going out and making that happen; do you feel like the landscape is starting to adapt to having more women involved?
ZH I definitely think so. I think there are a lot of great, Western media organizations that are employing more and more Arab women as they recognise the importance of having this local understanding and the linguistic skill. This year, the Pulitzer Price in International Reporting was awarded to two Egyptian female journalists––I think they were part of a group, but that was really fantastic news as well where, finally, the work of these women is being acknowledged. I do think there’s a shift, I still think there’s more to be done, but I think that more and more people are understanding that to get the full understanding of any conflict, of any region, you need not only the voices of women, you need the voices of local women as well. So, I think that that’s an important shift that’s very gradually happening after decades of mostly Western, white men really commanding the narrative on these regions.
KL So, we are almost out of time, but before we wrap, I wanted to ask you if you have any advice for women either entering journalism or thinking about it as a career?
ZH If you have a passion for a subject, you should absolutely chase it. I used to struggle with this idea of impartiality a lot when I was a student at Columbia. I had a fantastic mentor––David klatell—and I wanted to write at the time about the private Islamic schooling system in New York City. And I was very nervous to do that considering I come from a Muslim background; I felt like perhaps my impartiality would affect my work. He gave me the best advice at the time, which I’ve cherished, which is if you’re passionate about a subject, you should, by all means, write about it and chase it. As long as you’re maintaining the highest journalistic ethics and standards, what you’re actually doing is you’re bringing your own knowledge to a story; it’s not necessarily about bias and impartiality. That has informed my career in a way in the sense that I’ve chased stories about the Arab world and the Middle East for my entire career. It’s what I feel most passionately about and it’s what I feel I can bring the most value to as a discourse, and I feel like people shouldn’t shy away from covering what they’re passionate about. They can always find a way to do that.
SWB Now, Our Women on the Ground is on sale now, and we want everybody to pick up a copy, but we’re also wondering––where else can listeners follow you online and keep up with everything you’re working on?
ZH Sure! So, I’m on Twitter @ZahraHankir and I’m also on Instagram @ZahraHankir and I have a website––ZahraHankir.com. I post a lot of my stories and work there.
KL Thank you so much for joining us!
ZH Thank you! This was so much fun, I really appreciate it. [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
KL Alright. Sara, I have a very obvious “fuck yeah” for you––one that you probably won’t be surprised by. [laughs]
SWB Okay, let me think. What would I not be surprised by? [KL laughs] Is it a fuck yeah to croissants?
KL No, that’s a good guess though.
SWB Like a croissant dipped into a latte is like a Katel LeDû original.
KL That really is, and now I want that! [SWB laughs]
SWB Okay, what is it?
KL Um, no. So, I needed to get a new pair of clogs because…[SWB laughs] you know, [laughs] it’s clog season, baby! [laughs]
SWB I love how much you love clogs. [KL laughs]
KL And I almost went for the straight down the middle, black regular pair. But instead, I got myself a pair of candy-apple-red patent-leather clogs.
SWB Ooh! Fancy clogs!
KL That’s right! And I can’t wait to show them to you. They’re just extremely––they make me very happy and they’re extremely good and red.
SWB That’s exciting. And I just imagine you opening the door––like a double door––[KL laughs] to a big walk-in closet and it’s just lined with clogs! [laughs]
KL That’s like my dream though! [both laugh]
SWB Well, fuck yeah to your growing clog collection and fuck yeah to it finally being fall weather to wear them!
KL Yeah, fuck yeah!
SWB That is it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer, check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Zahra Hankir for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked our episode, please make sure to subscribe and rate to us wherever it is that you listen to podcasts. And you can also get Strong Feelings right in your inbox. We’ve got a newsletter called “I Love That” and you can get it at strongfeelings.co. See you all next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]