Celebrating the Courage of Women Journalists
These [women journalists] are not one step removed from the social, economic, and political upheaval they witness... They frequently put their lives on the line to deliver the news as it unravels at their doorsteps.
On May 11, 2022, Palestinian journalist Shatha Hanaysha joined a group of reporters gathered near the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. There were whispers about a potential military operation; Israel had increased its raids in the previous weeks. "It was a normal morning, a normal workday," Hanaysha said in the Al Jazeera documentary, The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. "That’s how it started, anyway."
When Shireen Abu Akleh arrived, she greeted Hanaysha and the other reporters warmly. The journalists put on their protective gear—including blue flak jackets marked with the word “Press”—and moved toward the refugee camp. Soon after, the morning’s calm was broken by a barrage of bullets. The journalists quickly sought safety, with Abu Akleh and Hanaysha hiding behind a tree. Within moments, Abu Akleh was struck in the head by a bullet and fell to the ground. Gripped by fear, Hanaysha couldn’t attend to Abu Akleh as she took her final breaths.
Several witnesses claim the perpetrators were Israeli soldiers, and subsequent investigations would support this allegation. "I don't think we were targeted because we were journalists," Hanaysha said, "I’m sure we were targeted because we were journalists."
Women Reporters Face Heightened Risks
Abu Akleh's tragic death demonstrates the steep risks Arab and Middle Eastern women journalists (“sahafiyat” in Arabic) are often forced to take when doing their jobs. Hanaysha’s experience, in particular, shows the emotional toll of this harrowing work, as well. “Imagine there’s someone you look up to all the time as a role model," she told Al-Jazeera. “And suddenly you see them lying on the ground with blood covering their face.”
These courageous sahafiyat are not one step removed from the social, economic, and political upheaval they witness, unlike their Western counterparts. They frequently put their lives on the line to deliver the news as it unravels at their doorsteps. Even the reporters who do have another passport—for example, Abu Akleh was also an American citizen—are often not treated equally to their foreign peers, nor do they enjoy the same security benefits.
In the three years since releasing my book,Our Women on the Ground (OWOTG), the conditions for sahafiyat have worsened in tandem with broader geopolitical developments. Independent media outlets and journalists working under occupation or in authoritarian regimes are subject to the scrutiny of state and non-state actors. These reporters continue to face significant risks, including physical violence, online harassment, and censorship. Sahafiyat are particularly vulnerable because of their gender and the topics they cover. "Sometimes you cover certain stories in which the challenges are emotional, and sometimes they are physical," Abu Akleh herself once said. “How do you protect yourself and stay safe?”
In Iran, amid the crackdown on protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a record number of women reporters have been imprisoned. The detained include Niloufar Hamedi, who broke the news on Amini’s death, and Elaheh Mohammadi, who reported on her funeral. In Egypt, three female journalists from the independent news website Mada Masr stood trialin March on charges of “misusing” social media and "offending" members of parliament. The move followed the brief arrest of Lina Attalah, Mada Masr's founder and OWOTG contributor, in May 2020.
Many OWOTG authors continue to live in exile in Western countries, fearful of the reprisal they could face back home. Although, even while abroad, they are subject to gendered online harassment, often led by government "troll" armies (harassment I’ve personally faced). The 2022 UNESCO report "The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists'' found such attacks can translate into real-life violence and are related to “disinformation, intersectional discrimination, and populist politics.” Aida Alami, a Moroccan journalist, has contended with trolling amid a crackdown on reporters that’s left several of her peers behind bars. And yet, she continues to report on contentious topics.
Indeed, these incredible reporters persist in the face of myriad setbacks. Their work has deepened our understanding of a region in continual flux, from the 2020 Beirut port explosion to the deadly Turkey-Syria earthquake this year to ongoing conflict. I am also heartened by the dozens of young women who have reached out to me after reading OWOTG. Galvanized by the work of the sahafiyat, these women have decided to pursue careers in journalism, despite challenging social factors, ranging from family pushback and security concerns to conservative cultural expectations.
Empowering the region’s women journalists
The last several years have seen positive strides for Arab and MENA women reporters in international media. In 2019, Egyptian journalists Maggie Michael and Nariman El-Mofty won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the war in Yemen. Also that year, Lebanese editor Roula Khalaf became the first woman to lead the Financial Times in its 131-year history. And, Lina Attalah was voted a TIME Person of the Year in 2020 for her contributions to independent journalism.
But there remains much to be done. Stringers and fixers who assist Western journalists must be given better compensation and offered sufficient protections. Besides recognition and greater protection measures, these women need mental health support. For example, it's difficult to fathom the trauma Hanaysha must be battling. Following Abu Akleh's death, she moved to Beirut to study and take a break from journalism. "After what happened, I felt it was difficult for me to be in the field because the sound of every bullet would remind me of what happened. Something inside me broke… I am trying to get better, I am trying to return. I know I will return," she told Al-Jazeera.
In the words of Christiane Amanpour, who wrote OWOTG’s foreword, "We must continue to nurture, encourage, support, protect, and fight for the women who choose to cover these conflict zones. We must also make sure more women are among their ranks because, without them, the stories of today and tomorrow will remain only partly told.”
In doing so, we honor Abu Akleh's legacy and recognize the bravery of Hanaysha.
About the Author
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more
Middle East Women's Initiative
The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research. Read more