Earlier this month, three female television correspondents - Alex Crawford of Sky News, Sara Sidner of CNN and Zeina Khodr of Al Jazeera - shared the "achievement of the year" prize awarded by the Women in Film and TV (WFTV ) media organization in London, for their coverage of the Arab Spring. The judges said the three had set an example for their colleagues, choosing to be out on the street with the rebels and reporting under fire, while others opted to report from the relative safety of hotel rooftops in Tripoli, for example.
Although female war correspondents had been around since World War I, it was only during the days of the Vietnam War that they broke into the collective consciousness in large numbers. Until then, however, war reportage was predominantly a business for "males only" - a rule adhered to by both the military and the news organizations during those earlier times.
But Vietnam was so chaotic that many female freelance reporters simply boarded planes armed with a press card, landed in Saigon and audaciously filed from the field without asking for permission. This was also, inevitably, a sign of the times, in the 1960s, with the advent of the feminist revolution and a transformation in social perceptions that allowed female correspondents to challenge the established news-reporting system and made it more acceptable for that system to use women in the field.
After the last decade, which included the launching of "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan, the Iraq war and, recently, the monumental revolutions and bloody street battles seen across the Arab world - no one can ignore female correspondents on the front lines anymore. Or so we "gals" like to think. Unfortunately, parallel to the groundbreaking and award-winning reports women journalists filed from Egypt, Tripoli and Libya this year, the debate surrounding their presence in the field has reared its ugly head again.
"Hey lady, what are you doing here?" That was what an American G.I. asked Gloria Emerson - The New York Times reporter and one of the first women journalists who convinced her employer to send her to the war zone - upon her arrival in Vietnam in 1964. It is also a question I personally faced several times throughout my 17 years as a news producer for television networks in the field, including in Baghdad, circa 2003, and Tahrir Square last February. It is frequently asked by both civilians and military alike and is approximately as annoying, even if not as harmful, as being tear-gassed.
I am not an anomaly; more experienced and seasoned journalists, like Jackie Rowland of Al Jazeera English, have also been annoyed by this.
"I really don't understand all the brouhaha about 'female war correspondents' this time round," Rowland says. "I mean, haven't we already been there, done that? I remember 10 years ago, with Afghanistan after 9/11, all the magazines and newspapers were doing stories about women war correspondents. I was interviewed by Vanity Fair and various British newspapers. And now, it's like the woman war correspondent has only just been invented! This time round, there was the issue of sexual assault against female journalists in Cairo. Sexual violence against women in any situation is unacceptable. It's certainly not an argument for women not to be there."
But the argument against dispatching women to such areas was "reinforced" following the sexual assault on CBS' "60 Minutes" chief foreign correspondent, Lara Logan, in Tahrir Square the day Hosni Mubarak fell last February. It gained further momentum in recent months after two other journalists - Caroline Sinz of France and Canada's Mona Elthaway - were also attacked in Cairo. It was then that the French-based international organization Reporters Without Borders released a statement calling on news organizations to refrain from sending female correspondents to cover Egypt.
That statement encountered an immediate outcry from female journalist's worldwide, who decried it as a blatant violation of the principle of gender equality, prompting RWB to back down, but also to issue a caveat urging news organizations to assign extra security to its female reporters. Furthermore the original statement by the RWB had already reopened the door to a new slew of sexist, and some say even racist remarks online, joining those that became part of the discourse concerning women reporters in Tahrir Square the moment after Logan was assaulted.
Back in February, a prominent right-wing blogger from the American South who calls herself "Sister Toldjah" deemed the attack on Logan to be "a direct result of a religion and a culture that treats women as no better than chattel, as property to be used whenever a man wants."
Parallel to that, a variety of sexist remarks flooded the Web, one of which called Logan, for example, "a Western blond bombshell whose looks put her and her team in danger in countries like Egypt."
The best response to this holy trifecta of chauvinist, sexist and racist remarks came from Lara Logan herself, when she broke her silence in an interview to her own "60 Minutes" show. The interview was a courageous, singular attempt to dispel rumors and answer the critics who tried to "rape" her assault for the sake of their personal agenda. "In Egypt in particular, sexual harassment and violence are common. So many Egyptian men admit to sexual harassing women and think it's completely acceptable. In fact, blame the women for it," she said.
In addition to the years of experience she brings to her job at Al Jazeera, Jacky Rowland, a tall attractive blond woman, has taken it upon herself to study Arabic to better report from the world she is covering. She punctuates Logan's words: "I think experienced journalists are important to the coverage. Full stop. Whether any particular journalist is male or female is to me not pertinent. However, I think it can be useful for women to be there, sometimes because they are less prone to the whole 'toys for boys' phenomenon that sometimes afflicts male journalists' reporting of war: They get very into all the different types of missiles and maybe gloss over the impact these missiles have when they hit human flesh or buildings ...
"But also, in the Arab/Muslim world, being a woman can sometimes get you access - like, into people's homes - that is more difficult as a man. Local women find it much easier to speak with a female journalist than a male one."
From the moment Egyptians took to the square in Cairo, the world media took notice and touted the amount of female demonstrators that equaled and often surpassed the men in Tahrir. As Egyptian women stood protesting next to their men for the first time, they still apparently preferred speaking with female journalists about their hopes and wishes.
Social habits die hard in the Middle East. The irony of it is that while Arab women called for social and gender equality, the West opted to reexamine the necessity of female journalists covering that plight.
Alex Crawford, the British Sky News correspondent who covered the rebellion in Libya, and one of the three winners of the WFTV achievement award this month, "defeated" the criticism with her work: She wasn't just the only woman to join the rebels as they finally broke into Tripoli - she was the only journalist to report and broadcast that event live.
"War is ugly," says Crawford. "There cannot be very many female journalists - if any - who cover conflict zones who have not suffered some form of attack. You are groped, you are pushed, you are roughed up - and you may be sexually assaulted, God forbid, even raped though this is more rare. This is a war zone. You may also be killed or maimed. These are the dangers for all reporters, male or female, who report on the front line. But are we as females more vulnerable? The statistics from RWB don't bear this out.
"In the week in which Mona Eltahawy and Caroline Sinz were both attacked, there were more than 20 attacks on journalists. Only four of them were female. In one case a male journalist was robbed, forced to strip and then ridiculed before being freed. Each one of us risks his or her life. I don't think of myself as a female journalist. I think of myself as a journalist."
I should say that my acquaintance with Alex Crawford is from up close: I had the privilege of being one of her producers during the 2008 Mumbai, India terror attacks. I can attest that she is not only a highly ethical workaholic, an honestly brave woman and a task-juggling mother of four - she is what every good revolution needs: a very good reporter. Hence I was not surprised when Crawford - who reported at the beginning of the Libyan uprising from the bloody battles in the city of Zawiya - returned to the same Gadhafi stronghold to join the rebels' unit she reported on. This made her the only broadcast journalist to record and report the fall of Tripoli in real time, using a small satellite dish that she and her team managed to power thanks to a cigarette-lighter socket in a rebel convoy vehicle.
Crawford garnered much respect for those reports, yet at an Edinborough television conference she attended shortly after returning from Tripoli, she was asked the stock question she faces time and time again: Should she be doing that job as the mother of four?
She responded: "It's frankly really insulting and very sexist. I am today working alongside the chief correspondent [of Sky], who's a man with three children, yet there will be no one who says: 'What do you think you're doing, how awful, what are you doing to your children?'
In a phone interview, she elaborates: "I have four children who have seen me going off to report on terrible atrocities and injustices around the world. Three of them are daughters. I hope they see the value of their mother going into a battle zone, and giving a voice to people who would otherwise not have one. And if one day when they grow up one of them wants to be a combat reporter, I will be the first to say, 'I am proud of you. Go and try to make a difference.'"
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