Arab women reporters on front lines of war

A male news anchor appears on screen from the safety of Arabic station al-Jazeera’s studio in Doha as two female correspondents in full war gear report live from both sides of the Lebanon-Israel front line.

This is the new face of war reporting that Arab audiences have been seeing since Israel launched its all-out onslaught on Lebanon on July 12 in an attempt to defeat Hezbollah militants.

Young female reporters beat their male colleagues to the forefront of the war zone, braving the danger of becoming a target for the gunships hovering over their heads.

Arab women correspondents, including Iraqis, have increasingly been reporting for Arab television outlets from violence-wrecked Iraq, and a number were killed doing their job.

But the Hezbollah-Israel showdown brought Arab female reporters out in force from day one, and it was not long before a Lebanese freelance photographer paid with her life.

Layal Nagib (23) was killed on the spot when an Israeli missile struck next to the taxi in which she was travelling in south Lebanon.

“I volunteered to go to south Lebanon, although I usually work in the newsroom in Doha,” said Katia Nasser, whose name and face became familiar among Arab audiences in a matter of days.

“The management did not discourage me from going for being a woman. On the contrary, I felt they appreciated my decision,” Katia said from al-Jazeera’s Beirut office.

Women in general take a back seat in most of the male-dominated conservative Middle Eastern societies, but in audiovisual media, Arab women are increasingly occupying the turf.

Katia’s West Bank-based colleagues Shereen Abu Aqleh and Jivarah al-Budairi had long been used to getting caught in crossfire. This time they stood on the Israeli side of the border, reporting on the Hezbollah missiles pounding northern Israel.

Bushra Abdel Samad, who until July 11 reported for al-Jazeera on the endless bickering between Lebanese politicians, was the first to appear in blue body armour and a helmet from southern Lebanon.

Dubai-based al-Arabiya television also sent out female reporters to cover the fierce bombing of Beirut’s southern suburbs. In awe, Rima Maktabi and Najwa Qassem watched from a hill overlooking the densely populated Shi’ite area being bombarded from air and sea.

Lebanon’s private televisions also dispatched members of the female press corps to the hot spots, outnumbering their male counterparts.

LBC’s Mona Saliba fed reports from the flashpoint border town of Bint Jbeil, shortly before it became famous as the scene of fierce fighting between advancing Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants.

NTV’s Nancy Sabea clutched her flak jacket as she roamed devastated neighbourhoods in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Katia, for one, admitted it can be scary. “It’s normal to be scared. Courage boils down to controlling this fear and not letting it show on camera,” she said.

Fear becomes more tangible after listening to Katia’s narration of the targeting of a press convoy with which she travelled to flee the border zone. “I felt that life had suddenly turned into slow motion as I saw dust and smoke billowing around me,” she said, describing the aftermath of the shelling that hit in front of and behind the five-vehicle convoy.

Herself a Lebanese from the south, Katia appeared to be struggling on screen to hide her sympathy for southerners who were being killed or fleeing their villages.

“Humans were more important for me than anything else happening on the ground. This was my people being hit. On air, I separated between personal feelings and pure reporting, but — off air — I cried twice,” she said.

Female reporters appear more professional than male counterparts in adhering to safety precautions. Male correspondents have been seen roaming dangerous zones without bullet-proof vests. When some take the trouble of wearing a flak jacket they do not bother to don a helmet.

But taking risks seems to pay back for female reporters in quick fame.

“You are a hero,” said Katia, recalling messages she received from viewers in many Arab countries.

“I feel I got more [praise] than I deserve … too much,” she said, insisting that she was “only one among those people” who were stuck in their bombed villages.

One male Gulf columnist went even further in praising one female reporter stationed in Beirut to claim that she has “outdone [veteran Western reporters] Kate Adie and Christiane Amanpour”. — AFP

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