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Out of Conflict, Opportunity In Syria

IWPR Senior Journalist and Syria Coordinator Zaina Erhaim along the Euphrates River in Syria before ISIS occupation. Photo by Hayyan Alyousouf.
IWPR Senior Journalist and Syria Coordinator Zaina Erhaim along the Euphrates River in Syria before ISIS occupation. Photo by Hayyan Alyousouf.

Women journalists say they can and must continue to push for a diversity of women’s voices in Syrian media despite the devastation of war.

After more than five years, the war in Syrian wages on, and ambitious social developmental goals like women’s equality are overshadowed by the Syrians’ daily struggle for survival. But a group of women journalists say it’s not only possible under such conditions to campaign for improvement in the status of Syrian women in the media, but it’s imperative.

By providing journalism training hosted in neighboring countries or via social media, by creating publishing platforms focused on the experiences of women in war-torn Syria, and by publicly insisting that women be recognized as community leaders and included in any future peace process, they’re not only laying a foundation for a more just society when the war ends, but also addressing the lives of women suffering now.

“As well as telling stories from women, we’re creating a record of what happened in Syria from the perspectives of women, who are often marginalized by society,” said Daniella Peled, managing editor with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

In addition to running a training program for Syrian women journalists, IWPR publishes blogs in Arabic and English by Syrian women about their daily lives in besieged cities, under the control of ISIS militants, or in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Posts are written both by women who are experienced journalists and women who have never written professionally before. Writing under pseudonyms they’ve assumed for their safety, they blog about how life goes on--things that would be considered mundane in peacetime but become harrowing during war--like how to celebrate a wedding in between power outages and air raids with homemade paper flowers for decorations, or the sinking feeling a mother gets when her child is late coming home and there have been militants in the area.

“These stories provide insights that are not generally reflected in other media, but they also remind women that they haven’t been forgotten,” said Peled. “And [the authors] are paid for their work as professionals, which is quite rare these days in international journalism.”

Beyond acknowledging their experiences, Peled says amplifying women’s voices in Syrian media is essential to defeating the extremism that threatens the country. Female extremists typically receive intense media attention because they’re seen as anomalous, but ISIS militants have been particularly successful in attracting women to Syria.

“Radicalization is typically portrayed as a particularly male phenomenon, but especially in Syria we’ve found that’s not entirely true,” Peled said. “Maybe young men are more vulnerable to radicalization, but women are vulnerable too, and that means they can play a role in combatting it.”

Syria -- Members of the "Free Women of Aleppo" protest against Russian air strikes. Aleppo. October 15, 2016.
Syria -- Members of the "Free Women of Aleppo" protest against Russian air strikes. Aleppo. October 15, 2016.

IWPR Senior Journalist and Syria Coordinator Zaina Erhaim encourages Syrian women to join the journalism training sessions she helps run in Turkey, even if they’ve never written a diary before, and she says her female trainees often find creative ways of circumventing both the dangerous environment of a war zone and paternalistic treatment from relatives in order to report, for example by using social media to contact sources, or even writing questions on a piece of paper and sending it to a source via their male relative.

“They find ways, and this says something about women because they’ve been oppressed for so long that they actually have better techniques for breaking these obstacles,” Erhaim told the Thomson Reuters Foundation October 6.

A native of Syria who was studying for a masters in international journalism in London when the war broke out, Erhaim returned home to report on the war and train other Syrians, especially women, to do the same. She is under no delusions about the dangers journalists face, even those who leave Syria. She was recently denied entry into the UK after her passport was cancelled by the Asad regime, she believes in retaliation for her reporting.

In 2011 Rula Asad and Milia Eidmouni co-founded the Syrian Female Journalists Network, a non-profit that trains Syrian women journalists and works to counter sexist, patriarchal, and stereotypical images of Syrian women in local and international media. They emphasizes the opportunities that have arisen for women journalists in Syria as a result of the war, despite the hardships it has brought for everyone. Asad says dozens of independent websites, social media pages, and citizen journalists have appeared in order to fill the information void wrought by the war, and some of them are more amenable to women journalists as well as coverage of women activists and community leaders.

“In a time of conflict, people are willing to try different things,” she said, speaking at a public discussion hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. on June 29. In addition to providing training programs and publishing platforms for women, Asad’s organization works to dismantle stereotypes of Syrian women in local and international media. By taking advantage of a local media market in flux due to the war, she and her colleagues promote stories from women activists, frontline nurses, refugee entrepreneurs, and others whose stories demonstrate the vital societal roles women continue to play despite, or because of, the war. Asad says she wants Syrian and international media to reject the image of the Syrian woman as a “refugee in a hijab grasping a child and looking sad.”

“This is a part of the reality for women in Syria, but when we focus too much on this image we kill any other initiative to change that reality,” she said. “It’s not only about empowering women to be better represented in the media or increasing the number of female journalists. It’s about challenging the mentality and changing the culture itself.”

--Emily Thompson