“The [Arab woman reporter] is twice burdened…. in her homeland, she is among some of the most mistreated women in the world when it comes to her basic rights…and she is among some of the most repressed reporters in the world,” writes Zahra Hankir in the introduction to Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World, a collection of 19 articles published in August. The anthology, which ranges from Morocco to Gaza to Yemen, and covers a nearly two-decade span of political and social history, was Hankir’s attempt to elevate the voices of the sahafiyat (Arabic for “women journalists”), whom she sees as vital, but often overlooked, members of the region’s political and media landscapes.
Even before she began the work of compiling the book, Hankir knew she had set herself a near-impossible task. Aiming to appeal to both specialists and general audiences alike, the book’s premise would rely on several imperfect frameworks. The “Arab world,” strictly speaking, does not exist, while any attempt to represent “Arab women”—a population of roughly 200 million—would necessarily fall short. Journalism in the region, too, is difficult to characterize, with the “Middle East” as a whole consistently ranked as one of the most difficult, and dangerous, places to report.
Even so, Hankir, an Arab woman and working journalist herself, felt compelled to try. Throughout the process, she navigated the minefield of colonialist tropes and reductive stereotypes that frequently characterize mainstream coverage of the region, such as the view of the Middle East as a place of interminable conflict, or the Arab woman as perpetually oppressed.
She also made the tough choice of limiting herself to contributions by women who identify as “Arab”—thus excluding many sizable minorities, such as Kurds, Berbers, or Armenians. She signals this choice clearly on the first page of her introduction, citing the story of a young Kurdish Syrian woman, and adding, “While this book centers on women of Arab ancestry…we by no means aim to present the twenty-two countries that comprise the Arab world as monolithic.”
I spoke to Zahra Hankir in mid-August, as she ended a whirlwind two-week tour of the United States with the book. As two female journalists of Arab descent, we had much to discuss, and our conversation ranged widely. This discussion, edited lightly for clarity and length, is presented below.
Sarah Aziza: Could you describe a bit about the origins of this project? In your introduction, you mention you’d started collecting the work of female Arab reporters in a private Google Doc, but was there a certain event, or writer, or piece of journalism that prompted you to begin turning that collection into a book?
Zahra Hankir: Growing up in a Lebanese family living in the UK, news was a permanent fixture in our home. Journalists were heroes to my parents, as they relied on them to keep them informed about what was going on during the war back home, especially when they were unable to communicate with family in South Lebanon. As a professional, as you mentioned, I always sought out female, Arab journalists to read and follow, but I was also always hungry to see more. In some ways you could say the project was a little selfish—I set out to create the book I wanted to read.
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At the same time, as an Arab woman reporter myself, I was dealing in my own way with many of the issues presented in this book. I was also once passed over for a job covering the region which I believed I was quite qualified for, only to see it given to a Western male journalist who didn’t speak Arabic and who hadn’t ever written about or lived in the Middle East himself. That particular experience really made me think about diversity in the newsroom—who gets to tell our stories, and who gets to edit them?
This book was partly an exercise in reclaiming the narrative by local voices and specifically women, who have an intricate knowledge of the region, can access closed-off spaces others cannot, and who frankly are sometimes relied upon by Western journalists, particularly as fixers, without getting the attention they deserve.
SA: I can relate to that experience—it seems publications often defer to “their guy” even when there are plenty of people closer to the stories who could report more deeply, or with greater nuance.
ZH: Exactly. It’s a narrative that’s been dominated by the West and Western correspondents for decades. That’s not to say foreign correspondents don’t do great work, of course. And there have been improvements as many mainstream outlets are employing more and more Arabs. I want to emphasize that this project was rooted in my eagerness to expand the narrative and prop up local voices, rather than to critique other ones.
SA: What were your primary goals and considerations as you selected the contributors?
ZH: Choosing contributors was one of the hardest aspects of creating this book. There are so many incredible women doing incredible work, and tragically there are so many conflicts and political crises ongoing across the broader Arab world. As such, there are countries and nationalities I couldn’t include, simply due to space constraints—there are no Tunisians or Bahrainis, for example, and I struggled with that.
Ultimately, I tried to the best of my ability to secure a balance—I didn’t want the book to only be about the Arab Spring, for example, so I looked for women who covered other time periods as well. I sought to illustrate how layered and diverse the Arab world is through the women and their stories, so where possible, I considered their backgrounds, religious orientation, political leanings, and ages. I chose some who are working in the Arab world, and some who are based abroad, some who blog or write for digital outlets, and others who work in broadcasting and photojournalism, etc. Some of the women are prominent, and others are only known in local circles. I wasn’t looking for anyone with a particular profile, but kept an eye out for women who challenged society or their government in some way. They weren’t hard to find.
SA: As you worked on the collection, what audience did you have in mind? Were you creating something to expand the understanding of the so-called “West,” or were you more concerned about readers in the “Arab world”?
ZH: To be honest, the Western audience didn’t come to mind at all at first. When I was picking the women, I was mostly concerned with curating a diverse collection that represented a wide range of issues, countries, and time periods.
I did have to consider Western readers in my introduction, though, because this book was published in the West, and as much as we hate to admit it, part of our work still includes addressing tropes. It’s unfair that we have to explain ourselves in this way, but at the same time, we need to acknowledge the flawed perceptions that are alive and well so we can puncture them. Some people have taken me to task for “framing” the book and its contributors for Western audiences, but that was certainly not the case. At the same time, I do think we have to acknowledge that, like it or not, we’ve been framed by the Western gaze.
SA: It’s such a challenge, isn’t it? We almost have no choice, when writing in English, to start with terms that are problematic, simply because that’s how mainstream audiences understand these countries and issues. How did you balance between addressing the Western gaze, without reinforcing it? What do you see as the most insidious stereotypes facing Arab women reporters, and did you discuss these issues with your writers?
ZH: Yes, that is the constant dilemma. The tightrope we have to walk is unfair, but it’s a fact of life for us nonetheless. And we have to start somewhere to dismantle them.
I was surprised to see that simplistic ideas about Arab women persist more than I had anticipated. I found people still tend to assume these women are oppressed and subservient, or they exoticize or fetishize them, for example, spinning a narrative about some heroic, superhuman refugee who overcomes the odds to become a champion swimmer or an entrepreneur or something. Either way, the Arab woman is rarely shown in her whole humanity.
The writers were of course aware of these stereotypes, but they also weren’t worrying about Western audiences, at all. During the editing process, I just encouraged them to find their voice and to tell their truth how they saw fit. It’s funny, though—a lot of Americans on this book tour asked me, “How do Arab writers view us [in the Western world]?” And I had to say, they don’t think about you as much as you think about them! [Laughs.]
SA: In addition to the colonial legacy between the “East” and “West,” you had to deal with the “woman question”—there’s even an essay of that title in the collection. It’s inevitable that people will take an interest in the gender-specific category of your book, but again, we don’t want to over-emphasize this, making women out to be a special-interest group rather than a population of gifted professionals holding their own in the media industry. How did you negotiate this?
ZH: Exactly—I didn’t want to present these women in one particular way. Some of the contributors even pushed back on gender framing, and insisted that being a woman wasn’t an important part of their identity as reporters. Others did want to talk about it, because, let’s face it, there’s misogyny and patriarchy everywhere, and some of these women do face serious obstacles because of their gender.
In the end, I just kept encouraging them to tell their truth. They’re all so impressive, their stories speak for themselves. They don’t dwell on the obstacles they’re overcoming. And some of them use their gender to their advantage—for example, Shamael Elnoor was able to interview the head of the Janjaweed, because the militia found the idea of female journalist less threatening.
Looking back at the responses I’ve gotten, in person and online, I’ve seen that the diversity of voices in this book has helped puncture post-colonialist and Orientalist assumptions. The women contradict stereotypes simply through example, without setting out to do so.
SA: Which themes in the book do you resonate the most with, personally?
ZH: A lot of the women write about identity. For me, as a member of the diaspora, I chronically experience guilt when thinking about the region. Here I was, living in privilege and safety in Europe while e-mailing with women who are in such dangerous or difficult circumstances. I continue to grapple with that every day—could I be doing more?
SA: Lastly, the state of journalism in the Arab world is obviously quite precarious. What is your prognosis for the region’s media going forward?
ZH: I wish I could be more optimistic, but I will say I have great respect for the few local, independent media outlets, such as 7iber and Mada Masr, that continue to do brave and groundbreaking journalism. Aside from these, there are also individuals who are continuing to do their work despite the repression and other obstacles they face. Some of them are quite hopeful, such as Amira Al-Sharif, who writes about how she dreams that Yemen someday will become a thriving tourist destination.
But on the whole, the region is deeply fractured and polarized, and that reality is inevitably reflected in the media landscape. So it’s hard to have hope in general, but I do find hope in specific individuals and outlets. And I’d like to think this book is a small part of the effort to support local voices and encourage native journalism. That’s the energy I wanted to bring to the work—to create something positive, something that will inspire.