In every house I knew growing up, there was a room where the female guests were received. In our own home it was a room in the back, which also functioned variably as the prayer room or homework room. In the split- level house that belonged to my other grandmother, the room was off to the side and reached by its own flight of stairs. This was in Karachi, Pakistan, in the 1980s. Women—not all of them but many, including my own mother—didn’t lead lives of seclusion; they worked and drove. But they also maintained a private female space in which they entertained other women—sisters, mothers, friends, cousins—or simply themselves. The memories of these rooms, of their easy and cherished intimacy, their eruptions of laughter, are the most vibrant, striking bits of my girlhood mosaic. The ritual was familiar: When women were among the guests coming to the house, they would be taken to this room and entertained there. The physical makeup of these spaces, their functional chairs and couches and even their location in the house, meant little; but their effect on the emotional landscape of women’s lives was enormous. Being in them was a reprieve from the codes and norms of our male-dominated public life. To inhabit this space meant that one’s guard could be let down; that confidences and cares, recriminations and regrets could be exchanged; that one could tend to the intimacies, loyalties, and obligations that come with close human connection. Closeness was born not from the fact of physical separation but from the bonds that were created within that space, a collective homage to the experiences of shared womanhood.
This intimate space has proved maddening for Western journalists to enter. The consequence of this segregated arrangement has meant that male journalists reporting from Muslim countries often have access to only half the world—and thus, they feel, only half the story. While female liberation has often been included among the rationales for America’s wars in the Middle East, male journalists have had greater access to the horrors of war than to the intimacy of households. In one revealing incident, recalled in New York Times journalist Rod Nordland’s book The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, a male Times photographer gets so frustrated waiting to take a picture of an Afghan woman that he barges into the private women’s area where she has retreated and takes her picture anyway, pretending not to understand the cultural prohibitions to his presence.
This gap has created an opportunity for female foreign correspondents. After the Gulf War, Katie Couric called it a proving ground that made the female journalist a “ten,” and the steady supply of wars since then has produced many more. Christiane Amanpour of CNN, Lara Logan of CBS, the award-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario, as well as many lesser-known reporters, have gained access to the women’s spaces of Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia. They don head scarves, sip tea, and temporarily enter into the private lives of foreign women.
A trove of journalistic exposition—much of it highlighting the hidden nature of these spaces—has followed, in front-page stories, photographs, and best-selling books. The authors have become hot commodities as well. Addario, the photographer of Afghan women under the Taliban, was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. Last year, her memoir It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War became a widely feted best seller and will be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. Former Chicago Tribune journalist Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan already has become one (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, starring Tina Fey). Katherine Zoepf, who reported from Egypt and Syria for The New York Times, recently released her own book, Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World, while Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg has given us The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. Clearly, there is a market among Western readers for information about these women.
* * *
These writers often claim a mission beyond mere workaday journalism. In a recent interview, Addario said that her photography was an attempt to show readers “who these women really were—if they could see them in their homes, with their children…it might offer a more complete picture.” Similarly, Zoepf writes in Excellent Daughters that she “identified with many of the young Arab women I was meeting,” and hopes that her reporting will reveal to Western readers “the many young women who are seizing opportunity in unexpected ways,” thereby documenting a previously unexplored arena of social change. In chronicling these women’s lives in domestic-violence shelters, kitchens, and schools—places where male journalists cannot go—they present their work as both revelatory for the Western reader and somehow aiding a feminist awakening among Muslim women.
However, embracing that sisterhood sometimes requires a bit of subterfuge. When Addario wanted to photograph a secret girls’ school under the Taliban, she used a camera “concealed in my bag.” A tapestry of deception must be woven to make suffering Afghan women visible to the West. If an Afghan man (Addario seems to organize her reporting primarily through them) objects to someone photographing “his” women, his protestations can be discarded because of their repugnant chauvinism by our feminist reporter, who unfortunately forgets to tell us how (or if) she obtained consent from the women themselves.
When carried out in the open, this kind of reporting relies on the sort of camaraderie that can elicit details and thereby signal expertise. Zoepf’s prologue in Excellent Daughters finds her ensconced with a group of female Saudi teenagers, one of whom is about to get married. Everyone shares confidences (for example, the bride hopes for a Disney-themed wedding). Zoepf easily assumes the task of revealing to us the secrets of these young women she has befriended. If there’s any doubt about her abilities to serve as our informant, she offers up the fact that she was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, which enables her to explain the intimate complexities of the Muslim women who are now her subjects. Through Zoepf’s words one feels invited into the fold, escorted into that secret world where Muslim women share secrets away from the gaze of men, and usually also the Western reader.
The trouble here is that intimacy comes to stand in as a replacement for expertise. Addario’s intentions are good, but upon embarking on her mission, she tells us, she couldn’t speak Dari or Pashto and didn’t know “much about Afghanistan aside from Times articles” she’d read while on the elliptical. Similarly, Zoepf can’t carry out a full interview in Arabic. And her more condescending judgments—the implied puerility of girls more at ease discussing Disney than their future husbands, or who find the issue of talking to a man before being married a controversial one—are available only to the readers of her book and not to her Saudi “friends.”
Zoepf’s work provides several examples of this dynamic. After focusing on secret societies in Syria, she turns her attention to boy-crazy husband-hunters in liberal Lebanon, relying on the sex-and-the-Orient mix (the chapter is titled “The Most Promiscuous Virgins in the World”) that baits Western readers just as reliably as secret Quran societies. Here, too, Zoepf is surprised when some of her subjects ask her why she’s more interested in them than in “serious Lebanese girls,” the ones fighting for better education, harassment-free workplaces, and more equal relationships.
Zoepf believes that her interview subjects are simply annoyed because they don’t like how they appear through her journalistic lens. She refuses to confront the disparity between her own professional intentions and the unguardedness of those she encounters, for whom the exchange is personal. The betrayal, then, is not only in the content of the representations made to the outside world, in the photo of Afghan women in shelters or the article about secret Quran societies; it is also that the exchange on the Western side is transactional and on the “other” side relational and intimate.
The problem of conflating intimacy with knowledge comes to a head in Excellent Daughters when Zoepf discusses the reaction to some of her stories. While in Syria, she interviews Enas, the 18-year-old daughter of a woman who runs an all-female madrassa. Following the story’s publication in the Times—which “included comments by Enas and her best friend Fatima, as well as a large photo of Enas kneeling on a carpet at the girls’ madrassa where she taught”—Zoepf receives a phone call. It’s Enas, who seems upset and wants to meet. In the interim between the phone call and her meeting with Enas, we learn that Zoepf has spiced up her account of the madrassa that Enas’s mother runs with a discussion of the secret all-female Qubaisiate sisterhood, then banned by the Assad government. Submerged in a post-publication deluge of defensiveness, Zoepf admits to the dangers that her article’s approach—in which the all-female madrassa, known and pictured, is sensationalized by references to the secret Qubaisiate sisterhood—could bring to Enas. In the best-case scenario, Enas’s own chances of being recruited into the Qubaisiate sisterhood (an elite Quranic sorority of sorts) are damaged; in the worst, the result could be a “frightening visit to the madrassa from the mukhabarat, the infamous secret police,” and subsequent surveillance and harassment.
In a sense, this problem is the predictable outcome when intimate access becomes the story. Zoepf knows that the sensational and the secret sell; when the story she gets doesn’t fit well enough into these categories, she inflects it with possible connections to something that is secret, and hence makes it more sexy and saleable. This is not a novel occurrence; most journalists have to market their stories in order to sell them to publishers. The question here is whether these stories—inflected with the added moral value of promoting an unarticulated, yet consistently implied, sisterhood—actually deliver on their promises. While the stories may comply with journalistic ethics, their value in promoting a coveted woman-to-woman solidarity is at best questionable, and at worst fictitious. So why the investment?
* * *
For Western female journalists, the project of representing intimate spaces, such as the ones I inhabited growing up, is a reliable path to success. It was to further this end that Addario’s male mentor advised her “to go to Afghanistan to photograph women living under the Taliban” in the first place. The success of her series, “Women of Jihad,” in the wake of 9/11 paved her path to the Times and the MacArthur “genius” grant; she has since come to specialize in intimate images of women taken for glossy magazines. Her latest, featured on the cover of Time, shows a pregnant and nearly naked South Sudanese teenager. Zoepf’s latest essay in The New Yorker is on how Saudi women are beginning to study the law.
White female journalists exposing the intimate lives of the “other”—black and brown women—to prove themselves to male bosses is not a recent development. Decades before Addario visited Afghanistan, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller made similar calculations when she became the first female chief of the Cairo bureau in 1983. Her arrival came not long after a class- action suit by female journalists at the Times forced the paper to open its reporting and editorial positions to women. Like Addario, Miller “sometimes profited from the virtual invisibility of women in the most restrictive Arab countries and used it to gain access to places from which men were barred.” The gendered politics of Addario’s own career—her goal of proving herself as a worthy war photographer, and her underscoring of the special access she has to the intimate female spaces of the Muslim world—are all political aspects of the Western woman’s own fight against patriarchy. It’s a convenient but rarely considered convergence, the gendered divisions of the Muslim “rest” coalescing with the journalistically defined feminist goals of the West in a time of constant war.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with ambition or the desire to do groundbreaking work as a female journalist. But examined in this light, today’s Western journalists recall earlier efforts by Western women to reach their counterparts abroad. Female journalists like Flora Shaw (1852–1929) and Olive Schreiner (1855–1929) traveled to the British colonies as reporters, remaining all the while committed colonialists supporting the expansion of the British Empire. Shaw would eventually become the first female “Colonial Editor” for The Times of London, writing not just columns and articles but the paper’s editorials.
Today’s feminist journalists venture forth into the intimate spaces of the formerly colonized, but they explicitly disavow the colonial project. Instead, they go in the name of journalism and of feminism. If, in the colonial narratives of old, the exoticism of Muslim women served to underscore the “civilized” and “superior” status of the West, it now serves to underline the courage of Western women, who have long since abandoned the realm of intimate female space and are thriving in a public, male one.
There are two warring feminisms implicated here. There is first the feminism of sisterhood, the one that alleges a universal female affinity; this is the means by which Western journalists gain access to these intimate spaces. This is not, however, the feminism that determines the outcome of the exchange. While the feminism of sisterhood may be useful in providing access, it’s the feminism of career advancement that determines the actions of journalists like Addario, Zoepf, and many more engaged in similar sorts of reporting. Their allegiances are naturally to the publications and editors who will help them chart their course as journalists and get ahead in their careers. The concerns for the women who may have imagined them as sisters—considerate compatriots united by gender—are either forgotten or rationalized.
This hierarchy is ugly when it becomes visible. Kim Barker describes her interaction with the Afghan woman who befriends her at a wedding as feeling like “a first date with a mime.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that Barker presumes this woman needs her to tell her story. To this end, the narrative “I” of the Western female journalist who goes around writing about “faceless women” is a constant presence. Pantomiming the less liberated “others” they speak for, these journalists make a great show of putting on the veil. In nearly every case, it’s a theatrical moment, representing the subjugation that our female journalists must accept in order to bond with other women and get the story. But because they are Western, it’s an entirely reversible subjugation, as Jenny Nordberg lets us know in the very first sentences of The Underground Girls of Kabul: “The transition begins here. I remove the black headscarf and tuck it into my backpack.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article described the pregnant teenager featured on the cover of Time as Sudanese. She is actually South Sudanese. The text has been updated.