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.