Women Reporting on War: The Legacy of Shireen Abu Akleh

Lina AbiRafeh
6 min readMay 19, 2022

--

“I chose journalism to be close to people. It might not be easy to change the reality but at least I could bring their voice to the world. I am Shireen Abu Akleh.”

Perhaps by now we’ve all heard of Shireen Abu Akleh. If you have not, you should. Her name is worth knowing.

In Palestine, Shireen Abu Akleh is a household name. A Palestinian-American journalist with Al Jazeera for 25 years, Abu Akleh was a prominent war reporter. She was also the voice of Palestine, courageously bringing the Palestinian story to the world. Stories move people, bringing them closer together. And the Palestinian story is seldom told. As such, she had a great duty, bringing balance to an otherwise one-sided narrative.

On May 11, Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli forces while reporting on Israeli raids in Jenin. She was dressed clearly in a press vest and helmet. There was no doubt as to who she was — the role of the media is clear. And clearly protected.

Journalists and media professionals are protected under international humanitarian law which grants them full civilian status. In other words, they cannot be targeted. Doing so amounts to a war crime. War correspondents face more acute risks. They have civilian protection but are also specifically entitled to prisoner-of-war status and are considered under the same legal status as the armed forces.

Reporters Without Borders issued a declaration on the safety and protection of journalists and media personnel in situations involving armed conflict in 2003 in light of events in Iraq, to reinforce the principles of international law in protecting journalists and to reaffirm the illegality of attacks on them.

As thousands of Palestinians gathered to bury one of their leading voices, Israeli forces attacked the mourners and the pallbearers. Not even in death can Palestinians be granted peace.

Israel argues that she was killed in the crossfire — and that being a war correspondent brings that risk. The latter might well be true, but there’s an undeniable pattern of attacks against the press in Palestine — and a pattern of attacks against Palestinians more broadly.

Palestinian resistance continues. Al Jazeera says they will not be silenced, and the mission to inform the world is now more important than ever.

And women’s voices — and women’s voices in war in particular — are now more important than ever.

Women war reporters have never had it easy. Women reporters were banned from the frontlines in World War II. Today there is no such ban, but women war reporters are still too few, having to overcome the challenges of choosing a male-dominated field, and also working in a male-dominated space.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a fascination with women going to war zones and the space they occupy in this male-dominated environment. They are still seen as women first, reporters second.

A book by former war correspondent Elizabeth Becker, You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War, documents how women changed the way war was reported. It also highlights the particular experience of women war reporters including gendered expectations, the elusiveness of stable relationships, and the ability to have a family.

Female war reporters — Kim Barker, Kate Webb, Marie Colvin, Lynsey Addario, and many others — have been portrayed as androgynous and childless. Marie Colvin, who died in an attack aimed to silence her, was depicted in a movie that focused on her childlessness along with the callousness of the industry. Kim Barker felt this too when she volunteered to go to Afghanistan: “I have no kids and no husband, so I’m expendable.”

Since 2015, 27 female journalists have been killed while doing their jobs. Three have been killed in 2022 so far. In 2021, 40 female journalists were imprisoned. Today, 3 women journalists are still missing. Does not having a family mean they are expendable?

A study of war journalists found that the majority of men in this field were married, while most of the women were single. This is not unusual.

Anyone who has ever experienced work in a warzone — including myself — understands this to be true. Men are able to marry and park their wives and children back home, while women still have to choose: the home or the war?

What is notable, however, is the gender parity found in the susceptibility to PTSD, depression, or anxiety. Female war journalists were not more likely to develop psychological stress than their male counterparts. The study also found that they drink just as much, if not more, alcohol than male war reporters.

In our quest for gender parity in important aspects of life, this — levels of alcohol consumption and anxiety — is not necessarily the parity we seek. It is a sad state of affairs if this is the parity we get.

What’s more, here, just as in every aspect of our lives, there tends to be a focus on physical appearance. Women war reporters speak of having a ‘uniform’ and being expected to carry themselves in certain ways because of what they wear and what it may communicate. For example, Afghan women can tell when it is a Westerner wearing a burqa. Put this way, “their femininity matters little — and yet, their femaleness matters totally.” What a female reporter wears matters — and can be lifesaving.

All war correspondents possess a flak jacket emblazoned with PRESS, also usually labeled with their name and blood type. But female war reporters are also advised to carry a fake wedding ring and baby pictures should they be kidnapped. And told to dress conservatively to ‘blend in’.

But they cannot blend in. Women war correspondents recognize their need to amplify local voices while also maintaining safe distance from the experience. This can be troubling.

“I had the privilege to travel and to walk away from hardship when it became too much to bear,” writes Lynsey Addario. “Most people on earth didn’t have an exit door to walk away from their own lives.”

May Jeong adds that people’s lives are not a play or a performance. This is their life. And, she adds, “I am intruding on their life for a specific purpose. And then I leave.”

But there is still a need to amplify voices on the ground. And when women are reporting, they tend to focus more on women — on their voices and stories and experiences. The stories that are not often told.

Christina Lamb, British foreign correspondent and author, has centered her work around the effects of war on women and how they bear the invisible wounds. She put it like this:

“I was never very interested in what we call the “bang bang”, the fighting of war. But I am completely fascinated by how you live in that situation when all hell is breaking loose around you. How do you keep life together? How do you educate your children and feed them or look after the elderly? Because it is usually the women that are doing that and to me, they’re the real heroes.”

Female war reporters fight on many fronts, still having to battle the perceptions of their place in this field. And there are still too few of them. But female war reporters are crucial, especially in focusing on the experiences of women in conflict.

Which brings us back to Shireen, a pioneer in many ways. It was no easy task being a woman and a Palestinian and a journalist and working on the frontlines. Her death was tragic, and I loathe the idea of turning it into a teaching moment. Ultimately, her life was, and will continue to be, an inspiration for other young women — perhaps even for young Palestinian women — to step into these challenging roles, despite the risks.

Women’s voices in war — especially Arab women’s voices in Arab wars — are too few. And they are now more critical than ever.

--

--

Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com