Ban Sarhan

(WOMENSENEWS)–Iraqi female journalists have one major advantage over their male and foreign counterparts when it comes to covering women’s stories: access.

As women, they can enter homes and break the silence on taboo subjects such as rape and domestic violence.

As journalists, they can publicize private pains of women in the hope of influencing policymakers.

“Covering women is really hard and dangerous at the same time,” says Huda Ahmed, one of six Iraqi women from the McClatchy Company’s Baghdad news bureau to receive the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award on Oct. 23. “We call to make an appointment and suddenly a male relative tells them not to talk to us.”

Through their courageous reporting, the award recipients have not only covered the war, they have also uncovered the marginalization of women in parliamentary decision-making, addressed women’s strategies to survive sectarian violence and followed the story beyond the suicide bomb.

Ahmed says she has dropped stories when the risk to her source was too great. She often changed the names of female subjects to protect them from a potential backlash from male relatives or sectarian groups that target individuals working with the foreign media.

In an environment where everyone is your potential enemy the challenge, Ahmed says, is to build trust. “You have to go where they live and meet them eye to eye. They have to see you and see that you are sincere in listening to them and telling the truth.”

Debate on Women’s Rights

The current constitutional debate on women’s rights and the role of religion in determining family law are issues that Ahmed and her colleagues have reported.

Ahmed says that women across classes and different sects don’t understand if Iraq’s new constitution has hurt or advanced women’s rights.

“Women don’t know if it will allow them to progress or give a platform for Islamist extremists to push them back,” Ahmed says.

The ambiguity comes from Article 41 in Iraq’s interim constitution, which allows citizens to marry, divorce, inherit and settle personal disputes according to their religious sect. Some worry that opens the door to restrictive interpretations of Islamic law, Sharia, and could fuel sectarian attacks on women. Politicians, Ahmed adds, are reluctant to face the issue head on.

“The government is so concerned with providing security and services, that when the question of women’s rights comes up in parliament they postpone it at the first disagreement.”

As these debates unfold, sectarian violence continues to spread, straining mixed marriages and polarizing mixed neighborhoods. According to the United Nations, 4.5 million Iraqis have fled the country or been displaced inside Iraq.

Ban Adil Sarhan, another of the six to receive the Courage in Journalism Award, is the first woman to have worked at McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau.

In her year there, from 2003 to 2004, Sarhan found herself crying at the site of suicide bombs and attending funerals. Then she reached out to widows to share their stories with the world.

“It is hard to see 300 bodies burnt to the bone,” she says. “But what happened to the beloved of the person that died five minutes before?”

Insurgents shot and killed Sarhan’s husband, daughter and mother-in-law in 2004. They had found out that she worked as an interpreter for the foreign media. After continued threats on her life, she escaped Baghdad and resettled in Oklahoma with her son.

News Agency Focused on War

The McClatchy Company, based in Sacramento, Calif., purchased Knight Ridder in 2006 and runs 31 U.S. newspapers. The company was one of the few whose coverage of the run-up to the 2003 invasion questioned the Bush administration’s evidence for war.

Turnover at the Baghdad bureau has been very high because of Iraq’s instability.

In 2006, 32 journalists and 15 news support staff were killed on duty in Iraq, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In the first half of 2007, 28 journalists and four news support staff died; 162 news workers lost their lives since the start of the war.

Baghdad bureau chief Leila Fadel, an Arab American woman who runs the Baghdad bureau, tries to keep a balance of Sunnis and Shias, representing both sides of the sectarian conflict, on staff. The bureau compiles a daily round up of violence based on reports from Baghdad police, the Ministry of Information and stringers based in Erbil and Basra.

In McClatchy’s staff of five reporters, two are women. Fadel says she makes a special effort to keep women such as Ahmed and Sarhan on board.

“By having women in our bureau we can cover half the population that men can’t cover,” she told Women’s eNews in a phone interview.

Only One Left in Baghdad

Five of the McClatchy journalists honored with the Courage in Journalism Award–Ahmed, Sarhan, Shatha al Awsy, Zaineb Obeid and Alaa Majeed–have had to leave Iraq. Only one award recipient continues to work in Baghdad. Like most of her colleagues, she began working as a translator and then adopted a pseudonym to byline her articles.

Unbeknownst to family and friends back in Baghdad, she traveled to the award ceremonies at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. For her safety, the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation asked the press not to publish her picture.

“As a woman, as long as I am not identified as a reporter,” she told Women’s eNews, “I am safer on the streets of Baghdad than is any man.”

Secretly, she breaks all the glass ceilings. Not only is she the breadwinner in her family, she successfully juggles motherhood with journalism in the most dangerous war zone today.

Her father would have a heart attack, she joked, if he found out that she was a journalist.

Only her children are in the know. Every morning she kisses them goodbye knowing that it could be the last time.

She takes endless precautions to keep her identity and work a secret. Finding safety in deception, she switches dress, drivers and accents between destinations. But as Iraqi men take on fake uniforms and raise fake checkpoints on the main road, it has become impossible for her to know who to trust.

“A lot of people would say I have betrayed my family because I am putting them and myself at risk,” she says. “But if it is not done, if I stay silent, it is not just my family that would be at risk. It is everyone’s family.”

Dominique Soguel is the Arabic editor for Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

McClatchy’s Inside Iraq blog:

International Women’s Media Foundation:

“In Radio, Iraq Women Are Raising Their Voices”:

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