Women in War Zones: Female Correspondents Face a Second Line of Fire

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As MoJo’s own Elizabeth Gettelman pointed out, journalists are dying by the score in our war on terror. Horrendous, no question. If I were a young journalist today, I doubt I’d have the nerve to go after that story. No, I don’t doubt it – I know I wouldn’t.

Given the dangers there, it is the brave Iraqi journalists, translators, etc who are suffering, disappearing and dying disproportionately which adds another, special layer to the tragedy. Still, it’s one thing to be kidnapped or killed by inexcuseable terrorists. What of female journalists being raped, harassed and exploited while working as foreign correspondents? It’s ok if they both matter, isn’t it, though death and imprisonment are surely worse?

Complain, and your bosses will either protect you by sending you home or demote you to junior varisty to keep you safe. How could they not? And, if it’s a colleague or a boss – then what? Either way, you’ll be seen as too vulnerable (read: weak) for the job, however regrettably. So, women suffer in silence and add the trauma of rape/sexual assault onto the trauma intendant upon life in a war zone.

From the increasingly indispensable Womensenews:

Judith Matloff doesn’t like the term “war reporter.”

“There is no glory to it,” Matloff, a veteran reporter of global conflict for more than 20 years, told Women’s eNews. “You can go for weeks without taking a bath; your colleagues could die; you could be in mortal danger.”

For the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston newspaper, and Reuters, the British news wire, Matloff has covered the Chechen war, the Rwanda genocide and the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique.

Now she is finishing her second book…

She is also trying to challenge notions of a swaggering, hyper-masculine reporter at the center of a war zone. It’s an image, she says, that not only obscures the presence of women but also fuels dangerous taboos surrounding female correspondents’ struggles with sexual assault. “Women have risen to the top of war and foreign reportage. They run bureaus in dodgy places and do jobs that are just as dangerous as those that men do,” Matloff wrote in an article last year in the bimonthly Columbia Journalism Review. “But there is one area where they differ from the boys–sexual harassment and rape.”

I hope you’re sufficiently teased. You simply have to read the piece, and the original, published in CJR, that led Womensenews to Matloff. It ran in the Columbia Journalism Review.

While my experiences don’t hold a candle to foreign or war reporting, working (not to mention living) in America, I’ve faced continual sexual harassment (absolutely none from my colleagues in journalism – except one who headed a foreign bureau – but aplenty from sources and even luminaries I was profiling). I rarely told my bosses, or not until long after the piece ran. They’re great guys who mentored me and would have tried to do something about what had happened but what could they really do? For their sake as much as mine, I realized early on that I’d have to be Xena: Warrior Princess about my personal safety.

Many men, especially men in the disadvantaged worlds I focus on, feel the need to regain power over the ‘girl’ reporter with the tape recorder and do so by quite obviously trying to sexually frighten me. I only have a few minutes to decide if they’re truly dangerous (and abort) or if they just need to understand that it will be my way or no way. You’ve misbehaved, I make clear non-verbally, so my way means public places only, separate vehicles, zero tolerance of bawdy talk, VERY pointed note-taking while giving them the stink-eye. A marked change in the tenor of my questions and my disapproving body language. To a man, they’re baffled when I don’t either melt, or act afraid. The latter is what they all too clearly want.

These jackals know their time with a reporter is limited: subtle they are not and I’m equally unsubtle about not going into their hotel rooms with them to “find their notes” after they’d spent the previous hour trying to talk about how good they were in bed. Other subjects’ hotel rooms, cars, and offices I do enter. I stake out dangerous housing projects alone in my car over night. I meet with recent parolees at dive bars and seek out the homeless in their haunts. Reading Matloff and remembering fighting my way out of limo back seats while drivers went conveniently blind, it occurs to me that you have to be kinda crazy for this job. But Third World reporting is a special kind of crazy I know I’m not up to. Read Matloff and spare a moment to think about how you get your news. Only released hostages and flag-draped coffins make the 11 o’clock. Sexual assault victims get nothing but the need to go on writing.

P.S. What did foreign bureau guy do? First, we drove around forever while love songs poured from his stereo and he made what seemed to be seductive talk. But he was interviewing me, right? So…where were the questions beyond my favorite movies, etc? Finally, when his PePe Le Pew overtures confoundingly didn’t lead me to rip my clothes off and I headed for home, he tried for what seemed like two days to kiss me in the middle of Wisconsin Ave in DC, outside the Cheesecake Factory. The ‘interview’ ended in me giving him one to the ‘nads outside the Friendship Heights Metro Station. We danced around like maniacs while I eluded one arm then the other. I was a full head taller. I had to laugh as he tried, on his little tippy toes, to plant one on me. He never had a chance. But, reading Matloff, I didn’t laugh and I’ll no longer enjoy telling that story. It’s an insult to what female reporters face in the war zones of the Third World.


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