US and Iraqi Women Reporting from Baghdad Win Awards. Thank Goodness They Lived to Collect Them

| Sun Feb. 24, 2008 8:34 PM EST

Bad as the sexual assault that women reporting from the Third World face, dying is pretty much worse. Having your family killed because of your reporting? Unimaginable. Yet, a woman is the only Western reporter permanently stationed in Baghdad; she and her team of six Iraqi women are, thankfully, being recognized for their bravery and talent. Still, one wonders what keeps them going in the face of such danger.

From womensenews:

Leila Fadel, McClatchy's Baghdad bureau chief, won the George R. Polk Award for outstanding foreign reporting. She is the only Western reporter permanently stationed in Baghdad and has spent many nights sleeping at the bureau because the security situation was too tenuous for reporters to travel to their homes. "Sometimes it feels like it us against everything so we have to make sure to trust each other because we can't trust anything. Everything has a risk. Everything could be our last story. People are so afraid to talk," she told Women's eNews in November 2007....
"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."

Many Iraqi reporters, translators, and fixers have been killed or had family members murdered because of their work. These women employ tactics of deception that even 007 doesn't need - changing drivers, their appearance and their accents between checkpoints. Few tell their families what they really do, even though they are the sole breadwinner. They couldn't even tell their families were they were really going when they headed for New York to accept the award. Still, one award recipient's husband, daughter and mother-in-law were killed when insurgents learned that she was working as a translator (and later upgraded to reporter). Eventually she herself had to flee to Oklahoma. What PTSD she must have. But what a sense of achievement.

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Without these women, it would be impossible to tell Iraqi women's stories, given the purdah in which they exist. Every reporter brave enough to remain in Baghdad can cover a bombing, but only the female journalists can cry at the funeral, then track down the mourning women and children left behind.

But they're not just the "how does that make you feel?" brigade. They're desperately trying to figure out what half the Iraqi population (women) want from any new government which finally come to exist and what religion will mean on the ground for women — forwards or backward?

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."

It's doubtful that we'd know that without these remarkable female journalists daring to seek out the truth in Iraq.

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