On the M5 highway linking Damascus with the northern Syrian city of Aleppo stands Merna Al Hasan. Merna is mobile live-steaming her interview with a female activist, while convoys of displaced people running away from southern Idlib province are passing behind in the frame. The woman being interviewed is leading a relief initiative toward the displaced (estimated to be 34,000 in August alone by the Response Coordination Group working in the province).
Since late April, the Syria regime and Russia have escalated their bombardment of Idlib, with more than 500 civilians being killed in the hostilities, according to the United Nations. The raids came as Syrian forces, backed by Russian warplanes, continued to make advances into Idlib province.
Syrian troops on the offensive have recently captured rebel-held areas in the adjoining Hama province, as well as the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib. From the town, they are now pushing north, towards the town of Maaret al Numan – both towns are on the M5 motorway which the regime is battling to take control of.
Merna, a 25-year-old freelancer, is one of fewer than 10 women video journalists still working in northwest Syria and one of only three who stand in front of the camera when reporting (the others produce and edit without revealing their faces).
Merna says: “I have been working in video for the past five years, but I only started to report in front of the camera in the last two years. Before that I was producing, editing and filming without showing myself in the videos I make.”
How do the local communities see her as a woman with a camera? “At the beginning I had some difficulties in being accepted,” she says. “Idlib province is known for being conservative, and many people were shocked at seeing me reporting as I was the first woman reporter here. Some wondered how I even dared I to stand in front of the camera in this war-torn place. Now, I feel supported by many, including my family, for doing what I am doing. I think now I have more people who respect me than those who attack me when I am reporting.”
Another woman video journalist who reports from in front of the camera is 26-year-old Joudy Arash, from Homs, who displaced to Aleppo suburb where she now lives and works as a trainer and freelancer.
On how she started, Joudy says: “It was in 2012 and I was arrested for taking part in the peaceful uprising. After I was released, I started filming the regime’s violations, like arbitrary detention in the streets, its checkpoints and the army offence in AlWaer neighbourhood.” Joudy also faced shocked locals staring at her while she held a camera in her neighbourhood, AlWaer, when it was besieged by regime forces. About 50,000 people were imprisoned and forbidden from getting their basic needs. “At that time the public were so scared of any camera, whoever was holding it, thinking that it might grab the regime’s attention and cause the bombardment of the area filmed. However there were other challenges that I faced as the first woman to film in Homs, as most of the women activists chose nursing and aid work, so I was faced with many astonished faces wondering why am I doing this ‘manly’ job?”
Joudy was frequently questioned over why she hadn’t chosen an activity that “suits women” in closed indoors spaces, where gender segregation is applied, and asked how she could do this public work and mix with and men she didn’t know.
Unlike Merna and Joudy, 27-year-old Gehan Jaj Bakri from Latakia started working in print, before turning to video reporting last year. She now works for Sy agency and as a freelance journalist. “I loved how my videos spread faster and reached wider audiences than the articles did, and in some cases the in-need characters I filmed got helped by NGOs and individuals who watched my videos, so I felt happy. However, convincing people to be interviewed is harder when it’s taped. Also when writing I could do my interviews on the phone, whereas now I must go to the areas I am filming and movement is a challenge here – especially for a woman.”
While a man can ride on a motorbike alone and get to the location, women have to find a car with a trusted driver, make a plan for the return trip, especially at night, while also planning for whether the filming is indoors or outdoors, who is going to be present and might cause a problem, and where can she sleep if the road is hit or cut. Merna also says that on-tape interviews are harder to get, especially when the topic is sensitive and the risks of being attacked is higher for those expressing their opinions. Gehan adds that people accept women doing written interviews, “but to film it’s harder to receive and it’s unusual.”
Women – Exclusive Challenges
Syria is ranked 174 out of 180 according to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to a report released by The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), there have been at least 1,136 cases of arrests and kidnappings of media workers at the hands of all key perpetrator parties in Syria between March 2011 and May 2019. Of these, 349 were detained by the Syrian regime, while another 48, including one woman and eight foreign journalists, are imprisoned in the detention centres of ISIS, with Hay’at Tahrir al Sham HTC (known previously as Alqaeda branch in Syria) still detaining three media workers, including one foreign journalist.
As well as those general challenges, there are specific challenges that apply only to women, such as being overprotected by your male colleagues: “In high risk situations, such as in the aftermath of a massacre or bombing, they wouldn’t allow me to join fearing for my life” says Merna.
Being the only woman video journalist in Homs put Joudy in the spotlight of the regime and she describes her main challenge as the threats that she and her family kept receiving from its forces, which eventually forced her to displace in 2017.
Despite being in a rebel held area now, Joudy is still fearful of going out on her own. “Being kidnapped, robbed or assassinated is an easy thing to happen, especially for a woman moving on her own, so I don’t,” she says. “Anything could be a threat to me, unlike my male colleagues. I am far more vulnerable here,” adds Gehan, who has been threated by the sharia court for posting her sharing her content online.
Gehan has also been told by many women and men that what she is doing is “a man’s job”. “Aren’t there any men left to do this for you to do it?” “You are married, go back to your household and daughter – that’s your job.” “I hear this a lot,” she says. “Sometimes, people even tell my husband so as to pressure him to force me to quit.”
Women In Focus
Despite the extra challenges that female video journalists face while working in Syria, being a woman does allow for easier access to female communities and social affairs, as it is seen as more socially acceptable for women to tell other women their stories. Women’s issues are also often neglected in the male-dominated media scene.
“Our women are marginalised on all levels, and I have better access to them because I am a woman,” explains Gehan. “Many were so happy because they saw that someone cares about telling their stories, so I feel obliged to focus on their stories, achievements, challenges and suffering inside Syria, and I love to break the general stereotypes about the women in Idlib.”
Adding that many picture the women of Idlib as weak, or victims, all covered in black, but many are active in their communities as farmers, trainers, artists, and paramedics. Gehan says that her focus on women is not just because she is one, but because their unfair stereotypical representation in the mainstream media needs to be challenged. Merna also feels that having a woman reporter was a reassurance for many women to agree to be filmed. “They trust me with their stories, and I feel what they are going through – they have lost the most in this war.”