AMMAN — A bearded guard dressed in traditional white garb and a kabo, a type of head wrap, peeked into the navy-blue car after it drove up to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-manned checkpoint between Ma’aret Hurma and Idlib city to see a bare-faced young woman in the backseat.

“Where is she going, where is her mahram?” the guard barked at the 40-year-old driver. Haneen al-Sayed, a 27-year-old independent reporter who was based in Idlib and recently relocated to Afrin, pulled out her ID and handed it to the guard. She recited her reasons for traveling alone while the guard looked away and responded to her while staring at the driver. She was attending a training session for journalists, she said, and her family had given her permission to travel alone. The guard wasn’t convinced. He threatened to charge the driver with a violation that could land him in jail. 

“If you’re going to arrest the driver then you’re going to take me the rest of the way [to the training session],” al-Sayed sternly protested. The guard stood in disbelief of her defiance, she told Syria Direct. After about one hour he released her and allowed the driver to pass, providing two soldiers to accompany her. 

She was stopped because she was traveling without a mahram, or a male family member, al-Sayed explained. As a woman working as an independent reporter in northwest Syria, freedom of movement is just one of the freedoms she has had to compromise. 

Besides bombardment, displacement, and various forms of verbal and written threats, the 60 female reporters covering Idlib province are weighed down by layers of gendered obstacles, Zaina Erhaim, communications manager for Institute for War and Peace Reporting, wrote to Syria Direct in an email. 

“Their movement, clothes, the way they speak, with whom they move, what they post on social media, and everything they do, say, and report is very much monitored,” Erhaim added. 

Al-Sayed is one of four women reporting on Idlib who spoke to Syria Direct to convey what female journalists experience on a daily basis. Through her reporting, al-Sayed focuses on women and children’s issues, displacement, and occasionally politics. She faces consistent hurdles when moving throughout the province, as well as a burdensome amount of societal pressure to conform to traditional gender roles and abandon reporting. 

“It is a profession that is dominated by men, so a woman working as a reporter has to constantly justify herself. That she is a good journalist and knows what she is doing,” said Khaled Nasser, a family communication counselor who works with trauma-affected journalists throughout the Middle East. “They are living under constant heat.”

However, even in the midst of civil war, women are making strides. Syria is undergoing a profound shift in gender roles that has begun to reshape society and challenge societal norms and transform the economic and social fabric, Nasser stressed. 

A large portion of Syrian society conforms to traditional customs that are influenced by religious teachings and laws. Social norms vary depending on ethnicity, religion, and rural or urban living areas but women are generally considered a source of honor and shame of families across Syria. For that reason, they are traditionally looked after and protected by the men in their families, or mahram: fathers, brothers, sons, or husbands. 

Women’s responsibilities have traditionally been confined to their homes and their level of independence is up to the family patriarch’s discretion. However, as a result of the ongoing war, new job opportunities have appeared and an increasing number of women have taken up positions traditionally occupied by men, Nasser said. Women are now said to be the breadwinners in about one-third of Syrian households. 

“There are areas where being a woman reporter can help [in journalism],” Salwa Abdulrahman, a reporter at Halab Today, a television news channel associated with the Syrian opposition, told Syria Direct. Abdelrahman’s husband passed away in 2015 from a heart attack, forcing her to become the sole provider for her family of four. She began on-camera reporting and training journalists throughout the province.

“Some women are conservative and won’t accept interviews with men. Many women shy away from speaking to male reporters in places like hospitals, schools, and accommodation centers,” she added.

Abdulrahman has developed several precautionary measures that allow her to do her job relatively unhindered. For example, she takes a colleague with her whenever she travels to film an interview. When guards make comments about her traveling without a mahram she responds saying, “I don’t have one, what more can I do?”

“It’s criticism and nothing more than that,” Abdulrahman said when asked if societal pressure has ever deterred her from doing her job. “The violations we commit by their account [HTS] are violations of bad behavior. Wearing colored hijab (headscarves), short jackets; standing in the street and filming when it’s filled with men.”

Society’s opinion is changing very slowly and will change generationally, al-Sayed said. 

“I would be in the street filming a report and people’s stares and hear them whispering, ‘look how she’s outside. Where’s her family to put her away?’ I would hear it and pretend that I didn’t hear anything,” al-Sayed said. “Now, that same person tells me, ‘come and take a picture of us in the camps, maybe someone will hear our voice and help us.’ So the attitude is beginning to change through reciprocity.”

Pro-Syrian government, Islamists threaten female reporters

When Merna al-Hassan, a freelance on-camera reporter based in Idlib, challenged a pro-Assad journalist with a large Facebook following in Saraqeb in early March, pro-government media outlets and leading figures fired a string of verbal attacks against the reporter once the government captured the town. 

Pro-government figures and shabiha, state-sponsored militias of the Syrian government, accuse her of being an object of humiliation to her family. Some stated her father had decided to kill her for sullying his honor by appearing on TV, others claimed that she had been raped by terrorists and left for dead. 

Al-Hassan receives dozens of messages through Messenger; profanity, defamation, and gruesome clips. “They tell me they are coming to rape me and kill me and my family,” al-Hassan told Syria Direct. “Many of them tell me even if you’re in Idlib and we are not, we can send someone to kill you.” 

The messages have overwhelmed her but she has found support in her family and community, including military factions in Idlib. Her family is encouraging her to keep reporting and because she has become well known, HTS allows her to film without a press badge, she said. 

Merna al-Hassan, Idlib city (The Syrian Observer) (March 9, 2020)

 

“They [HTS] got used to my presence and know me. When a woman stands up [in front of a camera] in front of the whole world, this is evidence of a great contradiction of the regime’s allegations that Idlib has become a dark place because of the Islamists,” al-Hassan said.  

Earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a statement condemning the sexist insults and rumors Syrian government supporters have been circulating against al-Hassan. 

“Nothing, not even the polarization resulting from the civil war, justifies such degrading behavior,” RSF wrote. 

Women who report on controversial subjects in front of a camera are placed in an extremely vulnerable position, according to Erhaim. 

“This act alone could get them killed,” she said. “More visibility means more threats, harsher censorship, more checkpoints to recognize who she is and what she is doing.” 

But the Syrian government and its supporters is not the only entity intimidating Idlib’s female reporters. In an interview with Syria Direct, al-Sayed admitted that she is wanted by the government but the only threats she has received came from the Islamic State (IS) six months ago.

She received pictures of masked men carrying knives, clips of beheadings, and murderous threats. “They would send threatening messages saying we will kill you. You are angering God,” she said. “But we didn’t stop. I didn’t.”

She hid the messages, blocked the accounts, and got a new number. The threats stopped. 

“The danger is far higher on the independent journalists who dare to report or highlight the violations of any party,” Erhaim said. “If you are only speaking about the regime's violations while living in rebel-held areas that would be easier than speaking about the armed forces, traditions, or the patriarchal society.”

Activism becomes therapy

“It was the first time I covered an incident as I was living it simultaneously,” Shadia al-Taata, a displaced Enab Baladi reporter and videographer from Kafr Nabel told Syria Direct, detailing the experience of covering her own displacement. “There is nothing more gutting than this situation. It’s as if one of your limbs or a piece of your body is being discarded while you write a story about a person losing a limb.” 

After living under bombardment for four months, al-Taata’s family fled the government forces advance on Kafr Nabel in July 2019. Aside from the social pressure to conform as well as the security risks, another layer of stress that affects journalists and civilians alike is the government advances into northwest Syria. Most recently, pro-government forces displaced over one million Syrians in Idlib. 

“I am a civilian before being a journalist, and there is no civilian in Idlib who doesn’t suffer from the surrounding circumstances; the conditions of war,” al-Hassan said. “He sees massacres and missing body parts and he just goes on living. Unfortunately we are used to it.”

At the core of it, the journalism being done in northwest Syria is a form of activism, Nasser said. Journalism is merely a tool to empower and allow civilians to do something for their community. 

“Because of their writing and photography, they have the chance to relieve their stress. They dissipate stress through actions, which is therapeutic,” Nasser said. “Activism becomes therapy.”

“The amount of pressure of work, threats, and bombardment are really very terrifying. There aren’t any safe places left, only places that have a higher probability of being safe than others,” Abdelrahman said. “Women here, and especially [women] journalists, broke a huge barrier.”

This report reflects minor changes made on 31/03/2020 at 3:35 pm and 4:03 pm.