“I really, really didn’t want to die in that field in Helmand. So I just kept running,” said Christina Lamb, a Sunday Times foreign correspondent, remembering a July afternoon in 2006 when she and a group of British troops nearly died under Taliban fire near Zumbelay, in the Gereshk region of Afghanistan.
She was calmly talking on July 1 from the safety of Al-Jazeera English’s headquarters in London, at a Women in Journalism event focusing on the job of female war reporters.
Joining her on the panel were Juliana Ruhfus, a German investigative filmmaker and broadcaster for Al-Jazeera English who is now working in Somalia, and Dame Ann Leslie, a renowned Daily Mail correspondent who has reported from numerous wars and on, among other events, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela’s final walk to freedom. “Dame Ann was there when it mattered,” said Eleanor Mills, editorial director of The Sunday Times and Women in Journalism’s chair, who moderated the event.
Being a war correspondent is a very dangerous job for both women and men. Comparing different eras of war reporting, Leslie confessed to never wearing protective gear in her days in the job, as she felt it looked “insulting” compared with the locals’ vulnerability. She admitted, however, that journalists have now become targets and need to think much more about security.
“Now we are at the front line,” Lamb confirmed. “In Afghanistan, the Taliban know if they kill a soldier it doesn’t make a headline in the newspapers anymore, but if they kill a journalist it is a front-page story, and that’s really changed the job.”
Still, men and women often perceive danger differently. Ruhfus described working with male colleagues who were not intimidated by shootings but lost their nerve in situations where she felt more in control, such as having a gun pointed at her vehicle. “Occasionally, I have felt safer as a woman than the men did, but it’s changing now.”
The brutal sexual assaults in Egypt, like the one in 2011 that left CBS journalist Lara Logan hospitalized, prove that it is changing indeed. As Lamb put it, “There used to be some sort of respect towards women, but now it [gender] makes no difference, and in some countries, like Egypt, it actually makes it worse.”
Being exposed to greater risks may be a factor penalizing women when reporters are assigned to conflict zones. Reporting, particularly for newspapers, remains “definitely” very male-dominated, Lamb explained. “Men are more attracted to action and conflict, while editors may be less willing to risk sending women reporters to dangerous places.”
Women, though, seem capable of handling emotional stress in a healthier way. Leslie noted that men are more likely to be “war junkies,” having observed that many male colleagues become addicted to extreme experiences and then are unable to build a stable life at home. “Women feel there is something else, other than the adrenaline rush.”
Lamb agreed and praised women reporters for being better listeners, less focused on the “bang bang” and more interested in what hides behind it—“what happens behind the lines, to live and carry on everyday life, because people are still living in all these places.”
Touching on a crucial aspect about female war reporters, she pointed out that “in Islamic countries we have access to half the population men reporters generally can’t speak to.”
In fact, in the Middle East it remains difficult for a male foreign correspondent to gain access to women’s quarters. “[Male journalists] are cut off in many communities. The only women they speak to are the educated Westernized women who are not very representative [of the population] in most of these places,” Lamb said.
Still gender also matters at the editorial management level, as reporters respond to the newsroom hierarchies and male-dominated power structures. “Sadly, I have only ever had male editors, so often their choices of what should go into the paper are different to what women might like” Lamb said.
And yet, she added, that female perspective is not “the softer side” of war. “I don’t think the bravery of mothers and wives trying to feed, educate and protect their families during war could in any way be the softer side.”