The Duck of Minerva

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Reporting in the Middle East: Are Female Journalists a Liability?

May 28, 2011

Do the responses to the plight of Dorothy Parvaz, a journalist for Al Jazeera English who was detained in Syria and Iran for nearly 3 weeks, show continued resistance to female journalists pursuing particular types of stories?

Parvaz flew to Syria to gather information that could add to what little is known about local protests and government violence. She was arrested at the airport in Damascus and taken to a detention center- Parvaz likened it to a mini version of Guantanamo Bay. Three days after her arrival in Syria she was extradited to Iran as a suspected spy before being released without charge.

In addition to providing an important and rare glimpse into Syria’s detention centers and the apparent random brutality of the regime, Parvaz’s story seems to have re-raised questions about female journalists. These questions echo those posed after Lara Logan was sexually assaulted during the revolution in Egypt (ie. Should the media pull women journalists from war zones?, should she have stayed home because she is a mommy?). Several media outlets chose to use Logan’s story as an opportunity to undermine the capabilities of female journalists and to question what types of assignments might be appropriate for them.

Similarly, in an interview by CBC Parvaz was asked whether she regretted her decision to go to Syria and was pushed on questions related to the risks involved in going. Responses to the interview online were scathing and included accusations that Parvaz was naïve (‘what was she trying to do?’), overly ambitious (‘her 15 minutes of fame are up’), took too many risks (‘she brought it on herself and can’t blame anyone’), and was abusing the fact that she has multiple citizenships where does her loyalty lie? Canada, US, Iran?’).

So why focus on the haters and not the supporters?

Hard line questions and critical comments shift the focus from the real story- torture and unjust detentions in Syria. Furthermore, Parvaz’s history as a competent and successful journalist and her brave efforts to cover important international events has been downplayed.

Finally, the caddy and critical comments raise some important questions, including: Is the underlying message in both Logan and Parvaz’s case a racist one- that the Middle East is inherently a hazardous place for non-Western women (forgetting that Parvaz holds Canadian, Iranian, and US citizenship)?; or a sexist one- that male journalists can prove their dedication and bravery through difficult or dangerous journalism while excellent female reporters continue to have to prove they are not a liability?

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.