It's Tough to be a Reporter in a War Zone, for Both Men and Women

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It's a mistake to portray female correspondents as more inexperienced or prone to being attacked.

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Ivor Prickett/AP Images

Lord what an unholy mess The Atlantic stirred this week over in that deepest darkest corner of the world: the Middle East. I awoke to rants and railings on my Facebook feed from friends and colleagues in response to an interview Emily Chertoff did with a journalist called Anna Sebba who claimed the world of war reporting was filled with inexperienced, naive little girls being vicariously exploited by their male editors.

Many women working in war zones, she says, "don't know how to find a fixer; they don't know about weaponry; they don't know where is safe, where is not safe - they just want to prove themselves. So they might end up in a really dangerous trouble spot without adequate preparation. And because you're hardly paid, it's often the young, inexperienced girls who are prepared to do it. And the editors are prepared to exploit them because it makes exciting news. It's vicarious thrill. You see a gorgeous woman on your screens in a flak jacket, and it's almost like entertainment."

Wow.

I had to ask, where are all these hapless, ignorant girls stumbling along in conflict zones, not able to tell gunfire from rockets and car bombs, falling (one assumes) into the arms of their obviously more knowledgeable male colleagues, none of whom is young, inexperienced, or desperate to prove himself?

There was so much that is inherently wrong with this claim that it's difficult to know where to start. In my experience of living and working in war zones in the Middle East for close to a decade, men were equally as likely as women to be clueless in a war zone (often their first) and got smart pretty quick. And the men were the first to point this out.

"To try to discern a pattern to who has professional abilities based solely on their genitalia is at best patronizing and, at worst, a sign of evil intent," Mitchell Prothero, journalist based in Beirut, wrote me when I asked him what he thought of the article.

"And I shudder at the idea that when people look at the work of so many brave and brilliant women in my field they might think that these professionals have overcome something unique to women to be there," he writes. "Of course women—like every man in history—have to learn to work in war zones. And sometimes men and women alike fail to do it well. But in my world there's no discernible pattern based on the penis-lack of penis issue that one can use to predict success."

Thanassis Cambanis, author and foreign correspondent based in Beirut, whose work often appears on TheAtlantic.com, wrote this: "It was funny to read about the supposed limitations on women war correspondents after a dad's night out here in Beirut with the husbands of the bureau chiefs for NPR, Time, and The New York Times. We're constantly taking our kids on play dates while our wives cover the conflicts in Syria and around the region."

And there was more. Sebba explains away the attack on a western female journalist in Tahrir Square with: "Muslim countries, who see Western women wearing provocative—that's their word, not mine—provocative clothes, and therefore, they feel, the West has to be taught a lesson."

Never mind that "Muslim countries" have never said or done anything in so consistent a bloc, what then would she say to the countless Muslim women who've been attacked, beaten, sexually assaulted, dragged out of their abayas for doing something as "provocative" as protesting in public?

"Women," Sebba says, "have been touched, felt up, expected to perform sexual favors to get a story" and suffer all kinds of sexual harassment and don't report it because they "don't want to lose their jobs." I wonder what the male photographer I know who was stopped at an Iraqi checkpoint and told that "love" was the fee to pass through, would say to that. And as for this indictment against "Muslim countries," it was many months of reporting the Second Intifada that I would tell people the only place I'd had my arse grabbed was smack bang in the middle of a crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Mea Sherim, a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem.

It's unfortunate that attitudes like this continue to exist today in this harmful way, as it hinders the excellent work my colleagues and friends do every day. It should never even form part of the discussion about what makes excellent journalism. And it is even more egregious that it comes as we mark the anniversary of the death of Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin in Syria last year, a reporter who was anything but naive, exploited or ignorant. Marie, killed in a rocket strike alongside photojournalist Remi Ochlik, had 30 years experience under her belt in the world's most dangerous places.

War has always been serious and deadly. It has always involved refined and developed machinery that becomes more precise as battles wage on. Anyone with a sense of nuance knows the only place war is a battlefield with infantrymen is on a board with a toy set. It's insulting to the men and women who spend their lives learning—often the hard way—how conflicts and their politics mature and evolve over time. That is a skill no matter what your chromosomes are.

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Jamie Tarabay is a former contributing editor at Atlantic Media. Her writing has appeared in National Journal, TheAtlantic.com and the quarterly dispatch: Beyond Iraq. As Baghdad Bureau Chief for NPR News, her reporting on the war in Iraq received the Alfred I duPont-Columbia University Award. She is the author of A Crazy Occupation; Eyewitness to the Intifada.

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