Gender issues go largely unreported in times of war. As soon as the civil unrest in Syria went violent, women disappeared as subjects in media stories.
The Syrian Female Journalist Network (SFJN) wants to change this. By training female and male journalists who work for local citizen media, they aim to bring a gender angle to conflict reporting and show that there is more going on in Syria than just the fighting.
Meet Lina. She is a Syrian woman, mother of seven, who struggles to pay medicines for three of her children, who all suffer from psoriasis, a skin disease. "People develop. I develop. When left alone, you have to push boundaries and make things happen. When you are weak, you are done. You have to be strong to defend yourself, your kids and the household," Lina told Rula Asad, a Syrian journalist and women's rights activist. She reported Lina's story in an article titled "Women Alone," which portrays the social and economic burdens that Syrian female refugees face on a daily basis.
Since the "revolution" turned into an outright civil war, Syrian women and their stories have become invisible. If mentioned at all, they are portrayed only as refugees, victims of rape and violence, or child brides in Jordanian camps. We hear about them as collateral damage in war. "Both international media and Syrian media cover women's stories only when they relate to rape, sexual violence or sexual jihad, [known as jihad al-nikah]-basically everything that relates to sex," says Asad. "The image of Syrian women in media is that of the victim. Of course, the stories about female victims are important and part of the reality, but they are not the whole reality."
Victim stories as the only stories about women are not limited to Syria but are a general phenomenon of war and conflict reporting, says German researcher Romy Fröhlich of the Technical University of Munich, who is also project coordinator of Infocore, an international research project on media and violent conflict. "Female civilians are always portrayed as victims, and it's very hard to leave that [image] behind. Journalists have a certain framing of women as victims in their minds." Fröhlich says this framing stems from the absence of women as decision makers, especially in times of war. "Women are underrepresented in the political sphere, which means that only few women hold key political, diplomatic or military roles."
Ammu Joseph, an Indian journalist and author, says enough material is available to write about powerful women, especially in times of armed conflict. "If women hold up half the sky during peacetime, they hold up even more of it during wartime," Joseph writes in her essay "Women, War and Media." This is also true for women in Syria. To tell the world about women like Lina, Asad co-founded the Syrian Female Journalist Network (SFJN), which offers training in gender-sensitive reporting for Syrian journalists. After being invited to a 2012 conference of the German female journalists union, Journalistinnenbund, in Munich, she wondered if a similar network could be possible in Syria.
At first, the team started to work on women's issues, but quickly found out that it had to look at gender and the media in a more holistic way. "We are trying to initiate social change," Asad says. The objectives of the SFJN are both professional and social. Asad and her team want to facilitate communication among Syrian journalists, promote women's journalistic careers and achieve gender democracy in the Syrian media's portrayal of women. Until now, the network has organized three workshops in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon with about 10 participants. At the end of the weeklong training, the participants produce a publication, working in pairs to apply what they've learned in the workshop to their reporting.
For Asad and her team as well, these workshops are a learning process. "At first, we only invited female journalists, both professional and citizen journalists. Then, in the next workshop in in Turkey, we invited also male journalists, again both citizen and professional journalists." But it became clear that keeping professional journalists and citizen journalists together in one workshop did not work, as the journalism knowledge in these groups was so different. So we settled on working with citizen journalists from local media," Asad says.
The blooming citizen journalism movement in Syria is known outside the country for providing footage from difficult regions to the international media. But inside Syria, the citizen journalists have taken on another vital role. They started local media outlets, radio stations, online news outlets and newspapers to challenge the governmental or national media and to provide the local population with news relevant to its region. "They do not only report on war but rather create specialized media," Asad says.
One example is the monthly women's magazine The Lady of Syria, based in Gaziantep, Turkey, which reports on all kinds of gender-related topics in the region. "These people, living in small villages and rural communities with their local media outlets, are the target group to achieve social change," Asad says. Citizen journalism is seen as a way to challenge the male-dominated traditional media when it comes to women and war reporting. "I see a chance in citizen journalism for women, if it takes places in a structured and supervised manner," Fröhlich says. Because of its grass-roots nature, citizen journalism does not have to rely on highly institutionalized sources but is instead interested in local stories. It also is a way for women to make it to the center of attention as subjects and a source of media coverage.
Within the scope of the SFJN's workshops, this strategy is already bearing fruit. Asad recalls one male participant who at first was not very interested in reporting on women's issues. Now he publishes once a month a story about women from his region, a village in northwest Syria. "He is a freelance journalist, so he writes for different local Syrian media. Sometimes he reports about issues about sexual violence in the area, which is important," Asad says. "But he also looks for successful stories. He wrote about a woman who tries to make a difference in her region by inviting other women to her house and starting small businesses. He looked for these stories, the hero stories."
Asad would like to keep doing the journalism workshops and also expand the network's work into research on gender and media. But the network's financial basis is very unstable. "We are suffering in this aspect," she says. "We want to continue our work, but at a point you have to have an income to continue your life." To cover the costs of the training, the SFJN received funding from the Dutch organization IVOS, a French nongovernmental organization and the German NGO Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. With IVOS, the SFJN team is working on a financial strategy to secure its work for the next two years. Asad herself has been working without any funding since 2012, when she had to leave Syria because of security reasons. Yet the success of her project makes her believe she is investing in the right project. With its positive impact, the SFJN itself is a story of powerful women, just like the ones it wants to promote.