For a long time, it was thought a war zone was no place for a woman. But now, female reporters are just as likely as their male counterparts to be sent to cover wars.
But what’s it like for women in these hostile environments? Is it more difficult for female correspondents to operate in regions where other women live behind a veil?
When Monica Attard took up her post as the ABC’s Russia correspondent, she saw the Soviet Union collapse in front of her eyes. She reported while missiles flew overhead and stood amidst tanks which threatened to mow down millions crammed into Red Square.
“What are you going to do? Runaway and say I can’t report the story, “I’m too scared?” At the very worst, what you’re going to see is a number of people mowed down by tanks or gunned down by soldiers,” Attard said.
It’s the most dangerous field within journalism. Your office is the war zone. As a correspondent, Monica Attard was the eyes and ears for Australia.
And as a female war correspondent, many military officials she interviewed treated her with disdain.
“So, they never expected you to have much of a sophisticated understanding of the political processes. And they didn’t expect you to ask hard questions,” said Attard.
“I don’t think there was any difference in the kind of answers that they would give, expect perhaps in the terminology, you know. They would talk in simple terms and military generals, for example, wouldn’t talk in military terms.”
She admits the news gathering process can be different for women, especially when covering the human toll.
“There is not a lot of difference between male and female reporting. Perhaps a difference the way we perceive information and report it, perhaps a difference in our interests fundamentally when we’re in those situations,” said Attard.
Ginny Stein agrees, and the differences can be seen in her reports. She is the roving video journalist for Dateline on SBS.
“It might be true that women adopt less military jargon, quite simply because I don’t understand it and I don’t care. That might be part of the reason.
I mean, to me they’re guns, tanks, whatever, they kill people. They are what they are,” Stein said.
“Wars, well they’ve been around a forever. But if you want to try to explain it to people, the best way to do it is to do it through the eyes of the people who are going through it.”
Just days ahead of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, she ventured into greater Afghanistan for an interview with a warlord. She ignored warnings she was risking her life.
“When I went to meet this Afghan warlord Patja Han Khan (phonetic), he had to deal with me as equal. As a foreigner, I was given a temporary male status. You know, normally he would not be talking to women about the greater situations.”
“They treated me equally, they answered my questions; best of all we got what we wanted in terms of finding out why he had turned from once supporting the US, they had killed his son in a fire fight, to why he now did not.”
“Then all of a sudden, overnight, war was declared in Iraq and we’re on our own, they basically said, see you later. And we had to go back through Taliban areas to get out,” Stein said.
Emma Hurd was also in the Middle East as the correspondent for UK’s Sky News. During the invasion of Iraq, she was embedded with British forces as they moved into the city of Basra.
“I climbed out of the back of the tank and there was utter bewilderment on the faces of the men, the local men who had gathered around at that point to welcome the British forces.
They just couldn’t understand what I was doing there. And the women were all waiting behind them, as they tend to do in that culture. I don’t think it’s the case that men just talk to men and women just talk to women.
I think we have the advantage of perhaps having a bit more sway with both.
The men will speak to us because we’re interesting and a novelty and perhaps they will share things with us that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with sharing with a man. I’m more likely to ask the men whether they were afraid, for instance,” Hurd said.
Hurd is now the Africa correspondent for Sky News. She’s criss-crossed the vast continent, covering stories which involved bloodshed and violence.
“I think the worst conflicts I’ve covered are also one of the world’s most unreported,” she said.
Christina Lamb has covered wars and conflicts for The Sunday Times for 20 years. Becoming a mother dramatically changed how she saw her job.
“Unusual in this country, certainly is having a child and doing this job. And so I frequently get asked about you know, ‘How can you as a mother go off and leave your child and go into these dangerous situations?’
Which is fair enough to ask but I don’t see my male colleagues being asked that and I don’t really see why it should be different.
I’ve always been doing this; I trust that I kind of don’t make stupid, reckless decisions on the ground. Of course, having a child does change you. I don’t take some of the risks that I would have taken before,” Lamb said.
In October 2007 Christina Lamb was on the late Benazir Bhutto’s bus, at her homecoming parade in Pakistan, when it was bombed. More than120 people were killed.
Her husband and her 10-year-old son Lorenco were watching TV at home in England. They saw the bombs, knowing she was on the bus.
“And I found out that they had been watching because the time that it happened was the time of the evening news program in England.
And my son had actually said to my husband, quite matter-of-factly, ‘Do you think mummy survived?’ Which was horrible to hear; he was only seven at the time.
I don’t think that a child that age should be put through that sort of fear. So I did think quite seriously afterwards about whether I should still be doing this kind of work,” she narrates.
But she’s still working as a foreign correspondent, time and time again finding herself in the middle of a war zone. She says she feels as though she’s leading a double life.
“Cause I’ve got to go back and be mum and do the school run and help with homework. Sometimes it does feel very odd.
It did feel odd at my son’s, his birthday party on a Sunday afternoon, watching in a sort of lovely summer’s day, watching all the kids playing football, thinking that just a few days ago I had been in these ditches thinking that I wasn’t going to get out,” said Lamb.
They enter this field, knowing it’s a dangerous, life-threatening job. But they say it’s worth it, these stories need to be told.
When it comes to covering a big story like a war, despite the unique challenges gender may present, these women agree it makes little difference in their journalism.