A look inside Syria’s emerging feminist media
Ever since she was a girl, Rula Asad wanted to be a soccer player, but her family gave her a flat-out “No.”
Even before the Arab Spring, there were a few female soccer teams in Syria, and in the 1990s, Asad’s generation, another team formed. She played soccer for three years, but when the time came for her to pick a subject in school, Asad chose media studies—so that she could remain close to soccer by covering sports. Her dream was to become a top sports journalist.
That was in 2002, before Syria’s civil war began.
Today, Asad is a feminist, human rights defender, and an educator in the fields of gender and media. Asad is co-founder and current executive director of Syrian Female Journalists Network. For the last five years, she’s lived in Europe, and is currently based in the Netherlands, where she works on supporting female journalists in Syria and advancing women’s rights.
I met Asad in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in September 2017, where she was attending a workshop on the role of journalists in the restoration of peace, reconciliation, and tolerance after war. The conference was organized by International Media Support, a Copenhagen-based media nonprofit, and the Association of BH Journalists, a Sarajevo-based organization that provides educational, legal, and in some cases financial support for Bosnian journalists. Journalists from Syria, Iraq, and Kurdistan participated in the workshop, and a remarkable number of them were women.
Choosing journalism as a profession in Syria in the late 1990s was almost as unusual for a young girl as choosing to become a professional soccer player.
“There were a lot of women studying media, but we already knew that we [would] not work as journalists,” said Asad.
Before the war began, young Syrian women could only hope to cover cultural events or what are often perceived as “women’s issues,” such as beauty and cooking, according to Asad. It was an unwritten rule that men reported on politics, the economy, and sports, while women were there to cover “soft” topics.
“We only had government-owned media, and these posts were, by default, occupied by older people and mostly by men,” said Asad. “As young people in Damascus, in the early 2000s, we knew that we should be looking for work in communication offices, or in cultural organizations.”
When the Syrian revolutionary uprising began in 2011, Asad was among the protesting activists. At the time there were few reliable local news sources, and the demonstrators relied on information from other Arabic and international media, as well as through social networks such as Facebook. In 2011, Asad received a scholarship from a women’s rights organization in Germany. The risk of arrest for journalists was high in Syria, so she stayed in Europe, to report in English and Arabic on events in Syria, using social media and her sources in the country.
“Increasingly, I was becoming aware that there is a need for helping women journalists in Syria,” said Asad, “But not the ones who were reporting for CNN or Al Arabiya. There was a need to support women who were gathering news on the local level, who were mostly without access to resources.”
Asad and some of her friends decided to find a way to help.
“We asked ourselves, How come we don’t have men with us? We didn’t want to be a group of only women working for women,” she said. “Men have better access and resources.”
Over the last three years, the Syrian Female Journalists Network has worked to advance basic journalistic skills, and to build the capacity of Syrian citizen journalists, men and women alike. The organization has also focused on integrating gender issues into media content.
Asad said that in 2013, it was easy to bring journalists to trainings outside of Syria, in Turkey or Lebanon. But since 2016 it has become increasingly difficult for Syrians to travel abroad, so the network began providing online training.
“Last year we started online training for Syrian female activists on how to use media and Internet for raising awareness of women's issues in the area,” said Asad. “They don't need to become journalists—it is enough to send us good photos and a quotation, which we can publish on our website and share with other media that reports about Syria.”
Asad said that journalists in the network are most interested in covering sexualized violence, women’s political participation, and the Syrian women’s movement.
“Journalists are working hard on including women’s voices to any story they are covering,” she said. And that journalists in the network are increasingly looking to connect with female experts so they can have gender-balanced sources in their stories.
Journalists in the network also face obstacles when including photos of women with their articles.
“In some areas of the country, you cannot even put a women's face next to the article about her, or she has to wear hijab in the photograph,” said Asad. “In those cases we help journalists find ways to work around that.”
After the workshop in Bosnia that focused on conflict and post-war reporting, Asad said that she is afraid Syria may end up in a similar, dead-end position as Bosnia. She wonders whether it might be too late for civil society in her home country to learn lessons from similar conflicts in the past. At the same time, she is hopeful.
“Before the war, there was only government opinion, and now we have alternative media, and thus often two sides to a story,” said Asad. “In the last couple of years, so many new concepts were introduced, such as citizen journalism and freedom of expression. Emerging media is still not proficient, and they have almost no resources, yet they are [still] doing really, really well.”
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