High Profile to Exile: Part 2

Traditional views toward gender roles that tend to be amplified by the ongoing cultural and political conflict have forced some women journalists to take hiatus not just from reporting, but also residing, in Libya.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
The few Libyan female journalists who remain inside the country are often forced to take hiatus from reporting due to dangers posed by daily death and destruction. An image from the Museum of the Revolution in Misrata, Libya. Iason Athanasiadis

This is a two-part story that originally appeared as a chapter of the 2016 edition of “Attacks on the Press,” produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Part One of the story was published here.

Part Two

Journalists interviewed for this story reported that the treatment of women reporters and photographers throughout Libya varies according to whether they are Libyan, Western, Muslim or non-Muslim. The foreign journalist who declined to be identified by name said female Western reporters work under different, unspoken rules and are permitted a code of conduct that would normally breach social norms. She said she has been able to overcome gender limitations, however, while helping train local journalists before the uprising, she observed that “the general confidence levels of young female journalists” was low because they lacked full acceptance and felt negative pressure from their families and communities. In most cases, the women reporters did not receive as much training as the men and were more reticent when conducting interviews with public figures, she said.

“It was often implied that a [Libyan] female journalist’s work was somehow less respectable,” she said. Because she stood out as an unveiled Western woman, “On one of my last trips I wore a hijab for the first time, not because I felt the need to adhere to Libyan social norms, but because we knew by then that there were ISIS cells operating in the region and car bombings had become frequent.”

Another Western reporter, freelancer Yasmine Ryan, said that despite being treated more leniently than local women reporters, sexism and anxiety over the appearance of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya caused her to feel increasingly uncomfortable. Ryan said she is acutely aware of the strategy of ISIS and affiliated groups to employ sex trafficking as a means of “legitimizing women as commodities,” which she said has further reduced the presence of female reporters along Libya’s eastern and central coast. Ryan still occasionally reports from Libya, when security permits her to do so with relative safety, and she can get a journalist visa.

Rana Jawad, BBC’s longtime chief Libya correspondent, also went into temporary hiding following the 2011 uprising, but later resumed reporting and wrote a book, Tripoli Witness, a firsthand account of her experiences. Today she covers Libya from Tunis. She said her decision to move from Libya was based on concerns about her and her family’s safety, particularly given her high profile as a journalist for the BBC.

Heba Alshibani, who has worked for openly partisan media outlets, said she has observed “extreme hostilities” between members of pro-Islamist and anti-Islamist media who feel extraordinary pressure to adhere to their respective allegiances. She also witnessed female journalists and presenters being coerced into “picking a side in order to continue being employed.” Pressure to adhere to conventions is often implicitly gender-based, she said, and of the 40 or so TV channels and more than 100 publications launched in Libya since 2011, “I know of only one other woman in a decision-making role.” With a laugh, she added, “Most Libyan men are simply not used to taking orders from women.”

Such views of gender are not unique to Libya, but tend to be amplified by the ongoing cultural and political conflict. And in many cases, the conflict has followed women journalists who resorted to self-imposed exile. Alshibani first moved to Tunis, hoping to continue reporting from a relatively safe place and return to Libya when security permitted. Yet even in Tunisia, she was mindful that she could be targeted by operatives representing a Libyan faction, particularly after she heard that a Libyan militia member had been asking around for her contact information. That episode prompted her to move to Malta.

Though Alshibani said she received “veiled” threats, others, including reporter Manal Bouseifi, said they were threatened directly. Bouseifi said she fled her Libyan home after receiving death threats over her “provocative reporting” about the need to re-interpret the Hadith, the foundation of Islamic laws.

Bouseifi studied journalism in Libya during the Qaddafi era and began working as an investigative reporter for a Libyan state publication in 2004. Two years later, she said, “I worked on an investigative report on prostitution with a female colleague and we discovered that it was widespread and with many human rights violations. But the story led to backlash against us as women reporting on the topic.”

After Qaddafi’s fall, “I wrote an article in 2012 about inheritance laws, as I wanted to initiate a discussion on rights of women in political transition and this was the most controversial writing,” Bouseifi said. “I quickly discovered that the inheritance law discussion could have led to a slitting of my throat. I am a mother of five children. Four of them are alive. I fled with them.” Yet the threats, she said, followed her to Tunis. In September 2015, Bouseifi said she was attacked by a Libyan man on a street who threw coffee in her face. “He said it would not be coffee next time,” she added.

The Libyan women journalists who have relocated to Tunis are part of a larger exodus from Libya owing to Tunisia’s geographic proximity and lack of visa restrictions. Nearly 1 million Libyans have fled to Tunis alone since 2011, according to the Tunisian Ministry of Information. Yet Tunisia is not without its problems, including high unemployment, political division and a tempestuous history with Libya. Bouseifi said she now has plans to relocate to Egypt and to start a human rights publication focused on the women of Libya. She currently manages a group of women inside the country who have been documenting human rights abuses in Libyan prisons and translating reports such as those by Human Rights Watch to Arabic for Libyan readers. The women use pseudonyms to protect their identities, she said.

Some Libyan women journalists have chosen to remain in their native country, despite the dangers. Among those going against the grain is a reporter who uses the pen name Mariam Ahmed, who reported for the Libya Herald and freelanced for foreign media from her home in Benghazi until October 2015, when she went on hiatus from reporting on “daily death and destruction” because she said the work became too distressing.

Ahmed, who is 22, said she was undaunted by the potential conflict of being a female journalist in a largely conservative community, and has managed to make many high-profile contacts, including among various militias. She said she realizes this makes her something of an anomaly. “The assassinations of 2013 have been replaced by face-to-face battles and the violence is nonstop,” she said. “Women hardly drive anymore, let alone walk on the streets.” Because she is often the only female present during tense events, Ahmed is well known, which makes her more visible and, she acknowledged, more vulnerable to attacks. Yet her family supports her work, including her father, who sends her breaking news alerts and helps her find useful sources. “My baba [father] told me that if death is to happen, it will happen no matter what, but that I should not live my life in fear,” she said.

Like Alshibani, Ahmed felt an overwhelming desire to document the violence around her. “When I wrote my first story in 2012, on the anniversary of the NATO bombing, I found that I could not stop writing,” Ahmed said. “But during this period, given that there are no positive stories, I am frustrated.”

Asked if she has ever been threatened, Ahmed said the greatest danger she has faced involved being physically caught in crossfire or falling out with a local leader. She said her personal safety and that of her family members hinge heavily on maintaining discretion, asking the right questions and knowing when to refrain.

Another female journalist who held out longer than most is Tunisian Huda Mzioudet, who said that while in Libya, she was mostly treated with respect and even protectiveness. She attributed this to having been veiled and “culturally familiar, yet an outsider.”

But, Mzioudet added, increasing danger led her to report on “less adrenaline-driven” stories. Avoiding battle-riddled streets, Mzioudet covered stories on migration, which also required travel to potentially dangerous, remote locations. She remembered one such trip in which a local tribal member who was escorting her through Libya’s Sahara Desert region began playing Egyptian love songs on his vehicle’s CD player. Sensing that he was coming on to her, “I had to ask myself, what in the world I was doing there with absolutely no protection,” she said. Back home in Tunis, she is working on a book chronicling her reporting experiences in Libya for the Brookings Institution.

The sense of gender-based vulnerability, which Mzioudet also experienced while negotiating Tunisia-Libya border crossings, caused her to reevaluate her on-the-ground reporting. During one border crossing, a member of a Libyan militia asked what she was doing in Libya. She lied and told him she was an academic training students, fearing his reaction if he found out she was a journalist. She recalled how her heart raced when his inquiry began to include sexual innuendo and he suggested that she should be spending time “training him in certain acts,” as she put it. “I was practically in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “As a Tunisian national, I would not count on my government protecting me.”

Despite being conspicuous in a male-dominated terrain, many women journalists, both Libyan and non-Libyan, have continued to report on the country, whether from afar, while making periodic forays into Libya, or from within the country itself. Bouseifi noted that her college-age daughter is determined to return to Libya as a journalist and hopes to report in Arabic and English. “It is not an option for her right now, but yes, in the future, when we return,” she said. “Inshallah.”

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