Marvin Gate does not look like a Marvin. This masculine pseudonym became essential to her security in 2015, when she began secretly working with a motley crew of photographers in cities across Syria, documenting the daily lives of ordinary people during the war. The multimedia project would later become known as Humans of Syria.
“I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing, even my closest friends,” Gate told Syria Deeply.
She was living in a Syrian government-controlled area at the time – which meant that she didn’t necessarily face the daily bombardments and chaos endured by many other members of Humans of Syria in opposition-controlled areas. However, the constant government surveillance, and enforced loyalty to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, made it difficult – and often dangerous – for her to report and communicate, even in secret.
Many of her days working against the government directly underneath its watchful eye were spent wondering which checkpoint or intercepted phone call would be the one to give away her identity.
“I wasn’t only putting myself at risk. We lived in constant fear of being discovered, and something terrible happening to a friend, a family member or someone on our team,” she said. “We weren’t doing anything wrong. We were only telling stories of ordinary people, who are artists, photographers and teachers – but the regime only wanted them promoted as terrorists.”
Gate grew increasingly disillusioned with life in government-controlled areas of Syria, and while her work grew more and more dangerous, she no longer felt that it had a significant impact. She fled to Turkey.
Gate is one of thousands of citizen journalists and media activists who have been pushed out of Syria and forced to report on their country from abroad. Thousands of others remain, but their jobs are growing increasingly dangerous as their colleagues leave. The result is that fewer and fewer journalists are able to report the news from inside Syria. In some ways, this has created greater opportunities for women to be part of the media.
By the end of 2015, women represented 35 percent of the workforce in independent print media and 54 percent in radio, according to a report from the Syrian Female Journalist Network (SFJN), a nonprofit organization that trains both male and female journalists on issues of gender and media, and challenges stereotypes facing female journalists in the region.
In Turkey, Gate continued working with Humans of Syria, which in addition to uploading photographs and stories to social media had become a de facto news agency, frequently deployed to gather breaking news and confirm information for journalists unable to access stories themselves. Gate disseminated news to international media outlets using her vast network of media activists and documentarians inside of Syria.
“We understand that our stories might not necessarily change what happens,” Gate said, recalling a piece she put together for the Mail Online, questioning whether or not the United Kingdom should intervene in the Syrian civil war.
“But these stories are like a paper for our history,” she continued. “We want to make sure that history has a paper that says that we, as Syrians, did not want more bombing – that we knew that this was not going to help our situation.”
In addition to often being highly educated, many of these journalists have an advantage over their male colleagues because of their gender alone. As women, they have a unique insight into the humanitarian impact of the conflict, which has disproportionately hit women and children. They are also able to conduct interviews with women in conservative areas of Syria, bringing stories to light that their male colleagues could never access.
The plethora of media outlets that opened to disseminate news of the revolution increased the number of opportunities for women. In addition, many women were forced to become primary breadwinners for their family, shifting from traditional roles out of necessity – and most importantly, shedding light on the cultural debate of whether or not women should be allowed to occupy professional positions in Syria.
Nevertheless it remains more challenging for women to work as journalists and newsgatherers than it is for men. In addition to the occupational hazards of being a journalist in Syria – such as Gate’s experience of extreme surveillance and distrust in government-controlled areas, the aerial bombardments and chaos of the front line in opposition-controlled territory and “the increased stigma of detainment” in Syria – female journalists still face enormous sexism.
“It’s extremely dangerous to live and work under shelling and heavy weapons, as well as the constant threat of detention of one of us, or our families,” Sarah al-Hourani, the head of the media office of the Free Women Assembly in Daraa (FWAD) and a volunteer documentarian for the Syrian Civil Defense, told Syria Deeply.
In addition to the sexist environment in which many women work, the rise of extremist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State, further endangered working women by causing them to go from controversial figures to targets, al-Hourani added.
“The military presence, and deteriorating security environment impacts us, as women, that much more,” al-Hourani said. “We also have to factor in the social environment around us.”
One woman journalist interviewed for the SFJN study said, “my colleagues do not let me go on the ground with them, though I really want to and can.” Another interviewee, a male manager of a Syrian media outlet, said that “he fears that his institution will get the blame if something bad happens” to a female staff member working inside Syria.
The SFJN report found that, by the end of 2015, only 4 percent of senior journalists at emerging Syrian media outlets were women. Many women working at news agencies interviewed for the study said that their reports were being sidelined in the newsrooms, in favor of their male colleagues’ opinion pieces. Others report more blatant sexism, such as being called “unfit” for marriage, simply because they’re participating in public space and interviewing strange men.
Since many female journalists are also caregivers – looking after either children or elderly relatives – many have grown wary of the dangers of traditional war reporting, and try to minimize the risk to their lives and families by participating in the media as documentarians. Many spend long hours on the phone, confirming and following up on events, gathering testimonies of violations and war crimes.
“I realized how important this work was in 2013, when the people of Daraa were facing such difficult conditions,” al-Hourani said, recounting the trying days of the military offensive on Daraa.
“I am driven forward by the magnitude of the sacrifices made by the Syrian people,” she said. “Most of all, I am driven by the need to ensure that justice is served to the criminals who have committed countless crimes against the Syrian people.”