Milia Eidmouni’s family didn’t want her to be a journalist. They wanted her to choose a more typical career for an educated Syrian woman, such as teaching.
But as a feminist, women’s rights defender and human rights campaigner, she pursued her desire to become a working journalist in 2007. She worked as an online news editor and wrote for a number of Arab media outlets under a pen name, as well as covering the outbreak of war on the ground.
In late 2012, she fled to Jordan, but her zeal for supporting female journalists did not abate, especially in the case of citizen journalists entering the field during and after the revolution. That same year, she and her friend Rula Asad cofounded the Syrian Female Journalists Network, an organization that trains both male and female journalists on issues of gender and media, as well as helping Syrian media organizations source female experts and researching women’s representation.
In training sessions held both online and in person outside Syria, they discuss the role gender plays within media organizations and how to sensitively report on women’s issues. Today, the network has 77 member journalists, and a core team of six.
Women & Girls spoke to Eidmouni to learn more about the situation of female journalists in Syria, and how women are represented in Syrian journalism.
Women & Girls: What was the genesis of SFJN?
Milia Eidmouni: We started at the end of 2012. My colleague Rula, who is based in the Netherlands, and I started communicating about emerging Syrian media after the revolution, and we saw a lack of coverage of women’s issues. Women had taken part in the revolution from the beginning, so we started thinking we need to build the capacity of journalists to report on gender, especially if they do not come from a professional background.
For our first training, we invited seven female journalists to Amman to discuss women’s issues, and how we can improve coverage and the presence of women in media organizations.
Women & Girls: Your mission is to build bridges between the Syrian women’s movement and Syrian media through training journalists. Can you give us an overview of how you are doing this?
Eidmouni: Our goals are to challenge social norms and strengthen the role of female journalists as agents of change; to break taboos about gender issues in Syrian society; to lobby emerging media and decision-makers within media to adopt our Code of Conduct; to raise awareness about women’s rights, freedom of expression and sexual and gender-based violence among the Syrian community; and to promote public campaigns each year in partnership with media outlets and Syrian women’s organizations.
Women & Girls: What is the Code of Conduct and what’s your goal with it?
Eidmouni: The Code of Conduct was created to establish an ethical background for all Syrian media. It’s about how we can improve the image of women in the media and how we can encourage more women to be part of media organizations at the management level.
[We developed it after we conducted a study] monitoring media discourse from 2011 to 2016 and found that coverage of women’s issues in Syria increased during international days like Women’s Day or Mother’s Day, or at the beginning of a political negotiation. After that, coverage would drop.
The number of female journalists at media outlets is also decreasing; even though we have hundreds of emerging media outlets in Syria, fewer than 35 percent of the staff are women, and based on the study, these women are more likely to be volunteers and part-time staff. We found that only 4 percent of senior journalists are women. The women who are in decision-making roles are those who founded or cofounded a media outlet, otherwise they will not reach the level of editor, manager or even reporter. We found female journalists are given tasks like writing about beauty or cooking, instead of in-depth reporting.
So last year we started to lobby media outlets to adopt the Code of Conduct in their daily work. It’s not mandatory and there are no penalties for not following it, but they pledge to write about the success stories of women in Syria, and to treat female and male journalists in the organization equally. We sent it to 10 organizations, out of which four have signed it: Rozana Radio, Souriali Radio, Syria Untold and the Sada al-Sham newspaper.
Women & Girls: Given how much else is going on in Syria right now, why did you decide to focus on the portrayal of women?
Eidmouni: Because of what’s happening in Syria right now, many people will say there are other issues we should cover. For us, women’s rights should be a priority for everyone, and we should take advantage of what is happening now in Syria to challenge our society to say that women’s rights are human rights. We should talk about them all the time, not just at specific times, or during conflict.
We do three campaigns each year, where we ask journalists to write about particular issues. One is about International Women’s Day, one is about freedom of expression and one is on the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Recently, we took on cyber bullying, especially against female activists in Syria, which is an overlooked form of violence against women.
Women & Girls: What are the greatest challenges you face?
Eidmouni: Our greatest challenge right now is of course the security situation in Syria. Before, we used to hold training sessions in Lebanon and Turkey. Now, with all the restrictions related to the freedom of movement for Syrians, we’ve started having them over Skype or using our Facebook group.
There is also the challenge related to the freedom of expression because many Syrian media outlets are under censorship [from both the government and armed groups] and can’t write about women’s issues or have a woman’s image on the cover of a newspaper or magazine. Still, we are trying to challenge that.
We are running this organization between Jordan, Lebanon and the Netherlands. Sometimes we lack funds, but we’re still working.