Asking questions is a way of life for Eman Mohammed. In her quest to find answers, & to capture the images that show the rest of the world what is happening in her besieged land, she entered the field of photojournalism at the age of 19. But unfortunately, it’s always tough for women who want to break the mold. “I just knew that my beginning in photojournalism will be much harder than any man’s beginning in the field. Cultural barriers stood in my way so I couldn’t train officially for photojournalism.”
Eman had learned photography all on her own because the relevant subject was only available for boys in universities. That’s all due to the high-risk dangers involved in the news. “But I had this belief that if I can live it then I can cover it,” said Eman. She started as a reporter with an agency, & used to take photos as well. But once they found out, they didn’t allow her to take photos. Also, they wouldn’t hire a woman photographer. So, she had to quit. From that point on, she was always a freelance photographer.
But she didn’t start with everyone’s support exactly. Her mother wanted her to find anything else that she could do behind the desk safely. She told me, “I understand her concern because my mom is a single mother who didn’t want to lose me for a profession of this sort. She was pretty strict about that. So, I had to do it behind her back.”
Her mother thought that she would just go to the field to take notes as a reporter. But one day, while watching the news on TV, she saw Eman rushing towards the scene to take a picture after an airstrike. “From that point on, we butt heads a lot over that. After the first war started, we both had an argument every single morning. It was really hard.” But her mother also had a passion for the country that she used to her advantage. Moreover, the belief in the divine decree helped to have her mind at ease.
Fought her way into the war zone
War is no different for men or women. Still, it can be argued that women on the frontline do not only face implicit dangers of hostile environment, they bear certain risks that are not nearly so common for the male equivalent. Female reporters have to be self-conscious of the things that no other man would be self-conscious of while covering. “It was a prerequisite that I couldn’t look in any way like I am seeking attention,” said Eman, “I always had to dress in black super baggy clothes. I couldn’t look feminine. Because then people would form wrong opinions about me. So, I looked “boyish.” I had to walk this very thin line of all the taboos, all the restrictions in the culture. And I had to take a lot of it.”
Women covering the military combat is nothing new. They were doing that even in World War II. But when they either serve as a warrior or a journalist on the front line, it creates unease. They always face enormous societal disquiet & often penalty if they chose to gets close to the conflict zone. “Only agency journalists were allowed to get into Gaza. And I was a freelancer. A lot of male photographers, even the freelance ones obtained entry permits with the help of their fellow agency journalists. But none of the male photographers would help me. To them, I shouldn’t be there. They made it even harder for me. I always believed that the Israeli army was the enemy. Sometimes your enemy is not as obvious. And I think us, as women know that very well.”
Eman told me that she was once sexually harassed by a colleague. “It was almost sexual assault more than a harassment because he actually touched me. And I felt so terrified of saying anything. I left him very fast, and went to cover with other colleagues,” but the ordeal did not end there. What happened after that just made her realize that she doesn’t have a lot of friends in the field. Some of her other colleagues had already advised her so many times not to be a photographer. On that day, they decided to show her the real possible consequences.
Eman, along with other colleagues, was visiting an airstrike-affected area in an unarmed jeep, when suddenly another airstrike was heard nearby. They all started running back to the jeep and at that point they closed the jeep and took off, leaving her behind. “They saw me, I was knocking on the door, but they were trying to teach me a lesson that could’ve killed me,” she continued. “Later when I tried to confront them, they said that they were trying to protect me from dangers in advance. While in actuality they just wanted to get rid of me.” After that, she covered for 22 days of the war. “I feel that situation shaped my understanding of how to cover in a war zone. After that, I became equipped, always have my all the needed things, became way more knowledgeable in the lay of the land, so the geography.”
It is a common belief that women face more dangers than men during the war. That’s because they don’t have proper self-defense training so they end up in a dangerous spot. Eman believes that a lot of international editors still make that same mistake. But it’s not justified whatsoever, “They say that women have the disadvantages of being raped, or tortured. This is the same for men. Men had been raped in Iraq, and in so many places. Both are in a very dangerous place.”
She believes that if women are equipped, protected, & given proper training, their input would be better than the men. “Because it is women’s emotional intelligence, a component that has been proven scientifically doesn’t exist for men, or not as much. This is just the way our brains work. We look for emotions, men shut down emotions. If you are hiring a woman, you are actually getting more. Now I’m not saying just hire a woman. But if you are already hiring women, don’t doubt them”.
Step into the field
While covering conflicts, training is very useful to put you ahead of the game. But Eman had no such training. She had to come up with her own routine. Which actually helped her majorly. “It actually helped me along the way to be more confident about my protocols.” She continued, “It was important for me for someone to know my location. That would be my mother of course. I didn’t have a lot of resources. But it was so many things that I researched. I looked up so many things that came in handy. Like knowing that when the sound of the airstrike becomes like a whistling sound and very sharp, that indicates that the location you are at is being bombed. Now that’s your queue to get the hell out as fast as you can. Whenever the airstrike happened, I tried my best not to run to it.”
She further said, “One of the things that I learned very fast was that I cannot have tunnel vision. It is very risky. If we cover a spot that is under attack, we should not only focus on the things that are straight ahead of us. We should know what’s happening in our surroundings.”
Sometimes having a partner in the field helps a lot, but that wasn’t always an option in Gaza especially. “It was important for me to know the geography of the area before I go and cover there. Because I wasn’t always familiar with those places. Also, the layout of the land looked different after the airstrike. In addition, I would say, always have some medical-aid kind of stuff on you. if you are not a CPR-qualified person, just have something on you. So, if god forbid something happens, you wouldn’t be stranded.”
These were the basics that she did earlier. Now she has received various training and has the experience of covering in Gaza. “I combine the two and made my system. There are so many things that you can do but it all depends on the nature of the place that you are covering. So, you wouldn’t be over-prepared, or underprepared.”
People often harshly criticize working-mothers, & so the journalists for their career & family choices. They do not only fight this stigma but also face a motherhood bias. As a woman who had spent a long time in a male-dominated area of work, Eman had experienced her share of gender bias. When she welcomed the birth of her two children, she discovered a new one – the mother bias.
“Though it’s not excusable but understandable when it comes in a place like Gaza where a lot of people have their own traditional thinking. But it shocked me that in my case, that criticism came from an American reporter in the New York times. I was covering even when I was 9 months pregnant. My baby was overdue. She grabbed me and said, “You understand that your priority is this baby, not covering.” And it was very condescending because she was assuming that I’m not having my baby’s best interest.”
She continued “The problem is that I was living in Gaza, there was nowhere to go. In addition, it was my choice. If I decide that this coverage is worth sacrificing my life and my unborn baby’s life, that’s still my call. When a man goes to a war while they have a new born at home, they are portrayed as heroes. The importance of parents should be the same. Now granted that mothers are different. But I was on an important mission, and I was doing this for so long. So, the editor didn’t know that I was pregnant. And once they knew that, they took me off that assignment. I don’t know where the loss stands in that way. I don’t know if that’s even right or wrong. But like I was doing my job. My personal choices are up to me.”
Also, there’s so much bias in hiring. Especially for single mothers. Every single parent has it hard but the biases parents face may differ for single mothers & fathers. Eman said, “I was judged continuously for having two kids, and being in a war zone. They doubt over the working capabilities of single moms. However, the situation wouldn’t be the same for any single dad.”
So, her journey has never been easy, but it’s always been worth it.
Meet Eman Mohammed, Gaza’s First Female Photojournalist On The Frontline (Part 2)
Ayeda Shadab: An Influencer In A War-Torn Country
How White Feminists And American Warhawks Use Muslim Women To Justify Military Intervention