It’s not just since I became a mother that I grew interested in women’s issues pertaining to fertility, childbirth and motherhood. In fact, I’ve been sneaking coverage of women’s issues into my reporting all these years, under the banner of feature stories to be done on a “slow news day.” Sometimes, I resented it when, during a trip to say, Afghanistan, an editor would say, “Hey, why don’t you go off and do some stories about women? You can get access the other guys can’t get.”
On the one hand, my newspaper didn’t have another female staff writer covering Afghanistan, and naturally, the stories about women were fascinating. On the other, I didn’t want to be taken off the big story, the story of politics and guns and men, possibly to be pigeon-holed as a writer on “women’s issues.” Had I agreed to go to the front-line…only to do features? I was worried I would end up being relegated to what hacks refer to as the “soft stuff” – interesting, readable or quirky, but rarely of great urgency.
Negating that reluctance was the work of Geraldine Brooks, who had come to visit my class when I was a wee little graduate student in J-School. Brooks wrote the Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, which quickly became one of my favorite journalistic books about the Middle East. Brooks proved that as a rare Western female reporter at the time – the book was published in 1994 – she actually had a more intimate window into the cultures she was covering than many of her male counterparts.
From then on, I realized that being female was a great advantage. While I might have a few limits as a reporter – I wasn’t about to go on the road with the mujahideen – I was more likely to make it into an Afghan’s home beyond the typical receiving room, where women are unseen and even the smallest children are sent in to serve tea and refreshments to guests.
I began to meet women who were my age – 31 on my first trip to Afghanistan – who had eight children and looked to be 50 years old. I met war widows with wizened skin who, to my surprise, turned out to be younger than I. Each seemed to have several children yanking at her dress. Each spoke bitterly about the difficulty of surviving in a culture where it isn’t entirely acceptable for average women to go out to work. Women at the age of 50 tended to look more like 80. The combination of poverty and conflict had left a map of misery on their very faces, and I began to feel embarrassed by the luxury of not looking old and worn like them, of being neither married nor a mother, of being able to travel half-way around the world to pursue my professional dreams. Read more…