Women With Cameras: How Female Journalists Documented Lebanon’s Revolution
Written by Laudy Issa
When Lebanon’s anti-government revolution kicked off on October 17, women carved out their own spaces in the protests that swept across the country. They demanded an end to corruption and sectarian politics, cried out against the deteriorating living standards and financial crisis, and rallied against the patriarchal system that renders them secondary citizens by all standards.
Some of the protests’ most iconic imagery placed women in the spotlight. One became a revolutionary icon when she was filmed kicking a minister’s armed guard who fired live bullets into the air. Women were seen marching to Downtown, Beirut and banging on pots and pans. Facebook was often flooded with footage of women holding hands and standing firmly between armed security forces and other protesters, using the “women-need-to-be-protected” stereotypes that hold them back to their advantage.
Less documented, if at all, were the independent female journalists chronicling the Lebanese protests as they unfolded. Although revolutionaries burning tires and mass roadblocks make it difficult for everyone else to get to work, journalists’ workload triples in times of crisis.
For female videographers, the revolution provided a prime opportunity to document history. This, however, did not come without multi-layered threats, some because they are journalists, but others because they are simply women in public roles.
“Carrying a camera made it a bit harder, especially when it was violent, to protect myself and my gear,” said Jana Khoury,1 a freelance videographer and photographer. “On my first night, I personally witnessed a man from the security forces come running at everyone with a stick. He didn’t mind hitting women or men, and he came at me to attack me, but stopped because I sort of screamed.”
In Lebanon, having vague laws means women are not protected from harassment or indecent acts in their workplaces. Article 75 of the Lebanese Labor Code states that employees are entitled to quit their job and receive “dismissal compensation” if an act of violence is committed against them by their employer or their representative. What “an act of violence” means is not specified to be anything more than physical violence, leaving its interpretation in cases of verbal, sexual, economic, and other forms of violence up to courts since the 1950s.
Those in high risk professions like journalism –which takes reporters to the streets that everyone else is running away from– are under even greater threat. The threat to female journalists covering the Lebanese revolution isn’t their employers, it’s often security forces or protesters who don’t want them to film.
“Usually on a daily basis outside of the revolution, I was never able to use my camera on the streets.” said Lujain Jo,2 an independent Iraqi videographer who has been living in Lebanon for eight years. “There was one incident where I was arrested for just using my camera. I was not filming anything dangerous but, before the revolution, we were simply not allowed to point our cameras at security forces.”
Lujain’s nationality added even more pressure to her work during the revolution –as if being a woman isn’t enough. She lists hilarious incidents where people would happily ask whether she was on an “exchange program” from the Iraqi revolution, only to go on to highlight rampant racism where others would build up a mental barrier as soon as they heard her accent when she was trying to interview them.
“I understand people being suspicious because of all the non-Lebanese funding conspiracies at the time,” she said, pinpointing fears that the revolution was not spontaneous, but being puppeteered by external funders. “But I didn’t understand why people who looked white or European didn’t have that problem.”
Female videographers also recognize the importance of not generalizing their personal experiences because of the sheer number of people on the streets and the difficulty in capturing everything that was actually going on.
“I generally felt safe from the first day, even though I was completely alone on the first night with hundreds of men around,” said Lujain. “But I can’t generalize my experience, I know another girl who was forcibly kissed on her lips by a cop.”
Footage circulating on social media shows the plight of female journalists in Lebanon during the revolution. Reporter Darine Al Helwe was kissed on the cheek live on air as she covered the protests, on November 10, 2019. While some public figures shared the unsolicited kiss on social media with the connotation that it was a positive incident, Al Helwe herself published a tweet condemning the act.3
Meanwhile, news anchor and journalist Dima Sadek was, and continues to be, the subject of a violent harassment and intimidation campaign from political opposers. During her time covering the anti-government protests, Dima was under constant attack and bullying. Her phone was stolen, she was the subject of a stressful extortion campaign that led her mother to suffer a stroke, and she was pushed to resign from her position from broadcaster LBCI, claiming the reason she was kept off air was of a political nature.4
Dima was also the subject of intimidation by internal security forces, cracking down on the freedom of speech and calling her in for questioning following complaints from politicians about her social media posts and articles.5
“It’s been five years that I have been the subject of verbal harassment and public threats, rape threats, murder threats, vilification, character assassinations, phone calls to my family, phone calls to my mom,” said Dima in a video6 published on January 7, 2020 by the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE).
Despite her feelings of safety, Lujain has been tear-gassed, pelted with rocks, beaten, has had her camera violently pulled from her neck, and her leg fractured by security forces. Although the revolution has largely been peaceful, there were several weeks where security forces would clash with protesters. On violent nights or in highly-tense areas, men would try to “protect” Lujain when she would approach the frontlines of the clashes. They would treat her based on stereotypes about women, rather than as a media professional.
“What are you doing here? Get back, you’re a girl, you’re going to get hurt,” she recalled their words. “They’d be advising me that this isn’t my place.”
“Sometimes, being a woman might make others think it’s okay to tell me what to do but I don’t want to be generalizing or making speculations,” said Lujain, after sharing another story where a male protester pulled her back to move from a specific spot because she was “blocking his view with her camera.” The protester didn’t complain when another man took the exact position she had been in.
Admittedly, female videographers also unintentionally benefitted from the gendered difference in treatment that typically holds them back to the benefit of their work during Lebanon’s revolution. Why wouldn’t they after all they’ve been subjected to?
“I feel like being a woman, especially when it wasn’t too violent yet, kind of helped me,” said Jana. “People would give me more room to film, especially protesters, and security forces weren’t as violent with me. They’d even smile sometimes to the camera.”
Jana recalls receiving help from men when climbing vehicles or high places. These men would also help her make sure she had the perfect view and ask their peers to stay away from her. “There was also this elderly man offering and insisting on carrying me on his shoulders so I can take the perfect picture,” she added. “It was funny, but also [felt inappropriate] at the same time.”
Lujain shares similar sentiments, recalling incidents where she would receive help in tight spaces and on higher grounds when she might have otherwise fallen. Two men carried her from her legs when she was filming. “They were saying ‘You’re like a sister, you’re like a sister, we’re not intending on anything. We just want to help,” she remembered.
What little career advantage being a woman has to offer is offset by the rate of female journalists across the globe being targeted for their work. Almost two-thirds of women journalists have been threatened or harassed and 26 percent have been physically attacked, according to a 2018 global study by the International Women’s Media Foundation.7 Around 70 percent of these women also indicated that their gender was a contributing factor to these acts of aggression.
In Lebanon, women are also pressured into staying off the streets by their families. These restrictions compromise female journalists' chance to advance in their fields, and deny the public access to the new stories and perspectives that they may have. All this also neglects the psychological impact of reporting on violence, and being subjected to it in the intersectional way that female reporters are.
“The first month of being on the streets filled me with pride, and I felt connected to the Lebanese community,” said Jana. “I was hopeful, but when things started to get very violent and it felt like we were somehow stuck, I started to get very anxious. I avoided the entire thing and stopped going. Part of me felt guilty, but my safety was in question and being at the protests worsened my mental health.”
Laudy Issa is a multimedia journalist who graduated from the American University of Beirut as a double major in Psychology/Media and Communication. Currently freelancing as a writer and social media manager for multiple organizations, she is also one of the editors behind the independent news platform, Beirut Today. Interested in shedding light on arts and culture in Lebanon, she initiated a series of in-depth features with local musicians and is a photographer you might catch tripping over wires in local theaters or gigs.
1Phone interview on April 14, 2020.
2Phone interview on April 15, 2020.
3On November 11, 2019, Al Helwe posted on her twitter account the following tweet in Arabic: https://twitter.com/darineelhelwe/status/1193972373801844737
4On November 26, 2019, Sadek posted the following in Arabic: https://twitter.com/DimaSadek/status/1199099668149473287
5Sadek has been called in for questioning twice, the first time in February and the second in April [in Arabic]
6Interview as part of a video published on January 7, 2020 for the #WeCarryOn campaign: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=526352074645284 [in Arabic]
7“Violence and Harassment Against Women In The News Media: A Global Picture”, 2018, p. 7.