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Eye Interview

TWE Interview: Journalist Zahra Hankir Spotlights Arab Women Reporters In Their Own Words

London-based journalist, Zahra Hankir has covered Mid East and Arab political turmoil and violence throughout her career but admittedly not to the detriment of her safety. She was well aware that many women journalists, who live in and report from those diverse regions, face unbelievable odds to get the truth out yet was shocked to notice they received little credit.

Zahrir Hankir/Photo: Daniel Gardine

Zahrir Hankir/Photo: Daniel Gardiner

London-based journalist, Zahra Hankir has covered Mid East and Arab political turmoil and violence throughout her career but admittedly not to the detriment of her safety. She was well aware that many women journalists, who live in and report from those diverse regions, face unbelievable odds to get the truth out yet was shocked to notice they received little credit. Zahra stepped up to change that.

I was fascinated by information gathering and dissemination and the idea that the pursuit of truth and its reflection could be a profession. My obsession with journalism and the Arab world persisted over the years, and it culminated in this book.

In Our Women on the Ground, Zahra asked 19 courageous reporters to share the powerful, unvarnished perspectives on their jobs and lives. Zahra took time with me to describe the importance of these journalists, known as sahafiya…

EYE: What is your goal in highlighting Arab and Mideastern women journalists?

ZAHRA: To give Arab women reporters a global platform to share their experiences of reporting from and living in the region from which they hail.

The Arab world and its people are so often seen as homogeneous, when the geographic area is intricately layered, and each woman and country and conflict carries unique truths.

This is also a long overdue act of celebration and appreciation for the incredible work that these women have been doing on the ground over the decades, amidst seismic societal shifts and widespread displacement triggered by violent warfare and its crippling aftermath.

EYE: How dangerous is the work?

ZAHRA: Local, Arab women often risk their lives at the frontlines as they cover their home or neighboring countries, and haven’t historically been celebrated in this way and in these spaces. These women are not war correspondents or foreign reporters.

These journalists, correspondents and photographers are natives who tell different, more personal stories about conflict and its devastating consequences on their own people.

The women also face steep and unique challenges that their Western counterparts do not. With all that in mind, their stories can’t but be fascinating, and their work can’t but be celebrated.

EYE: Why did you decide to compile their stories through personal essays and not interviews?

ZAHRA: I wanted the women in this book to tell their stories sans filters, and without any specific audience in mind, Western or otherwise. I acted as a guide, when I was needed, and I did indeed edit and curate the book and make editorial suggestions along the way.

I ultimately hoped that they would tell whatever story felt most poignant to them, and wanted them to be ready to tell that story. Looking at how the essays turned out — their range; the raw, intimate details they contain; and the honesty with which they were written — I do believe this was the right approach.

EYE: Were you surprised by any of the essays?

ZAHRA: It’s not that I didn’t expect the women to write openly and honestly, but I was, on occasion, knocked sideways by the extent to which they used their pens to open up and to excavate previously unearthed feelings.

I was in constant awe of their bravery, and their willingness to push boundaries without even intending to do so.

Zaina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist, for example, writes about how she had become so desensitized to violence in her hometown, that one day, as she wiped blood off her car following a bombing at a nearby school, she called her friend and casually asked her what they should have for lunch that day.

Nada Bakri, a former journalist from Lebanon, wrote for the first time about the grief she endured after she lost her husband, Anthony Shadid, during the Arab Spring — there is no resolution in that chapter, no happy ending, no hopeful thread. The end of the essay is something of a gutpunch.

EYE: Why did you choose this format?

ZAHRA: It doesn’t follow what a traditional essay might look like. Indeed, this book does not sugarcoat. In many ways it reflects the situation in the Arab world today — resilience against a very real backdrop of tragedy and hopelessness.

I was also surprised by the extent to which I was emotionally invested in the book and the women’s stories.

I constantly felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough, that I was living in privilege, editing these essays from the comfort of my home in North London while these women and millions of others in the region struggle with harrowing daily realities.

EYE: What did you find drives these women to continually face the sexism, violence, etc.?

ZAHRA:  I would note it’s the desire to share and disseminate the truth that drives several of the women in the book. They have a profound understanding of how and why women are treated in the way that they are in their respective societies, and they fight misogyny by breaking into spaces they may not be welcome or expected in.

EYE: Is there a pattern among these women journalists in what they want to achieve and how they do it?

ZAHRA: I will say that the women were all unflinchingly committed to the act of journalism and the art of news gathering. Their tenacity, resourcefulness and resilience jump off the pages.

Perhaps this tenacity is best captured and expressed by Sudanese journalist and columnist Shamael el Noor, who never once doubts or reconsiders her career path, despite enduring grave challenges and constant threats to her safety.

She speaks poetically of journalism, not only as a profession, but as a way of life:

“I didn’t fully understand the value of my choices until after I faced all this danger and harassment—from the state, from tribesmen, and from Islamists. I have been a journalist for a decade now, and let me tell you what I have learned: this is what journalism should be, or else it shouldn’t be, at all.

Though these experiences have had high prices, they haven’t weakened or deterred me. I have no other option but to move forward, like the many brave journalists who face persecution. This is our destiny, and we remain ever devoted to it.’

EYE: Are there people/places these women can access that their male counterparts cannot?

Amira Al-Sharif | Zahra Hankir | The Women's Eye

Amira Al-Sharif

ZAHRA: Women-dominated spaces and women-focused stories. For example, Amira Al-Sharif, a Yemeni photojournalist, enters the private homes of Yemeni women whose husbands and sons were lost to or engaged in war, to tell us stories of their strength and resilience.

Heba Shibani, a Libyan broadcast journalist, turns her attention to women’s rights by hosting a show that tackled major issues including the inability of Libyan women to pass their nationality on to their children.

EYE: CNN’s chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour said these women journalists “live and work in unrest and oppression.” How do they become journalists to begin with?

ZAHRA: These women were resourceful in overcoming many different challenges.These included having to contend with families that opposed their career choices, sexist and misogynist workplaces, and threats of detention and arrest by the state.

In some cases they persisted with their ambitions behind their parents’ backs. Amira Al-Sharif, snuck into local souks to take photos of Yemenis and documented university protests behind her father’s back.

She eventually won her family’s trust by persuading them, through her work, that this was a noble and necessary profession, and indeed the only one she wanted to pursue.

Egyptian journalist Eman Helal hid her bloodied clothing from her family after covering the fallout from the uprisings in Egypt. And she fought against the patriarchy by using her camera as a tool against sexual harassers. These are just two of a sea of examples.

Ramsis metro station where incidents of sexual harassment have been reported. Women usually prefer to use the ladies metro cars for fear of being harassed in the crowded cars. Photo: Eman Helal | Zahra Hankir | The Women's Eye

Ramsis metro station where incidents of sexual harassment have been reported. Women usually prefer to use the ladies metro cars for fear of being harassed in the crowded cars. Photo: Eman Helal

EYE: What was your biggest challenge in editing this anthology?

ZAHRA: Ensuring an accurate portrayal of the region by diversifying the contributors to the best of my ability. Given space constraints, and the fact that we were dealing with a region of more than 400 million containing 22 countries, this was a somewhat impossible task to begin with.

I also wanted to include a range of time periods covered to give readers a broader perspective on political and social history, rather than just the Arab Spring.

While I’m pleased with how the book has turned out, I understand there are stories and conflicts and countries that were excluded. This is something I definitely lost sleep over, even though in some ways it was out of my control.

EYE: Did you always want a journalism career from a young age?

ZAHRA: Yes! I grew up in the United Kingdom, where I was born, to Lebanese parents who had left the country during a drawn out and devastating civil war. My parents constantly watched the news to follow up on what was unraveling in their — our — home country.

Landlines were frequently down, so they weren’t able to regularly speak to their families to stay abreast of the dire situation. And so I grew up thinking of journalists as heroes, portals into another world who had the power to disseminate otherwise inaccessible information and who could shed light on faraway lands and complicated conflicts.

Zahra, her father and siblings /Photo provided by Zahra Hankir

Zahra, her father and siblings /Photo provided by Zahra Hankir

I was fascinated by information gathering and dissemination and the idea that the pursuit of truth and its reflection could be a profession. My obsession with journalism and the Arab world persisted over the years, and I would say it culminated in this book.

EYE: What do you look for in a story before you commit to it?

ZAHRA: Tension, growth and/or change.

Zahra Hankir


EYE: Do you have advice for new journalists?

ZAHRA: If you have a passion or a specific interest, then by all means, chase it, so long as you’re committed to upholding the highest journalistic standards. As a student at Columbia University, I was mentored by the late and great David Klatell.

I was hesitant when I pitched to him the subject for my thesis — private Islamic schooling in NYC — as I worried that I may appear biased or partial to covering my own community.

He encouraged me to write and report the story, and to not shy away from covering my community, people, home country or region, so long as I remained committed to reporting and writing ethically. It was priceless advice that has formed the backbone of my career.

EYE: What do you want the reader to take away from these essays?

ZAHRA: I hope readers will come away from Our Women on the Ground with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the Middle East, and also that they will look more closely at who’s telling the stories of its countries and people, as well as seek out more diverse and specifically women’s voices.

Ultimately I hope readers will recognize the work that these women are doing as crucial to our full understanding of the Arab world, and celebrate them.

EYE: Finally, what is next for you?

ZAHRA: While more and more Arab women are being heard in this space, and more news rooms are employing and supporting locals, I believe there’s much more to be done.

I’m passionate about amplifying the voices of Arab women and Arabs in general, and in advocating for more diverse newsrooms and more inclusive narratives, and so I hope to embark on another project in this area. I’m just not yet sure what format it will take.

EYE: Thank you, Zahra, for your time and for your introductions to these journalists who are bringing real events of the Arab and Mideastern countries to the world. Continued success to you!

Social Media:

Instagram @zahrahankir

Twitter: @zahrahankir

Facebook: @zahrahankir

Twitter: @penguinrandomhouse

TWE INTERVIEW: How Nancy Rivard’s Airline Ambasssadors Is Making a Global Impact

Nancy Rivard speaking at an international conference/Photo: shfwire.com

Nancy Rivard speaking at an international conference/Photo: shfwire.com

By Wendy Verlaine/August 15, 2019

Photos Courtesy AAI

Nancy Rivard may be one of the most influential and dedicated activists for human rights and charitable giving in the airline and hospitality industry. She is shining the spotlight on human trafficking, the fastest growing criminal industry in the world today, producing over $150 billion annually, according to the Department of State.

“I said, ‘How am I to create change in the largest industry in the world?’ My inner voice just said stop talking about it, start doing it. I will do one thing a month that directly helps a child.”  Nancy Rivard

Today Rivard is founder of Airline Ambassadors International, AAI, a non profit organization committed to fighting human trafficking and educating the airline and hospitality industry to the signs and prevention of this activity.

AAI volunteers have hand-delivered $70 million in aid to needy children and families all around the world.

AAI has also helped establish medical clinics and volunteer medical escort aid that transports patients in need to the US for treatment.

I was fortunate to catch up with this dedicated changemaker and ask her how she discovered her life’s purpose, how uncertainty did not deter her and how she successfully influenced and affected so many people on a global level…

[Read more…]

TWE INTERVIEW: Sociologist Marika Lindholm On Empowering Solo Moms

Marika Lindholm founder of ESME, Empowering Single Moms Everywhere

Marika Lindholm and her two younger children on their farm in the Hudson Valley, New York

By Patricia Caso/June, 2018
Photos: Circe

There is nothing average about Dr. Marika Lindholm, a sociologist, professor and writer.  Because she lived the life-changing experience of being a single mom, Marika is using that experience and academics to become an outspoken advocate for solo moms. In 2015, Marika started a social movement, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, with ESME.com.

“I’d made a vow that if I ever had the opportunity, I would help other moms as they navigated parenting alone.” Marika Lindholm 

Currently there are 15 million children (younger than 18) being raised by a solo mom. Any mom knows that there is nothing easy about and little more rewarding than raising kids.

Now Marika has co-edited an inspirational anthology We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart and Humor. I wanted to get to know more about Dr. Lindholm’s motivations and insights on this often overlooked and critically important group, solo moms… [Read more…]

TWE TALK: Grammy-Winning Music Teacher Melissa Salguero Believes Every Kid’s Dream is Possible

Melissa Salguero, 2018 Grammy Award-Winning Music Teacher

2018 Grammy Award-Winning Music Teacher Melissa Salguero

By Patricia Caso/May, 2019

In 2014 Ellen DeGeneres’ television show featured Melissa Salguero, a music teacher at the challenged elementary school P.S. 48 in the South Bronx, New York. Ellen invited her after seeing a Youtube video of Melissa and her students seeking funds to replace stolen instruments from a recent burglary at their school. Ellen gave them $10,000 worth of instruments plus a $50,000 check!

Melissa is also the 2018 Grammy Award-Winning Educator of the Year, 2019 Finalist for World Teacher of the Year, 2013 Lincoln Center Teacher of the Year to name a few accolades.

“When my students see my recognitions and where it’s all gone with their help, they see that anything is possible. I tell them all the time that nothing is impossible.” Melissa Salguero

Melissa considers her 675 students her most important prize. Intrigued by her unconventional approach and obvious passion for the kids, I wanted to find more insight beyond her hard won awards.

Melissa took time out of her “off” week to speak about her creative efforts that have led to success in and out of the classroom and how that video came to be…. [Read more…]

TWE INTERVIEW: Award-Winning Producer Stacey Reiss On Her Passion for Filmmaking

Stacey Reiss, filmmaker and producer

Filmmaker Stacey Reiss/Photo: Richard Shepard

UPDATE 5/29/19: New York Times Review “The Perfection”– A Thriller in the Key of Crazy

By Patricia Caso/March, 2019

When we last spoke with filmmaker Stacey Reiss she had just produced the award-winning movie The Eagle Huntress. Since that time we noticed that she’s been very busy producing three fascinating films that have been receiving a lot of attention: Daughters of the Sexual Revolution, The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders; The Perfection; and her most recent HBO release, It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It.

“As a producer, I always want to make films that are engaging, entertaining and cinematic – whether they are shot in Mongolia or behind prison bars.   I’m often drawn to stories from people whose voices are underserved…”  Stacey Reiss

TWE wanted to catch up with Stacey to find out more about the challenges of producing her new films and the current popularity of documentaries like RBG and the Academy Award-winning Free Solo[Read more…]

TWE Interview: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha On Her Fight for Justice Beyond the Flint Water Crisis

The Women’s Eye contributor Patricia Caso talks to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and author of “What the Eyes Don’t See–The Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,” about her fight for justice during the Flint Water Crisis and why she still advocates for change.

TWE Interview: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha On Her Fight for Justice Beyond the Flint Water Crisis

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and author of “What the Eyes Don’t See–The Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City,”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, author "What the Eyes Don't See"/Photo: Courtesy Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha/Photo: Hurley Medical Center

By Patricia Caso/September 5th, 2018

What could be more important for communities and children than clean, drinkable water? Pediatrician and Professor Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is known for bringing her research and unrelenting call for change in the lead-poisoned Flint, Michigan water to the nation’s attention.

Lead is a neurotoxin, affecting young children most severely. There is no safe level. To date, 140,000 people have been impacted from the 18-month ordeal.

“This is a story about how all of us, no matter where we are, what we do, or how we came to this country, have the power within us to open our eyes, to be awake to these injustices all around us, to get involved, to be active…” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

In Dr. Mona’s new book What the Eyes Don’t See–A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, she writes about how she came to find high levels of lead in her young patients’ blood. With the help of the community, she then courageously confronted  government officials  demanding a change back to healthy water. I caught up with Dr. Mona to learn more about her determination and why she sees that her advocacy is just beginning…  [Read more…]

TWE INTERVIEW–Katie Blomquist Is Going Places with Joy and Bikes for Kids

Katie Blomquist – Going Places Non Profit

Going Places Non Profit – Bikes for Kids

The Women’s Eye contributor Patricia Caso talks to Katie Blomquist, founder of Going Places, an innovative nonprofit supplying bikes to children in Charleston, S.C. area Title 1 schools. The bikes are for kids who never had the chance to own one. Katie explains how she started GP and what a difference it’s making.

Katie Blomquist, founder Going Places supplying bikes to kids in Charleston, S. Carolina/Photo Courtesy Katie Blomquist

Katie Blomquist, founder of Going Places/La Tasha Bellamy Photography

By Patricia Caso/June 5, 2018

Thanks to former teacher Katie Blomquist and her foundation Going Places, 1,000 kids and counting in the Charleston, South Carolina area, get joy in the form of a bike. Ninety percent of the families in Title 1 schools there live at or below the poverty line and can’t afford this childhood pleasure.

 “A child doesn’t choose their walk of life, parents or situations. Yet, if there is a little bit of joy, I believe it can change the outcome of a person’s life.”  Katie Blomquist

When I read about Katie’s inspiring efforts, I thought of my own adventures on a bike as a kid. We all had so many exciting places to go. Katie is determined that her Going Places Foundation will be an investment for improving lives of a future generation.

I spoke by phone with Katie so I could find out more about her and her ingenious idea based on joy and bikes… [Read more…]

Award-Winning Director Jessica Yu Spotlights Heroic Journalist Gladys Kalibbala’s Passion

Jessica Yu, author of Garden of the Lost and Abandoned, and Gladys Kalibbala, and subject of the book/Photo: Michael Wawuyo

Gladys Kalibbala and director/author Jessica Yu/Photo: Michael Wawuyo

By Patricia Caso/April 22, 2018

In Garden of the Lost and Abandoned: An Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Woman and the Children She Saves, author Jessica Yu follows heroic Ugandan journalist, Gladys Kalibbala, who uses her energy, creativity and meager resources to rescue lost and abandoned children.

Her column, “Lost and Abandoned,” has drawn attention to the plight of hundreds of forsaken children. Gladys routinely faces many difficult and dangerous situations to help them.

“What Gladys does is hard. But the cumulative impact of her deliberate – not random – acts of kindness, and the joy she takes in them, reminds us that we discover our humanity when we engage. And if we persist, things happen.” Jessica Yu

Intrigued with Gladys’ life-saving deeds, I began researching more about her life and discovered Jessica Yu’s own multi-faceted story. Not only was she an award-winning director in television, documentaries and films, she’d just written her first book, Garden of the Lost and Abandoned. And, what a compelling changemaker Jessica brings to readers.

I caught up with this Academy Award-winning filmmaker in Los Angeles by phone in between her busy commitments to find out more about Gladys’ exceptional acts and Jessica’s perspective on her own career… [Read more…]