Foreign correspondence

Kelly McEvers sets the record straight on her years reporting from the Middle East

“The majority of places where I worked, women could drive, hold political office, run businesses, and go to the beach. In short, the Middle East, home to more than one hundred million people, is not all Taliban country”

National Public Radio's Kelly McEvers, co-host of the afternoon news magazine All Things Considered and host of the podcast "Embedded," in downtown Los Angeles, March 22, 2016. (Jay L. Clendenin /NPR)

I get asked a lot of questions about what it was like to cover the Middle East, as a correspondent for NPR. But the one question I am asked, almost every single time, is this: Wasn’t it difficult to work in the Middle East … as a woman?

The first few times I didn’t think much about it. But now, dozens and dozens of times later, I can’t help but wonder why this is the question that keeps getting asked. One obvious theory is that the question assumes the Middle East is a bad place for women, a place where they are discriminated against, suppressed, forced to cover, stoned, forgotten.

And when I ask myself where this image comes from, the finger inevitably points back at my own profession: journalism. Somehow, these are the images that people remember after 9/11 and the invasions that followed. These are the stories that have stuck.

Kelly McEvers, at work in Yemen after a drone strike. (Farea al Muslimi)

I certainly have tried to tell a different story – in my own reporting and when I am repeatedly asked this question. But I’m not sure that has worked.

So let me set the record straight, here and now: I loved working in the Middle East. And I definitely loved doing it … as a woman.

First off, “the Middle East” is a big place. The rules for women in one place can be vastly different from the rules in another. Second, the majority of places where I worked were places where women could drive, hold political office, run businesses, and go to the beach. In short, the Middle East, home to more than one hundred million people, is not all Taliban country.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, from 2008-2009, I wasn’t allowed to drive. But I also wasn’t required to cover my hair. Plus I interviewed dozens of women who ran their own businesses, managed their vast families, and held much of those families’ wealth.

In Syria, I embedded with rebel fighters in 2011, in a village where women were kept separate from men. But those same women were also single-handedly supplying the rebellion with shelter, food, clothing, morale, and information.

The following year in Syria, walking near the front line in the city Aleppo, a rebel fighter pulled me aside so I could avoid stepping in a puddle. At the time it had been days since I had bathed; cleanliness was not on my mind. “This is how we treat our women,” he said shyly. In other words, respect is real.

Some might say the rules were different for me, as a foreign woman and a woman who’s not a Muslim. And to some degree they would be right.

Kelly McEvers in 2011, during a stint embedded with the U.S. Army, interviewing General Lloyd Austin – then-commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq. (U.S. Army)

But then, in the places where there were strict rules – and I stress that these places were not the majority – those rules actually would work in any female reporter’s favor.

For instance, that village where women were kept separate from men. As a woman, I could sit with the women and children all day, and get a lot of information about the fight between the rebels and the Syrian government forces. And I also could go out to that fight with the husbands and brothers. Male reporters could only get part of the story – usually the fighting part of the story.

In fact, if you look at the best coverage of Syria, Iraq, and the greater Middle East over the past several years — in print, broadcast, and online — you will find that by and large, it’s been by women.

None of this is to say that women are not waging a very legitimate battle for equality in many Arab countries. Women in some places still can’t vote. Some women are still subject to guardianship laws. And domestic violence, rape, and female genital mutilation still happen. These are stories I have covered and will continue to cover.

But my hope is that in covering them, the rest of the picture – of a much more diverse and complicated Middle East and the women who live there – will not be obscured.

Kelly McEvers is co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, but until recently was a correspondent in the Middle East. Her new podcast, Embedded, launched on March 31, with the goal to “cover America like a foreign correspondent” — taking stories from the news and going deep, asking questions and gathering narratives that can only be found at the front lines. Episodes will look at Texas biker gangs; El Salvador’s gang war, and policing on L.A.’s Skid Row.

Below is a sneak preview of the third episode of Embedded, “Murder Capital of the World: San Salvador, El Salvador”, that will drop on April 14:


Girls disappearing in El Salvador as gangs run rampant

The rise of the female TV war correspondent as global celebrity

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