In the first part of this series on mental and emotional health, Dr. Khaled Nasser discusses one of the most common denominators between our members; being sidelined for being a woman.
You cannot change people's conservative opinions, especially if they think that you do not belong in the field. But you can change how you deal with the social and psychological pressure because being constantly on the defensive may have toxic effects on your body.
Being on the defensive is a high-arousal situation. It generates specific hormones, such as cortisol (which) pose a physical danger to the body
Picture this scenario. A female journalist walks up the steps of Parliament, wearing a press badge. She’s a journalist for an independent media platform, and she’s on her way to interview the House Speaker about a new law that curbs press freedoms.
A guard suddenly stops her: “Where are you going?”
“What’s wrong with him?” she thinks, “I’m a journalist and I have a meeting with the House Speaker at 10am.” He eyes her with disdain, scanning her from head to toe and making her nervous. “Why do I have to face this everytime?” she thinks. “He wouldn’t treat a man like that.”
How many members from The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network have been through a similar situation? In this article, I want to address this constant state of having to “prove oneself,” which I have often noticed with the female journalists I work with.
It’s difficult for women living in conservative, male-dominated societies to work as journalists. They constantly experience what we call “multiple marginalisation”, which is a concept that’s been developed to address the multiple layers of cultural traumas that minority groups suffer from.
Women are subjected to systematic forms of traumas because they work in a male-dominated world that is biased against them because of their gender. As a result, many of them find themselves in a constant state of self-defence, which is abnormal and harmful to their mental health. Neurologically, being on the defensive is a high-arousal situation. It generates specific hormones, such as cortisol, that enable the body to cope with any kind of perceived “danger”. If a person remains on the defensive for a long time, these hormones pose a physical danger to the body, as they create high levels of toxic stress, leading to agitation and fatigue.
Over-exposure to cortisol can disrupt the body’s system, and puts the person at risk of psychosomatic disorders including heart beat irregularities, digestive disorders (e.g. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)), hypertension and joint inflammation, weight gain and irregular menstrual periods.
Sometimes a journalist’s own mother will notice dirty dishes in the sink, and will automatically attribute them to the time spent in the field
Field work is an integral part of journalism, which is why, unfortunately, it’s often considered to be “a man’s job”. Women who do this type of work are seen as an “exception”. This is manifested in different levels. The first level is felt by female journalists worldwide, as it relates to gender stereotypes. Men (interviewees, other journalists, employers...) often perceive women as fragile, emotional and vulnerable. Although the latter is untrue (men are emotional too but do not express it), this misconception leads to two types of reactions. There are attempts to “subdue” or “protect” women. For example, an editor may decide not to send a woman to cover a violent incident or news story, or a politician may feel at liberty to flirt with the woman who is interviewing him.
A woman who challenges such behaviour and asserts herself as a strong and intrepid journalist faces a different, but equally degrading, reaction. She may be described as acting “like a man”. She will notice this perception in how others smirk, or look at her, or it might even be said to her directly. But what does this expression mean? Does it insinuate that only men are supposed to be strong? This is true in particular for female journalists who specialise in the types of journalism that are traditionally associated with men, such as being a photojournalist, or a managing editor, or a war correspondent.
As for our region in particular, our societies often perceive home to be the “appropriate” space for women, and female journalists are seen as defying the norm. Some of them may even have to seek permission from their fathers or husbands to go to work. Given that house chores are still allocated to women, female journalists who spend time in the field may be seen as negligent or selfish. They are criticised by their families for the state of their homes or children. Sometimes a journalist’s own mother will notice dirty dishes in the sink, and will automatically attribute them to the time spent in the field. A female war correspondent will be told that she is putting her children at risk if something happens to her, as if she doesn’t feel the pressure herself already.
These are the multiple layers of stereotyping, subjugation and pressure that have an impact on Arab female journalists. A small comment here, an insulting look there, a big fight here or a flirtatious comment there. Day after day, Arab female journalists develop a constantly active defense mechanism and, as I explained above, the nervous system automatically copes with this state by pouring cortisol into the body, leading to toxic stress and anxiety.
The first level of resistance to cultural marginalisation is self-awareness. A good exercise is to notice how your body reacts to the presence of a male authority figure, or upon hearing a family comment about housekeeping.
So what is the solution? Misconceptions are not going away any time soon. They will unfortunately be around us for a long time. So female journalists must focus inwardly. The change must come from within.
The first level of resistance to cultural marginalisation is self-awareness. Noticing the self-defense mechanism and being aware of the stressful impact it has on the body is key to reducing stress. A good exercise of self-awareness is to notice how your body reacts to the presence of a male authority figure, or upon hearing a family comment about housekeeping.
The second level of resistance is developing your individual identity in two ways; the way you think (cognitive), and the way you do things (behavioural):
On the cognitive level:
Identify and live your beliefs and values. Recognise your most deeply held beliefs and values that serve as a foundation for the life you want to live. Your values help you judge the correctness of each choice you make in life. An example of a value statement is “I respect the capabilities of every individual regardless of his or her gender and I expect the same respect from others."
Professionally, develop a clear identity in terms of style, aesthetic and topic, beyond gender roles and biases. When you adopt a self-defense mechanism, you think in terms of “I am not”. But the way to overcome this is by thinking in terms of “I am”. For example, “I am a civil rights specialist. I am famous for my powerful photographs. I am known for the tough questions I ask.” Think of what you would like to be, and of what defines you, and work on developing and highlighting this. This crystallised identity will help you rise above the usual stares, pressures and degrading comments.
Identify your different social memberships. Social identification has many types: national, ethnic, religious, political, vocational. Membership within The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network, for instance, could be part of your social identity. We tend to feel psychologically safe when we identify with a specific social group, or what the British scholar C.S. Lewis calls the “Inner Ring”. Instead of having others force you into a social category, you independently select your memberships based on your personal preferences and values.
At the behavioural level:
The skill of saying “No” takes some practice, but you have to identify your personal limits
Choose your battles in line with your developed individual identity. Prioritise tasks, both at home and at work. When it comes to the less important tasks or challenges, accept that there will be shortcomings. Let’s say you have an article to submit to your editor and at the same time you need to help your kids with their homework: which battle are you going to choose in this case?
Explain your strategy to those who reprimand you. Be clear and straightforward in communicating your priorities to your family, editor and colleagues.
Delegate some tasks and don’t feel guilty about it. There is only so much stress that a person can take. If you find that you have too much to do, then delegating some of your tasks could be helpful to you and to those around you.
Finally, know when to say “no” to some tasks. The skill of saying “No” takes some practice, but you have to identify your personal limits: and learn this skill to allow yourself to build and maintain strong and healthy relationships.
What do you think of this? Do you have experiences and solutions to share?