Marie Colvin and Malala Yousafzai deserve acclaim, but other bold female reporters and activists are ignored by the media
The BBC has released its annual Faces of the Year list, a roll call of those, according to the BBC, “whose fame is really something of the last 12 months”. Sweetie the Panda was one of the women honored by the BBC in 2011 but thankfully there are no animals in the female category this time round. The selections are: boxer Nicola Adams; Marie Colvin, the war correspondent killed in a Syrian rocket attack; and Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani activist shot in the head by the Taliban.
For Colvin and Yousafzai, it’s the latest in a long list of accolades in 2012. Yousafzai was runner up as Time magazine’s person of the year and was named as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top 10 global thinkers. Colvin’s final dispatch from Homs was widely read, and she posthumously won more awards this year, both inside and beyond the world of journalism, than any other in her lifetime.
While it’s right that these two incredibly tenacious people are once again being honoured, it’s a shame that brave women seem only to be celebrated once they have become victims. There are many bold female reporters and human rights activists around the world who are ignored by the media and public until something goes wrong. We prefer to romanticise victims rather than pay tribute to those who survive the most hostile environments unscathed. And it’s the survivors – the people who will go back to those environments again and again – who need our support.
Colvin was undoubtedly a fearless and talented journalist, and our understanding of the world is poorer without her. She was “the doyenne of all war reporters”, as Sky’s Alex Crawford described her when she was part of the judging panel that named Colvin one of Red magazine’s Hot Women of the Year 2012. But Colvin was a veteran, a war correspondent for over 25 years, not just “something of the last 12 months” like the BBC Faces of the Year list. Why is she only receiving such acclaim now? Would she have made the BBC list, or been named a Red magazine Hot Woman, if someone hadn’t taken the decision to attack her shelter in Homs? Yousafzai has been an activist since 2009. Does it take a Taliban bullet to her head for people to listen to her?
There are many unsung heroes who have survived hostile environments. On the same night as the Red Hot Women awards, I was at the Rory Peck awards, which honour some of the most talented and brave freelance cameramen on the planet. Safa al-Ahmad, a Saudi Arabian filmmaker, was a finalist for her work on Frontline PBS’s Al Qaeda in Yemen. She had spent several months in a full burqa, embedded with al-Qaida in the most dangerous part of one of the toughest countries in the world. Her film shone a light into a place television audiences had never seen. But Ahmad is unlikely to appear on any high-profile roll call of honour this year.
My colleague on Channel 4’s Unreported World, Ramita Navai, has taken up some of the greatest challenges foreign reporting can offer. She’s been undercover both in Zimbabwe and in Syria, where she was among the first to report from inside the conflict. In October, she was one of the few female journalists prepared to work in Egypt, reporting on the endemic sexual harassment there. Would Navai’s films have a wider audience if she hadn’t made it back in one piece?
When journalists and activists put themselves out on a limb to draw global attention to the darkest parts of the world, it’s vital they get the recognition they deserve. Recognition translates into more opportunities to do their work, for a wider audience, better supported, better funded. Women shouldn’t have to become part of a tragic narrative in order to get that recognition. But until we choose to celebrate survival more than we romanticise tragedy, our most acclaimed heroines will be victims.