OUTSTANDING WOMEN IN THE OLD BOY'S CLUB
For decades women have been relegated to the background and considered inapt for certain professions. However, some women took up the challenge and exhibited their worth and prowess especially in the media. Two of such women are Helen Thomas and Haifa Zangana.
Helen Thomas has been a pioneer throughout her career in Journalism. She began her career as a copy girl on the old Washington Daily News joining the UPI in 1943 as a radio writer and filing the Washington city news wire designed as a tip service for news bureau and government offices in the nation’s capital. She later covered the Departments of Justice, Health, Education and welfare (now Health and Human Services) and a score of other agencies.
She resigned from UPI on May 2000 and became a Columnist for the Hearst Newspapers in July 2000.Forty years as White House Correspondent she has cover Presidents and --- as she likes to put it-- history everyday. She also was among the Washington News Women who worked to open the doors of Press Organizations closed to them. She became the first woman officer of the National Press Club after it agreed to admit women as members, the first woman and President of the White House Correspondents Association, the first woman to be member and later President of the Gridiron Club.
As White House Bureau Chief for the United Press International (UPI) from 1974 – 2000, Helen was the first woman to have the privilege of asking the opening question at Presidential news conference. In 1961, during John F. Kennedy's term, she became the first woman reporter to close a Presidential news conference with the traditional “Thank You Mr. President”.
Today at eighty-eight years, listening to Helen Thomas account of her experiences and views, one cannot help but notice and admire her as a woman of valor and courage. Courage she recommends and stress for women in the media to uphold. She has written many books.
Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi Political Commentator and Novelist. Born in Baghdad in1950, (half-Kurdish, and half-Arab) she is a fierce witness to her native war-torn country and the only Iraqi woman in the west writing about the situation.
In 1958, when Haifa was just eight years old, Iraqi's flooded the streets in celebration of their hard- won freedom from the British colonial rule, which had begun in 1917. Not since before the Ottoman Empire a century before had Iraq known self -rule and autonomy.
Zangana then came of age in one of the most open societies in the Middle East – but the tyrannical yet secular Ba’ath Party shut it down in the 1970’s. Joining in armed struggle against Saddam Hussein, Zangana was captured, imprisoned and tortured as a young woman and finally released from Abu Ghraib prison after six months of detention, she was forced to live in exile and has ever since.
An Iraqi Woman's account of war and resistance - ' CITY OF WIDOW, S’ a book by Zangana, she offers a clear – eyed, forceful and moving account of the recent history of her people and of Iraq women in particular, amidst years of sanctions, war and occupation – despite the ‘help’ of NGOs and the rebuilding efforts of occupying forces.
She is now a contributor to the Guardian in London, a weekly Columnist for al-Quads Newspaper and a Commentator for the Guardian, Red Pepper, and al-Ahram weekly. Since 1976, she resides in London with her husband. She lectures regularly on Iraqi culture, literature, and women issues. She worked with the PLO in Damascus, Syria, in 1975.
As a Painter and Writer, she participated in various European and American surrealist publications and group exhibitions in the 80s, and performed one-woman shows in London and Iceland. She has worked as an adviser for the United Nations Development Programme, writing a report on empowerment of women in the Arab world, and as a member of the advisory board of a Brussels tribunal on Iraq. She co-founded Act Together: Women Action for Iraq and is the chair of Iraqi Patriots in Media and Culture (IPMC). She was a founding member of the International Association of Contemporary Iraqi Studies (IACIS), and edited and published Halabja, homage to the eponymous Kurdish town by Iraqi and Arab writers and artists. An article on Tuesday, 17 September 2002 in the Guardian by Haifa - Bombs Will Deepen Iraq's Nightmare, she states, ' This war plan forces me to stand by the dictator who tortured me.
In an exclusive interview with Haifa Zangana during the 2008, Women, Action and the Media conference, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Stata Center, Cambridge, Boston, Massachusetts, where she and Helen Thomas gave keynote talks, she answered to these questions.
Cecile: Haifa, if maybe you have to re-live the past, do you have any regrets?
Haifa: I am so busy and have no time to regret anything. I feel like many Iraqi women. I was brought up in politics at an early age because the society is highly aware politically, so you will hear discussions continue with the family itself, the neighborhood or area. As such, one is bound to take part one way or the other. Iraq is a secular country, but not against Islam for we have Islam as culture, however we understand we are not forced to do things against our will also. It is not back as it is now; the meaning of Islam has change totally, because it is being used politically, in a sectarian way not as Iraq as a whole. If you move along the road, you would love and enjoy the Islam architecture for it is beautiful – our heritage that is Islamic. Iraq was the capital of Islamic world for so many years. We have Scientist, Writers, all the civilization from one century to another, so it is the combination of all.
Cecile: Was there any bias against women as women?
Haifa: There were of course, we had backward things in the society. It had more to do with tradition than religion. Many people see Islam as humiliating women, not as it is seen nowadays. As regards female subordination there was a balance with the generation I was brought up in Iraq, where we reached the balance gentle and within the society itself. We pushed aside the things we did not want and kept the good things.
Cecile: What motivated you to embark on your activities?
Haifa: Well! I think is injustice. That's what kept me going to see and not to sit down and accept things as they are or keeping silence – I don't belief in that. Especially as a Writer, we feel responsibility. There is huge responsibility to say what you think of, clear away and also the responsibility of defending people’s rights. This may not be the same thing with Writers in your country, but with us literally, we do not have it for our sake, it has always-social responsibility combining it with politics, literature, arts and everything.
Cecile: From your profile, what you went through during Saddam's regime was quite traumatic and pathetic. So therefore, what is your impression about the hanging of Saddam?
Haifa: I think it was terrible, because this is exactly something we fought many decades not to see happen in Iraq when we were preaching democracy. It was not ordinary hanging, it was lynching in front of cameras. It was horrendous. Most Iraqi's were angry about it and the Arab community. Most people say they will never forget that day it took place. We wanted fair trial and justice, but not like the mockery of justice the way it happened. Iraq under occupation there is no real justice for this is what we see.
Cecile: In your opinion, do you think female Journalists should be limited or interested in particular beats, especially those that have to do with mainly gender issues or they should have a general and wide spectrum of interest?
Haifa: The issues for us at the moment, we are now down to the basics and survival level of the population, but we are talking about maybe tribute free occupation and what we hope for the future. We do want to pick up the way for women and we have it in Iraq within the media in all the outlets of journalism – TV, Radio, Newspapers and all. I am with what is called the positive discrimination on behalf of women, where you have the curtail system, even huge product discussions. In that sense, women being citizens have to be bona fide according to the merits of what they do.
Cecile: What’s your word of encouragement to women back in Iraq, considering what they are going through and now that you are on exile, if given the opportunity to go back home, would you love to go back?
Haifa: Yes. I went back in 2004 and 2005 but I am active all the time. In the media, I am always on satellite television most of the time, it is getting very dangerous for me to get back and settle, because they have list of names at the airports and borders and people disappear when they step in Baghdad or at the border. Before, I had just Saddam to deal with and being a political Activist we expect arrest and torture. But now with the occupation of Iraq, I now have other forces to deal with – allied forces. Making my security situation more grievous are the presence of the Military, Public Government, Sectarian device and others. Hopes in Iraq has reduced, now people are captured, tortured and killed by Americans, British or any other forces in the world and no one is taking responsibility.
For the women back in Iraq, I cannot advice them, they advice me. All we do is to support them. They are there having all the difficulties and struggles, they shoulder all the burdens, so I am not in a position to advice them, I am learning from them. I have close contacts with the women in Iraq, at least women Organization, Human rights, but the majority of the Iraqi women have been reduced to sheer survival.
Cecile: Thanks Haifa it has been my pleasure and honor to talk to you.