Americans' perceptions of Iraq are molded by scenes of horrendous violence; few get to see the bravery and humanity of Iraqis living under hellish conditions.
So I wish millions could have watched the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) present its 2007 Courage in Journalism award this week to six Iraqi women journalists who have risked their lives in the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. (Brave Mexican, Ethiopian and Zimbabwean women journalists also were honored.)
But the ceremonies could not be televised or photographed, because, if the Iraqi women's faces were seen back home, they or their families could be targeted by terrorists for having worked with Americans. The husband, 5-year-old daughter, and mother-in-law of one of the women, Ban Adil Sarhan, were shot dead for just that reason, and she is now living in America; another of the awardees is in hiding, and all are under threat.
I know all six because I work with the McClatchy bureau when I visit Baghdad (the McClatchy-Tribune wire distributes my column). So let me tell you a bit about Sahar Issa, who accepted the award for the group. Sahar is a woman of immense dignity and composure, her English excellent and soft-spoken but with a quiet passion underneath. When I worked with her in Baghdad in June, I couldn't comprehend how she persevered.
During this conflict she lost her son, who was caught in a cross-fire while riding his moped on the street. She also lost her brother. She struggles to care for her family in 110-degree heat with two hours of electricity a day and little water, waking at night to fan her children. Each day when they go to school, she worries they might not return.
Earlier this year she had to go to the morgue to find her nephew. Women often are sent rather than men, because the men are in more danger. She, the boy's mother and an aunt had to search bare-handed through body parts to bring home the remains.
And yet she decided during this war to work as a journalist, a profession that exposes her and her Iraqi colleagues to even greater peril, especially if they work with Americans. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 121 Iraq journalists have been killed on duty since 2003.
I asked Sahar this week why she took the risk. "It means so much to me," she replied quickly. "Not a lot of people in America know Iraqi society. It makes wrongdoing (against us) easier. We have to speak out . . . to demonstrate to people who may affect decisions (about our lives) that we are human beings -- that Ali is like John."
Along with the rest of the McClatchy bureau's Baghdad staff, Sahar writes the Inside Iraq blog (www.mcclatchydc.com/iraq). The feedback convinced her that Americans know little about Iraq. They don't know, for example, that Iraq once led the Arab world in women's education, before wars, international sanctions, and the American occupation set women back. Both she and her mother are university graduates. Those gains, she says, are now being reversed by religious parties.
She also wants Americans to understand that sectarian strife in Iraq is not really over religion -- but over political power. To correct such misconceptions, she is committed to journalism. "No one will do it for us," she says. Is she frightened? "I am scared silly. I am at tremendous risk." Her kids are proud of her, but when she left for America, her son said, "Mother, don't be photographed." (You can read more about all six Iraqi women and the other honorees at http://www.iwmf.org/courage/awardees.php.)