Jessica Sarhan
Last updated: 27 December, 2011

Women on the frontline, part II: Anna Day, freelance journalist and human rights activist

Your time in Libya this year must have been incredibly fascinating. Did you ever feel uncomfortable or vulnerable as a female journalist reporting from a conflict zone?  

I’m a blonde-haired blue-eyed young American woman, so I stick out like a sore thumb wherever I come over here: security is always an issue. However, in the case of Libya for example, I felt that my presence in that conflict zone was particularly worth my personal security gamble as many journalists were racing past the fascinating redevelopment of the East to get to the front lines. During my time in the East, I uncovered the most inspiring and promising developments in community organizing, particularly by women, and, as a woman with a stated interest in covering women’s issues, I was able to meet with women to document allegations of rape and sexual violence, stories that too often remain confined to women’s whispers and domestic spheres. I was able to contact human rights NGOs upon leaving Libya, while also documenting potential partners for peace in a country that was flooded by arms to questionable bedfellows during the urgency of the Libyan civil war.

You were in Egypt during the revolutions and subsequent fall of President Mubarak, can you tell us a little about your experience there and some of the scenes you witnessed?

After the Tunisian Revolution, rumors about an Egyptian uprising were circulating throughout the blogosphere. I flew down to Cairo from Israel/Palestine on January 24thin hope of witnessing the rumored protests of January 25th. On the 25th, the online organizing sites had been blocked, and I frantically cabbed around Cairo to check the various locations that had previously discussed online. Several of the locations were empty, and when I approached Tahrir Square, the central boulevard in downtown Cairo that means “Liberation Square,” throngs of police blocked each intersection. As a foreigner, I was able to walk through and snap pictures, playing the “clueless tourist” role, and as I reached the center, I heard a rumble from one of the nearby streets. State police rushed in frantic lines across the square toward the noise, but within moments, the protestors had broken into Tahrir Square. I knew in that moment that I had made the right decision to come back to this region, to jump on a plane down to Cairo, and the events that unfolded in the coming weeks are more than I could have ever imagined to witness in my entire lifetime. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to cover such a historic and momentous story of human victory.

How important do you feel that new and digital media are for young journalists today and how do you feel social networking sites have changed the way reporters work?

New media has created an unprecedented opportunity for young journalists to get their foot in the door. The Arab uprisings have inspired political activists around the world to use social media for social justice, and thus, with a little resourcefulness and ingenuity (and maybe a little Google Translate!), an American blogger can reach out through Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube to global activists like never before. As a relatively young American journalist, I’d always used social media sites for personal reasons, but now I use these sites daily to reach out to contacts around the globe, and my fluency in this technology gives me an edge over more veteran journalists at times.

Your coverage of The Arab Spring has been absolutely fascinating. Can you tell us a bit about your experience of the uprisings in the region and what the female presence in them was like?

I’ve studied, worked, volunteered, and traveled throughout the Middle East for years as a young American woman, and I saw firsthand what kinds of governments the U.S. was supporting. Not only was/is our support immoral as far as human rights are concerned, but it was/is counterproductive to long-term American interest in the region. I was actually quite pleased that Obama finally acknowledged that stability and democracy are not two mutually exclusive options for the Arab world in his most recent speech, but, to be clear, that has never been American policy toward the region, and it was the Arab activists who created the political momentum and possibility for this institutional change. At this point, it’s just Obama-rhetoric, but it is a departure from the previous American outlook for the past half of a century that viewed the Arab world only through a zero-sum game security or economic lens.

Needless to say, getting a front-row seat to watch such a dynamic phenomenon sweep a region that’s been close to my heart for years now, has been a tremendous gift personally and opportunity professionally. There are so many issues to cover critically, so many fascinating human stories to document – I just feel so lucky to begin a career as a journalist in this region that I love during such a dynamic time! Being a young blonde-haired American woman adds a interesting twist – while I stick out like a sore thumb everywhere I’ve been, security forces are intimidated of me as a Westerner in a way that they are not of their own citizens, so during the Egyptian Revolution, for example, I was able to get incredible close-up pictures and talk to the security forces in a context in which any Egyptian could have been detained or tortured. Also, people always assume I work for CNN because I look like a broadcast woman, so everyone wants to talk to me, including notable officials and leaders in both Libya and Bahrain. I admit that I sometimes just go with it until after the interview. In general, security is a huge issue, I’ve been very lucky, but I’ve also been very careful, and I try to change my perceived weaknesses into strengths as I explained with those examples.

How have your views changed since leaving the U.S.?

Nothing would surprise me anymore as far as the ugliness of American foreign policy is concerned. The tactics that our government has used throughout the developing world in the past half century are chilling and, in many cases, quite counterproductive to American interests in the region.