Ending the Media’s ‘Miss Representation’ of Women: An Interview with Anna Therese Day
By Christine Medina
There are achievers, and then there are overachievers. Anna Therese Day encompasses the latter, but only in the best sense of the word. She’s covered the Arab Spring as an independent journalist; she just wrapped up a U.S. speaking tour; and last year the 24-year-old was selected as one of Google Zeitgeist’s top 30 Great Young Minds of Our Time.
We caught up with Day just before she set off to tweet live from the Syrian border to talk about the issues closest to her heart, and life in the Middle East. For updates, follow her at @AnnaofArabia.
Culture-ist: The Middle East, and more specifically, women’s issues, youth movements and American foreign policy in the region are your passions. What sparked your interest in these specific issues?
Day: My coming of political awareness coincided with the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent invasions, occupations, and heightened security presence in the Middle East, North Africa, and the broader Muslim world. These historic political developments combined with my interest in mass media — its power and manipulation — set my mind racing regarding Americans’ understanding of the effects of our foreign policy on the ground. Our press was embedded and is still tightly controlled in many of our most crucial and problematic interventions, and I believe with all my heart that our people would demand more constructive and humane policy from our government if we had better information about our devastating impacts on civilian life around the world.
Culture-ist: In an interview with your alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, you explained how you felt almost “protected” by the revolutionists while reporting from the front lines in Libya and Egypt. What was the most frightening event you’ve experienced while working in the Middle East? Can you give some insight into what it’s like to be a woman living in a country with drastically different rights than men?
Day: My female colleagues and I discuss these issues often, and we’ve come to the conclusion that the Middle East isn’t any more racist or sexist than the West. As my colleague and friend, journalist Ruth Michaelson put it: “it just isn’t as taboo to express or act on those attitudes here as it is at home.” In the U.S., we’ve had a civil rights movement and a feminist movement that created strong legal institutions to protect the rights of marginalized groups and punish offenders of those rights; those institutions have yet to be stabilized here in the Middle East and North Africa. With all the grassroots momentum and big ideas circulating over here, I’m optimistic that these kinds of structural changes are on the horizon, but they’ll have to be fought for tooth-and-nail just like all struggles for justice.
Culture-ist: You’ve accomplished a lot at a young age and are certainly an inspiration to aspiring journalists. Have you ever felt your age to be a hindrance to your profession, or a plus?
Day: Age and gender are two characteristics that are often used to undermine, dismiss or minimize women’s accomplishments. A wise woman, my mentor writer and conflict specialist Roxanne Krystalli, identified “cute” as the single word that embodies all-that-is-wrong in our society’s views of young women’s accomplishments.
I can’t tell you how many times my ambition or achievements have been described as “cute,” a deliberately gendered word-choice that insults the stories of my contacts and the importance of my work. While sexism and ageism color the entirety of my experience, my feminism has enabled me to approach both challenges strategically, turning these “weaknesses” into strengths. For example, my focus on women’s issues gave me a competitive professional advantage over my male colleagues whose access to these spheres was limited, while simultaneously allowing me to confront another issue close to my heart: women’s underrepresentation and misrepresentation in media.
Culture-ist: You’ve mentioned your interest in and support of Miss Representation, an organization that released a film this year as a call-to-action documenting the American media’s lack of healthy representation of women. How does the organization’s mission align with your beliefs and goals as a journalist?
Day: The aims of Miss Representation as well as organizations like The Women’s Media Center align with both my short and long-term personal and professional passions. In the Middle East and North Africa, I found that too often media coverage tells the story of conflict through the lens of male fighters; we rarely hear the perspective of women and children, who are always uniquely and often disproportionately affected in conflict zones. I’ve attempted to combat this bias through my focus on the civilian experience of war, and for example, most recently, I’ve joined with a group of friends and colleagues to launch a feminist journalist commune in Israel-Palestine. One of our most central goals is to actively seek female voices — experts, politicians, organizers, and civilians — in our coverage of this conflict. I hope to work my entire life to infuse the voices of women and girls into the conversation and to create a more balanced and representative public discourse. I hope this work will bring me back to the U.S. where we are undoubtedly in desperate need of media for women and girls, by women and girls, that is healthy, representative, and inspiring.
Culture-ist: What made you want to study political science and how did you get started as a freelancer? What advice would you give to young women wanting to follow in your footsteps and become an independent journalist?
Day: I was given excellent advice from a foreign correspondent who I emailed before college: learn a language, learn to research, and “learn something about something.” I studied Arabic, worked through hundreds of pages of research papers for a liberal arts BA, and “learned something about something” by picking a topic (Western involvement in the Modern Middle East) and reading anything and everything on this, devouring relevant independent news coverage daily, attending related lectures, discussing perspectives with professors, experts, journalists, and NGO workers, and most importantly, getting on the ground myself. There are many grant and scholarship opportunities available to college students for foreign language immersion, volunteer opportunities, and internships abroad, and thus, even if it’s not your dream job in some established foreign bureau, the language skills and networks you’ll build will serve you as a journalist as you progress – they will be your contacts for quotes in future stories, and maybe if you’re lucky, they’ll overthrow a dictator and launch a Revolution! 🙂
Culture-ist: You often cover issues in unstable, war-torn countries and see many things firsthand. How do you mentally prepare?
Day: Many investigations from conflict zones include the kinds of stories that can fundamentally challenge one’s faith in humanity. I have friends suffering from PTSD, and I face my own issues with stress and trauma at times as well. Though I’m always looking for ways to become healthier in dealing with these issues, I hope to never become desensitized — I always want to remain a human before I am a journalist — and I’ve been very lucky to find friends, colleagues, and mentors who share these values, who are my shoulders to cry on, and who embrace self-care as a necessity, not as a sign of weakness.
Culture-ist: As someone who often reports from the front lines and has direct access to the people, what do you think the Middle East wants the rest of the world to know about it and its people?
Day: People in the Middle East want the rest of the world to know that they’re people, just like you and me. They fall in love, they go to work every day, they fight with their siblings, they get bored at school, they gossip about their neighbors but would still bend over backwards to help them out in a time of need — they experience grief and loss, pain and humiliation, laughter, gratitude, joy and sorrow, just like us. This reality gets lost in translation with our media’s obsession with the rituals, customs, or languages that appear foreign to us, and it’s a tragedy that these small things can lead to such dramatic misunderstandings and devastating policies between peoples.
Culture-ist: Which specific women’s issues do you feel most passionate about? How has living in the Middle East shaped this?
Day: I’m most passionate about creating a global movement against patriarchy, specifically centered around our most basic right: a woman’s rights to her bodily integrity. Whether that’s a woman’s right to have or not to have sex, or to wear or not to wear a hijab, I want to contribute to creating a world in which the choices of women and girls are not only protected legally and politically, but also respected socially — free from stigma that pressures, shames, or coerces women towards a certain option.
My time in the Middle East forced me to grapple with many of these issues at an accelerated pace because I stand out here as a blonde-haired blue-eyed foreign woman. When I returned to the U.S., however, I found that I recognized many of the same attitudes among sexist men in the Middle East at the root of many of the problems women face in the U.S. I began to notice a striking and frightening global common denominator — a maniacal obsession with controlling women’s bodies — across cultures, regions and religions, and that is why I’m most passionate about combatting patriarchy as a global movement to liberate both women and men from this inhumane and unnatural power dynamic.
Culture-ist: Earlier this year you wrapped up a speaking tour in the U.S. Can you tell us a bit about the experience and how you prepared for it?
Day: The speaking tour was an incredibly humbling and thrilling opportunity. I was able to speak with young people across the country about young people on the other side of the world, sharing stories and best tactics that American students can use in our own struggles. The most thrilling part was without a doubt the amazing questions and discussions I had with American students; too often we accept the myth that American students are selfish and uninterested in anything outside their own bubbles, and I couldn’t have found this to be more false.
Culture-ist: What does the future look like for you? Do you plan to continue working independently? Is living in the Middle East just a temporary situation?
Day: The Middle East is exploding with innovative grassroots organizing and dynamic civil resistance movements — you can feel the momentum the minute you step off a plane! I’m learning a great deal with each interview every day, and thus, I can’t imagine leaving any time soon. That said, I hope that some day I can return to the U.S. with the knowledge and expertise of these organizers in order to contribute to the Revolution in the United States and beyond! 🙂
About Anna Therese Day
Anna Therese Day is an independent journalist and social media researcher, specializing in global civil society organizing. She is a 2012 UN Press Fellow and was named one of Google Zeitgeist’s top 30 Great Young Minds of Our Time in 2011. On the ground in Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian Territories, and Turkey, her coverage focuses on American foreign policy, women’s issues, and youth organizing. Her work has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including CNN International, the BBC, Al Jazeera English, and numerous print outlets, translated into Arabic, English, Hebrew, and Spanish. You can follow her on-the-ground at @AnnaOfArabia on Twitter or at www.AnnaThereseDay.com.
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