Front Line Safety Tips for Women Reporters

Three female BBC journalists share their tips on staying safe on the front lines.

Every day, men and women journalists reporting on conflicts around the world face danger, and recent events in Syria will mean these dangers are at the forefront of their minds.

Forty women journalists have contributed their stories of survival to a new book published on International Women’s Day, entitled No Woman’s Land – On the Frontlines with Female Reporters.

Here, the BBC’s Caroline Wyatt (CW), Lyse Doucet (LD) and Shaimaa Khalil (SK) outline some of the challenges facing women on the front line and give their tips.

What to wear

1. Keep conservative

What may seem unremarkable for a woman to wear in London, New York, Dubai or Paris can be interpreted as offensive or even as a come-on in other cultures. In places such as Afghanistan, especially in rural areas such as Helmand, you may never blend in as a Western woman, but wearing a headscarf to cover your hair, a long-sleeved shirt and some baggy trousers help lessen the stares and deflect at least some of the attention, if not the curiosity. Even a tight T-shirt can bring the sort of attention you just don’t want or need, and obviously cleavage is a no-no.CW

Caroline Wyatt
Wear flat shoes for a quick exit, says Wyatt

2. Remember a hat

If you don’t want to wear a headscarf for whatever reason, then at least take a hat. It can not only cover your hair, but also save you from sunstroke. On the way into Afghanistan in 2001, I forgot that advice. We ended up sitting outside by a runway, waiting for a helicopter for a day in the blazing heat. It meant I spent the first two days covering the story while violently ill with sunstroke. Never pleasant. CW

3. Flat shoes or boots

So you can run if the situation demands it. Sturdy boots offer at least a little more protection than sandals or flip-flops, especially if shrapnel is likely to come flying in your direction. They may be unglamorous, but it’s also possible they’ll save your life, not least if a crowd turns nasty. Some of the scariest moments come while covering demonstrations that turn into riots, so being prepared and able to run gives you options. Likewise, keeping bags or luggage to a minimum while out and about also helps, though may not always be possible when filming or recording. And the general travellers’ advice of keeping important personal documents – passport, credit card and cash – on you in a “bum bag”, or what the Americans delightfully call a “fanny-pack”, helps keep them safe, even when you’re in the middle of a crowd. CW

4. Wear a wedding ring

Even if you are not married, do think about taking or wearing a wedding ring. That applies as much to women travellers as to female journalists. It can help deflect unwanted attention, even if it doesn’t stop questions about your marital status. Similarly, it can help to carry photos of your children or your family. Everyone can relate to the idea of family, and it’s also a way of beginning conversations and making links with people, whether they’re interviewees or those you meet and chat to on the journey. If the worst came to the worst and you were kidnapped, it’s also a way of “humanising” yourself, and trying to get your captors to relate to you as a person. Luckily, unlike some colleagues, I have never had to try that out for real. But photos of family can certainly help establish a rapport – not least with other women – while filming abroad. CW

  • Being a woman can help too

    • The one consolation is that being a woman in a trouble spot can be a distinct advantage
    • People can act more protectively, and soldiers or police can perceive you as less of a potential threat
    • And a smile, patience and non-threatening body language can help you across a border more rapidly sometimes than any amount of paperwork

    Caroline Wyatt

    What to take

    5. If you need glasses, carry them with you

    I don’t like giving this advice because I hope no-one has to use it. But I now tell it to myself. Nobody wants to be kidnapped. But those who have been through this ordeal often have to implore their kidnappers to get them glasses, insisting they can no longer see, once they can no longer wear their contact lenses. LD

    6. Carry an aerosol or a pin

    Whatever you carry in your bag for self-defence don’t make it look obvious. Pepper spray is great but it looks quite threatening and if someone finds it on you, this may cause trouble. It is also quite tricky to get through airports. A small aerosol spray like a deodorant that you can buy from a local pharmacy does the job if you aim straight for the eyes – it’s painful and gives you time to run. Also, if you have a safety pin that you can poke at an attacker’s face or hands, that is an asset – and it looks quite innocent. SK

    Where to go

    Lyse Doucet in Afghanistan
    For women, dressing sensitively is paramount. This is Doucet in Afghanistan

    7. Avoid wading into large, mainly male, crowds on your own

    In some societies, in particular conservative ones where men and women don’t mix much in public, its good advice to move in large crowds with a male colleague walking behind you. This is especially the case in large boisterous election rallies. In the excitement of the moment, you could attract unwanted attention. I shared this advice with a Canadian colleague in the late 80s in Pakistan. She ignored it, perhaps believing she had to be in the midst of the action to do her job. She was so badly groped she had to return to the hotel. LD

    8. Go local

    Working with a local journalist is often the best part of this job. They can open doors, help you understand the culture, watch your back, and make your journey that much more rewarding. They can also help ensure you find a good driver with a reliable car, which can make all the difference. Your driver is often what stands between you and danger. I’ve had drivers who’ve known when to stop or not at night-time checkpoints, who can come up with convincing stories when you need to get out of tight spots. Also, please don’t call your local colleagues “fixers”, especially if they are fellow journalists. It can be insulting. A good happy team makes for a safer special journey and, in the end, better storytelling. LD

    What to say

    9. Speak the language… as best you can We try to minimise as many of these risks as we can”

    We’d all be better off if we could speak a zillion languages. If you aren’t fluent in the language of the country you are visiting, do try to learn a few phrases. Most people appreciate your effort to try to understand their culture. It shows respect. I try to have at least a “courtesy and comedy” quotient. Learn how to say “hello” and “how are you… and your family?” And pick up an understanding of their humour, favourite kind of jokes, what makes people laugh. Humour is a cherished part of every society. But every country has different red lines so tread carefully. Some jokes can only be told if you belong to the place. LD

    10. As your mother would tell you – good manners matter.

    We have all seen journalists shouting at officials, displaying arrogance, deliberately or not. It can happen in those frustrating moments in the heat of the day. Some may argue that a burst of anger can move matters along. But it often seems to backfire. Many cultures seem to have their antennae tuned to any signs of pushy behaviour, especially from Western media. Some cultures don’t know how to deal with a woman, especially a foreign one, shouting in public. There should be a way of getting a difficult message across in a more culturally sensitive way. LD

    Give off the right vibe

    11. Don’t be aggressive

    Shaimaa Khalil
    Khalil, an Egyptian by nationality, reported regularly from Tahrir Square

    The fastest way to make enemies in a male-dominated environment – Afghanistan or the Middle East for example – is to be aggressive. What we may regard in the West as normal assertive behaviour may be seen as disrespect for authority – in most cases here, authority means “male authority”. When you show respect for authority you gain allies. When I was held for 20 hours by the Egyptian military, merely for being present at a demonstration, I took care to address my captors respectfully and my experience was a lot better than it could have been. SK

    12. Don’t show you are afraid

    When under arrest, being calm earns respect. Being frantic makes you lose your authority as a journalist, and decreases your chances of being treated with respect or released. More importantly, looking scared makes it seem like you’ve done something wrong. SK

    13. Don’t always look men in the eye

    In many conservative Muslim societies (Saudi Arabia in particular) looking a man in the eye may be seen as being “too forward” or even loose. You’ll find that men don’t look women straight in the eye, as a sign of respect. That doesn’t mean that you have to behave meekly. Be very clear and straightforward just don’t look a man straight in the face, especially if he is not looking you in the eye. SK

    14. Be careful with shaking hands

    In conservative societies, men do not like to shake hands with women and if you do, it might send the wrong message. Again, it may be taken as a sign of “loose” behaviour. I never offer my hand first. I wait till someone offers their hand to me. SK

    Be prepared

    15. Check in with base

    Ensure you “check in” with someone back at base and/or at home every day or at an agreed longer interval if communications are patchy, by text, phone or email, so that they know you are OK. Do have a plan in place for what kind of action they need to take if they haven’t heard from you after a certain period. It’s always a good idea to have a back-up rendezvous plan to meet up with colleagues/friends in a safer place you all know at a specified time, in case you are separated or things go wrong. When travelling or working alone, make sure that someone back at your main office or someone you trust locally is keeping tabs on whether you’re still alive and well. If possible, tell them a code word you would use when talking under duress. And try not to forget what it was.CW

1 Comment

  1. If reporting from the “front line” means demeaning yourself and other women don’t do it. Actions shots make news editors very happy, they also often seem to entail secular western women behaving as if they have caught a silly religio-cultural infection.

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