Where do girls in closed societies draw inspiration from when television, cinema, literature and culture are state-controlled and role models are carefully crafted? The few who are approved by what I like to call the thought gulag are then subjected to rigorous examination by social norms. The women who pass are often replicas of the women surrounding these little girls: They look, speak and live like their mothers, aunts and sisters. From an early age this drew the boundaries for us girls and young women; at least that was my experience in Mosul in the 1990s. Our destinies and ambitions were chosen for us, and we dared not object. After all, who was there to follow? Then there was Shireen Abu Akleh. Along with her colleague Givara Budeiri, Shireen made her way through the cruel filtering of state and society in Iraq. The Baath regime, like many other dictatorships, adopted the Palestinian cause, and whenever confrontations in the Palestinian territories occurred, they became our main news story during prime-time TV, when the state technicians received orders to briefly bootleg Al Jazeera’s coverage and show it to the people. This is not to say that Iraqis needed Saddam Hussein’s approval to stand in solidarity with Palestinians; all Iraqis sympathized with the Palestinians, but the Baathist regime’s adoption of their suffering as a national cause meant it allowed messaging related to that adopted cause and filtered out other things. The question had long been part of Iraq’s collective consciousness regardless of authoritarian messaging.
To us, Shireen was not a stranger. She looked and sounded as we did, and it didn’t matter that we were not even privy to her religious identity, which we learned after her death when we watched in horror as her coffin made its way to the church despite Israeli soldiers’ beating Shireen’s pallbearers with batons.
Unlike most of the other women on our screens, Shireen had no hidden agenda to corrupt young Iraqi girls, according to our patriarchal society. Her profession was miraculously overlooked. In the late ’90s, female war reporters might have been the subject of movies, but we never saw them in real life. An Arab woman wearing a “Press” vest and helmet — dodging bullets while reporting live — was new, and we were all in awe. In my family, Shireen was particularly loved for another reason: She bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my paternal cousins. My father would proudly announce “Zeena is on TV again!” adding to our sense of Shireen’s familiarity. To say she was a “household name” is an understatement. She was indeed one of us, and she was doing extraordinary things that we could only dream about.
The second intifada and the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah were the talk of school and town for weeks. Hour by hour Shireen again guided viewers through events, her signature sentence etched in our memory: “We will provide more details once we get confirmation.” Though I don’t recall hearing any young Iraqi woman explicitly saying that she wanted to be a war correspondent, the way in which we looked up to Shireen and trusted her words said so much more. Even in a patriarchy like Iraq’s, Shireen commanded respect and acknowledgment for accomplishments beyond society’s restrictive role for women. She empowered us back then in ways we would only realize decades later. I cannot begin to fathom what effect Shireen must have had on young Palestinian girls who lived through the stories that she told to the world.
As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued, Shireen’s reporting continued with it. After 2003, I stopped following her coverage as religiously as I used to, not because my admiration for the first female war correspondent to grace the screen of my living room TV had ceased but because our own woes and injustices in Iraq began to consume us. Also, female war reporters became the norm as we finally got to see the world through satellite news channels. Al Jazeera remained center stage, but the unraveling effects of the Iraq war, Israel’s war on Lebanon, the Arab Spring and the war in Syria created rifts and divisions among audiences, many of whom began to eschew the channel itself.
While many of Al Jazeera’s prominent reporters and presenters resorted to sensationalism to express and embrace the causes closest to their hearts, Shireen refrained from the circus. Her focus remained solely on reporting on the struggle and people — her people — of Palestine. Her social media presence was modest and never provocative. She stood with the people in their fight for justice wherever they were, unconditionally.
Her professionalism endured decades of ideological shifts and trends in the media. Yet despite being a pioneer, perhaps the pioneer, of female reporting, Shireen never made her work about herself. She did not endorse the media’s cult-of-personality culture or aspire to be part of it. I do not recall seeing her in a designer dress being honored with media awards at fancy galas, though she would have been most deserving of the recognition. I cannot speak on her behalf either, but the Shireen whom we believe to know was uninterested in vanity. She may have represented Al Jazeera, but she became a reference in her own right.
I saw the news of her murder when I was with another Iraqi friend. It was around midnight, and we were watching Eurovision. We gasped in shock and horror. Though neither of us immediately cried, sadness took over. My friend had spent her teenage years in Libya and held the same fondness and admiration for Shireen. Another friend, a 30-year-old doctor in Kirkuk, recalled to me a few hours later how her mother awakened her with the grave news: “Wake up … wake up. … They killed Shireen.” My immediate reaction was to text one of my dearest friends, a renowned war reporter who happened to be in Palestine at the time. I asked her to be safe that day. It was when she replied that I began crying. War reporting is one of the most dangerous professions in the world, and I salute those killed in the line of duty for their resolve and commitment to telling the story. But the context of how Shireen was killed in cold blood and the unlikelihood of accountability for her murderers only adds sorrow to the pain of losing a reporter who has long graced our homes and felt like family.
The day Shireen was taken to her final resting place in the land where she and her ancestors were born was testament to this woman’s legacy. Thousands of Palestinians accompanied her coffin, which was draped in the Palestinian flag and her press vest. Tens of millions across the Middle East watched the grand funeral procession live on Al Jazeera, and many more millions streamed it on social media. Rarely has a media figure been so unifying in both life and death. Her work, professionalism and prose commanded respect from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum.
The unfortunate confrontation that happened toward the end of the procession, when Israeli police attacked the pallbearers, was a real-life metaphor for the Palestinian struggle. There were clear indications who the aggressor was, though calls for restraint were addressed to both sides, including the one just trying to make it through. Stories of what caused the skirmish varied and changed, and different analyses reflected different biases, all while Palestinians continued to fall victim. Shireen’s coffin did not collapse, because the men carrying her endured the kicking and beatings by Israeli soldiers in riot gear without losing their grip.
How to commemorate such a legacy? The only sentences I felt worthy of Shireen were parts of a prayer that Muslims say before the gravesite of the Prophet Muhammad. It roughly translates to “I bear witness that you have conveyed the message and delivered on the mission you were entrusted with.”
We bear witness that you conveyed the message of journalism and delivered on the trust of your people. Farewell, Shireen.