War journalist depicts challenges

Freelance reporter and author of “The Secret Sky” Atia Abawi has reported from the heart of conflicts in the Middle East and Asia. Abawi described some of her experiences during an event at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute on Nov. 17.

Abawi, the daughter of Afghan immigrants, said she knew early on that conflict journalism was her true calling. Since starting at CNN Media Operations, Abawi has covered historic events including Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Pakistan and the war in Iraq. She discussed the challenges of covering war, especially as a woman.

“Being a woman in a war zone is very challenging at times, depending on the country you are in, and Afghanistan is one of those countries that becomes a big challenge, especially growing up with the freedoms you have in America,” Abawi said. “You have to put those freedoms aside at times.”

Abawi described the obstacles she encountered during her years in Afghanistan. She was required to cover up to the extent that she was publicly chastised for wearing a shirt that was not long enough to conceal her wrists. She also found her safety in jeopardy both in war zones and professional environments. She described one incident in which her own colleague plotted to have her raped.


“We had a local producer at the time who wasn’t very happy about having a female boss when I came in,” Abawi said. “At first he tried to ruin me, but it didn’t work — it backfired — and when that didn’t work in his mind he thought, ‘Well if she gets raped, she’ll leave.’”

Despite these challenges, Abawi said she found it advantageous that people were more comfortable approaching her because she was a woman.

Abawi recalled her toughest experience to be living life on embedded within the U.S. armed forces, where she had to carry a backpack weighing 150 pounds as she stood in the line of fire. Abawi said she, along with other female journalists, earned the respect of the armed forces because she lived in the same conditions they did.

“You are doing it with them,” Abawi said. “They see that you are jumping off the helicopter with them. You’re running with them, you’re stepping on that IED that didn’t go off with them.”

Maria Ines Ferre, who facilitated the conversation with Abawi, said she was excited to learn more about these challenges because they give news reports a more personal perspective.

“It’s one thing to see somebody on television, to watch the reports, to read the stories, but it’s another thing to understand what they’re witnessing,” Ferre said.

SPS alumna Joy Yokum said as a young woman, she found Abawi’s discussion to be inspiring.

“It is amazing to see such a powerful woman so accomplished at such a young age,” Yokum said. “She is incredibly brave and is leading the way for other women behind her.”

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 18 print edition. Email Meher Vaswani at [email protected]



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