Still spinning from last week’s blog post about Annie Clark of St. Vincent, and from doubts about the frequently asked question, “What’s it like to be a woman?” I sat down with Elizabeth Rubin, a war reporter and contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, to discuss the infamous question and her career path as a reporter. Rubin delved into these topics with me, discussing why the question is bothersome to many women and in what ways the question can be reshaped to be both more interesting and more honest to women’s experiences in the professional world.
NB: How did you become a reporter? Was it a career that you aspired to from a young age?
ER: No, I was doing theater and thought I would go into either directing or writing. I started a PhD program and dropped out after a week…I then did various things and thought, well, lots of people who want to be writers go and work at small newspapers. So I went to the Vineyard Gazette. I was taping up stories on the board and writing theater reviews. I stayed in the Vineyard for eight or nine months before coming to New York where I got a job as a cultural editor at The Forward, which had just started as an English language paper (transitioning from a Yiddish language paper). All I wanted to do was go to Bosnia, because the war was on at that time. So Seth Lipsky, the editor, sent me with almost no money, which was a blessing, because I ended up having to live with families…and that’s how I started being a reporter, in Sarajevo.
NB: So, was Bosnia a catalyst for your war reporting in general?
ER: No, I think that Bosnia was a particular war in a particular time in my life. The Jews in Bosnia aligned themselves with the government in Sarajevo, and the Jews in Serbia aligned themselves with the Serbian government and the Jews in Croatia aligned themselves with the Croatian government. I went to figure out what in the world it meant to be a Jewish community if you’re so divided. I planned to be there for six weeks and ended up staying with a family for a year and a half on and off. So, it wasn’t that I wanted to be a war reporter, I don’t even know if I thought about being a war reporter; I certainly thought about being a foreign correspondent.
NB: How do you currently choose your writing topics? Do you tend to drift towards certain subjects?
ER: Sure, you tend to do what you know how to do, and you get better and better at it. I did try to veer away from war reporting right before 9/11. I was done; I wasn’t going to do it anymore. I had been to Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and I wasn’t going to cover wars anymore. And then 9/11 happened and I thought, how could I not be writing about my own country going to war? It just seemed perverse not to. I think you do develop an expertise…and it can be hard to move away from that.
NB: At the start of your career did you feel that being a woman ever got in your way as a war reporter?
ER: Opposite. It’s much easier to be a woman.
ER: People are nice to you, particularly in the Muslim world. I mean, as a Western woman it can turn against you, but in general, guys like to hang out with women…particularly the Taliban like to hang out with Western women. And then on top of that, you have access to a whole half of the society that a lot of men don’t have access to. So no, I never felt that it was a disadvantage. I think maybe sometimes I wish I was stronger—physically. But as far as war reporting, no.
NB: And you never felt uncomfortable?
ER: No, I mean the other thing is that people don’t take you as seriously when you’re a woman. So it gives you a lot of advantages. You can just stick around and listen in on other people’s conversations and nobody thinks that you know anything. So it actually works in your favor. Did I ever feel vulnerable as a woman, like I was going to be raped or something or physically vulnerable?
ER: Not really, no. I mean I have certainly had fear at times, but I don’t think that’s any different for me or for a man. [Pause] Maybe there is a little bit more. It’s possible that I would tend to stay back a little bit from immediate danger, whereas I think a lot of men, particularly photographers, really like to be as close as possible.
NB: I read “Mother Courage: Being Pregnant on the Frontline” and in the beginning of the piece you state that you tend to roll your eyes when asked the question, “What’s it like to be a woman and work in Afghanistan or Iraq?” Can you tell me why it is frustrating to be asked that question?
ER: I guess because at the time it seemed like an assumption that somehow “it must be so hard to do what you do as a woman.” It was such a weird question because that was not my experience. And maybe it was just a snotty little roll of the eyes…but on another level it just felt like [the interviewers were] missing the point. And that was frustrating. On the other hand, there are differences. So it’s a legitimate question. You’re not going to have the same view of society as a man…I mean on just a purely identification level when writing about a mother who has lost her two children it’s a little bit easier to identify with as a woman. It doesn’t mean that men don’t report it and do it really well, it’s just that there’s more of an imagination [in men’s reporting of it].
NB: Do you think people should stop asking the question?
ER: People should maybe find a more interesting question to ask, because it’s just a boring old question now. I don’t know that analyzing the way that someone does their job because they are a woman or man yields that much. But it’s not a bad question. You should still ask it. And it gets people upset, which is always a good thing when you’re asking people questions [laughs]
NB: How would you rephrase or reformulate the question?
ER: I mean one thing, if you’re going more in depth, would be to say, “So you’re covering a war, what exactly are you interested in either unearthing or communicating, what are you looking for?” And then extrapolating a little bit, like, “Do you think that this has anything to do with being a woman or a man, do you see things differently?” Maybe looking a little bit more into what that person, whether they are a man or woman, is looking for and what interests them in covering a war. Finding out about their interests first without the gender question. If you begin with that question then people get defensive.
NB: Are there any differences that you have noticed between men and women in the war reporting field?
ER: This might be a huge difference about being a male or a female: having a child. For most of the guys that I know it didn’t change their lives. Most of the people that I knew when I was in Iraq or Afghanistan would have children and they would still go a month, two months away from home. And I have never met a mother who has done that. I’m sure that there must be somebody, but I have never met anyone. Having a child makes things a little different. I don’t really go to very dangerous war zones anymore. So a lot of women, when they become mothers, stop [war reporting]. That’s a big difference. I mean that’s something that you could certainly ask about: motherhood. “What’s it like being a mother?”
NB: I’m curious, does your Judaism ever influence what you write about or do you think it shapes your perspective in a different way?
ER: It’s so hard to know. I’m sure it does. I mean, certainly the first job I did, going to Sarajevo was because of that…I noticed that there were a lot of Jews who became very involved in that war. I’ve found reporting in Israel to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There is some sort of identification with Israel that makes the relationship during reporting different than, say, going to Uganda. And that has to be because I’m Jewish.
NB: Finally, I would love to know what you are currently working on
ER: I am writing a book about Uganda—about international justice. As I like to say, it’s about three people who tried to change the world: one with guns, one with the law and one with Facebook. I am also making a film about Afghan women actresses, and war is tangential to that, it certainly effects their lives but it’s not [a story] about the war.
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