Women on the frontline

Unreported World's Ramita Navai marks international women's day at an Amnesty event about the role o

I was chuffed to be asked to take part in a special panel discussion at Amnesty International's HQ last night on women reporting from the frontline, not only because it was a chance to reflect on my work and the nature of our journalism, but because I was going to be in good company – the three other female foreign reporters are not any old reporters, but among the best in the country – Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of Channel 4 News, Christine Toomey and Marie Colvin, both of the Sunday Times.

Amnesty was holding the event as part of International Women’s Day and invited us to talk about the old chestnuts that are often thrown at female reporters – how being female affects our journalism, and whether newsrooms and editors are bastions of sexism. They also wanted us to share our experiences of how women’s lives are affected by war and whether media attention and campaigning can make a difference to their lives.

So, do we women journalists report differently from our male colleagues? All of us on the panel took slight umbrage to the question to start with – good reporting is, after all, simply good reporting. When you're singled out as a sex for reporting differently, it's hard not to suspect sexist assumptions – that women reporters are more tuned into people's emotions, more sensitive to the impact of war on families while, of course, allowing ourselves to be clouded by our emotions and so implicitly less able to stand back, analyse and be objective.

But we soon agreed that there are some undeniable differences. We cover the same stories as our male colleagues, but we get access to stories that are often denied to them, and so our insights on how conflicts affect women, say, are broader. Christine Toomey, a feature writer who has written award-winning articles on the postwar impact of mass rape in Bosnia, said that the subjects that often interest her are different from male colleagues, as is the way she interacts and communicates with people.

These differences also work to our advantage, including the frequent and potentially-irritating occurrence of not being taken seriously. In countries where there are restrictions on media freedom, there is nothing more satisfying than having your requests and questions met by mild amusement and curiosity, which does wonders in loosening tongues. It can also help distract government minders.

We were also asked whether there's a tendency for us only to cover women's stories, and if we are boxed into a category by commissioning editors. Just looking at the range of issues that each of us has covered – wars, gang violence, murder, trafficking, politics etc etc - the answer was a resounding no. Having said that, if you want to uncover human rights abuses, women's issues are obviously part of the territory. And if you want to uncover the world's unreported stories, it is very often women and children who are the most forgotten and the most vulnerable.

Lindsey Hilsum said it's important not to show emotion when reporting to camera, in order to appear authoritative and objective. She noted a double standard here, saying that if a male reporter became teary-eyed he'd be applauded for being sensitive and empathic, instead of the eye-rolling 'well, it's a woman' response that we would receive. But keeping my emotions in check is something I still struggle with. Although Lindsey did admit to the lump-in-the-throat moment, she was quick to add: only when the camera is OFF! With the style of Unreported World – where the cameras are constantly rolling in order for the viewer to get to see events unfold as the reporter follows the trail of a story – I don't always have that luxury. And when you're faced with a little boy telling you his world has been shattered and he is in constant pain because his penis and testicles were hacked off to be sold, or when a young girl breaks down as she says she has lost six babies and has such horrific injuries from childbirth she is incontinent for life, and the smell of urine that permeates from her means that her community have cut her off, it's not always easy to keep the emotions at bay. I'm a reporter, but I'm also a human, moved by tragedy, loss and despair. But luckily editors can work wonders, so wobbly moments can magically disappear...

Many in the audience at Amnesty, who included aspiring journalists, activists and campaigners, wanted to know if our work has a positive impact on the stories we cover, and also how we cope with the job. We all had encouraging tales of how pieces we had written or broadcast have inspired readers and viewers – even some politicians – to act. After seeing my report on child brides in Nigeria, a couple from the north of England contacted Channel 4 and are now trying to sponsor the young girl I mentioned above, and the hospital that was treating her. We had a similar response from viewers who saw the little boy in our film about the sale of human body parts in South Africa. All the panelists agreed that we do this job because we feel that exposing these stories to the world can make a difference. Even if it's a tiny difference.

But we also had a reminder that there are still many stories that desperately need telling – a young Sri Lankan woman in the audience at Amnesty broke down as she asked us our view on why the war in her country is so neglected and under-reported when conflicts like that in Gaza, rightly, command acres of news coverage.

This is a subject close to Marie's heart, having doggedly reported from Sri Lanka, and having been seriously injured there while on the job. It’s because the government has systematically banned the foreign press, local journalists have been killed and forced to flee their country if they dare file reports. Even reporting undercover has become nearly impossible. The result is an ongoing war without witnesses, which means less pressure on the international community to act.

As to how we keep ourselves sane and happy in the face of some of the horrors we have all witnessed, detachment is one of the keys to self-preservation in this business. Although Marie's method is preferred: 'I go to a lot of bars,' she said in her magnetic drawl. Hear, hear!

Ramita Navai – reporter for Channel 4’s http://www.channel4.com/news/ontv/unreported_world/

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.