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Sexual attacks on journalists: Why foreign women are seen as fair game

The recent assaults on New York Times photojournalist Lynsey Addario and CBS foreign correspondent Lara Logan underscore the new dangers that female journalists face in covering conflict in a culture where the clash of liberal and traditional values is especially intense.

By Ilene Prusher / March 29, 2011


I read with horror recently what my friend and colleague Lynsey Addario experienced after being held by rag-tag soldiers in Libya. Addario, a talented photojournalist whom I’ve worked alongside in various conflict zones, was captured along with three other New York Times journalists in Ajdabiya on March 15 and subjected to treatment that is nothing short of terrifying.

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Her ankles were bound with her own shoelaces, and she was punched in the face by a soldier who laughed as she cried. She – like the three men she was with – endured beatings, as well as constant groping until being transferred to the Libyan authorities in Tripoli days later. “Every man who came in contact with us basically felt every inch of my body short of what was under my clothes,” she told the Times after her release.

The events are all the more disturbing coming just over a month after the brutal attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Although that was by far the most extreme contemporary example of an attack on a female reporter that didn’t involve a kidnapping or murder, many other journalists – including a number of Egyptians – have spoken out about “less serious” experiences with harassment and molestation throughout the revolution.

Courage to speak up

All of which makes us wonder whether attacks – both physical and sexual – on women covering conflict are on the rise. Probably, though it may just be that we’re not keeping quiet about it anymore. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that in most instances the victims don’t want to be identified because of the stigma attacks carry. For that, we should be grateful to Logan and Addario for acknowledging the truth of what happened to them.

I don’t know if early journalism pioneers like Nelly Bly and Martha Gellhorn – or Edith Lederer and the other women who covered the Vietnam War – experienced the kind of threats and challenges that women of our generation face, but I feel thankful for the trail they blazed. By the time I was covering Afghanistan and Iraq for this newspaper, as I did between 2001 and 2005, I looked around and noted with great satisfaction that about half of the correspondents covering the story were women.

The arrival of women in what was once seen as a boys’ bastion, however, is not necessarily matched or welcomed in the places we cover. There are swaths of the globe that are not in sync with the post-feminist realities of the West, though perhaps the dissatisfaction with that lag is one factor fueling the fires of revolution. In almost every place where the Arab Spring has sprung, one can find women (and enlightened men) pushing for change. But this longing for liberation still mingles with a disdain for liberal values that we Western women represent.


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