Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

When working in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would sometimes try to travel under the radar screen by dressing vaguely local – or at least covering my hair with a scarf. It worked, and luckily, I was almost never harassed. I remember seeing a Lebanese colleague in the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, who promptly demanded to know what I was doing walking around with my hair covered. For her, a secular Muslim, not bowing to religious dress codes was a point of defiance against oppression. For me, it was just about wanting to stay safe.

Hard to blend in

But you can’t blend in when you’re carrying heavy cameras. A photographer can’t shoot a civil war in a full-length abaya. And a woman like Logan is never going to blend into a Middle Eastern crowd. As a result, most of us come as we are, hoping to be perceived as respectful but not trying to hide our foreignness, which might only increase the chances of being accused of being a spy. Sometimes that means dressing much like the men – in jeans, hiking boots, and ski-jackets that travel well.

But this, I’ve come to realize, leads men in some of the places we cover to see us as something of a third gender. We are not men, but we are not really women either, because – the thinking goes – any decent woman would be at home with her family, not running around in a time of chaos.

This might go some way to explain how a Middle Eastern culture that is so protective of women can simultaneously have complete disregard for us.

Whether in the frenzy of mob behavior or in minds fogged by fundamentalist thinking, a foreign women is suddenly not really a woman – not one deserving of the same respect as a local one. The real breaking of norms in which foreign women were considered off-limits for violence in the Middle East began not with a journalist, but with the kidnap and eventual murder by Iraqi insurgents of Irish aid worker Margaret Hassan in 2004.

Foreigners seen as fair game

Local women are by no means immune from sexual harassment, and if anything, appear to be facing more of it than ever before. In a 2008 survey, approximately 2 out of 3 Egyptian men admitted to sexually harassing women, and about 8 in 10 Egyptian women said they’ve experienced such harassment; few turned to the police. A more recent survey from The Population Council showed that the overwhelming majority of Egyptian young men and youths said that a woman who is dressed “provocatively” and gets harassed has it coming to her. Many female Egyptian journalists covering the protests complained of being grabbed – but never on the scale of what happened to Logan, whose beauty and foreignness somehow made her fair game.

The erasing of red lines is not limited to the Middle East. But this happens to be the region in perhaps the greatest flux, and in which the clash of liberal and traditional values is today most palpable.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia became the Jan. 25 Revolution in Egypt, and the spark now burns, with different levels of intensity, across the Middle East. The story is still unfolding, and we need our most talented writers and photographers to cover it. I can only hope that the Arab leaders and other elites’ embarrassment over how some of our most serious media professionals have been treated in recent weeks will trickle down to the people who still need to learn a simple lesson: Don't shoot – or molest – the messenger.

Ilene Prusher has been writing for The Christian Science Monitor since 1996, and was a staff writer from 2000-2010. A columnist for several publications, she teaches conflict reporting at NYU-Tel Aviv and blogs at www.ileneprusher.com/blog.

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