Conflict journalism is never easy. The hardships male reporters experience pale against those, both tacit and blatant, that women have to face. The horrific sexual attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan at the height of jubilation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square has focused the spotlight on women journalists simply trying to do their jobs.
Back when I was a goggle-eyed 13 year old who fancied herself as a latter-day Elizabeth Bennett with a predilection for cricket, my English teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “A journalist,” I replied unhesitatingly. My teacher took a swig of her Coke, chewed thoughtfully on a chunk of biltong and looked at me searchingly. She swallowed her biltong, continued to look at me for a few moments more, and then asked me quietly if I thought journalism was an appropriate job for a woman.
I was stupefied. My bumbling teenaged brain tried and failed to piece together any objections to a woman armed with a pen.
My English teacher’s reservations altogether neglected, I shunned the veneer of respectability of chartered accounting and instead joined the legion of word peddlers, mystical content producers and other sadists clamouring for the majesty of a byline. I became a journalist. My sense of decorum as yet untarnished, I was invited some months ago by the self-same English teacher to chat to the current crop of high school girls about career choices. Joined by a friend, who joked that it was not journalism that was our calling, but a life spent in rebellion, I spoke to these girls about studying languages and practicing journalism. I managed too to make it through the afternoon without calling the propriety of the profession into question.
But news of Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Tahrir Square was alarmingly jarring.
Last Friday, we watched on television as fireworks rained down on Tahir Square and Egyptians celebrated, with an enviable gusto, the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Lara Logan, a reporter for CBS News was in a crush of people in the square, but became separated from her crew. She was then sexually assaulted and beaten by a mob of rowdy men before being rescued by a group of Egyptian women and military officers.
As news of Logan’s experience became public this week, commentators partial to the asinine have been hasty to allege she had it coming because she was attractive, blond and was a journalist. Questions are being asked about whether or not women journalists are particularly vulnerable when they report on violent circumstances and whether or not they should be there at all. These are not new questions. These questions have been answered time and again. Yet the attack on Logan has tragically undermined their work and worth. Some other bright-eyed 13 year old may this week have had her dream of being a journalist dashed by a teacher who would point to Lara Logan’s example and pronounce journalism a space best not occupied by women.
There can, of course, be no denying the very real problem of sexual violence in Egypt. A 2008 report by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights found that a staggering 98% of foreign women visiting Egypt experienced some form of sexual harassment. A further 83% of Egyptian women reported experiencing sexual abuse almost daily. Most staggering, however, is the statistic that 60% of Egyptian men admitted harassing women. And while we recoil in righteous indignation, let’s not pretend this is a uniquely Egyptian, or Arab problem, or that Arab men, sexually repressed, cannot control themselves in the face of an attractive white woman. Nor is Lara Logan’s experience an indictment on the revolution or the people who fought to win it. Sexual violence is an irrevocable assertion of male dominance over women that is not unique to any one particular region in the world.
For the duration of the protests that led to the ousting of Mubarak, Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protests, was said to be the safest place in Cairo. Entry into the square was strictly policed, identification cards checked and bags searched. There were no reports of sexual harassment in Tahrir Square. Writing for Slate magazine, weeks before Logan’s ordeal, Sarah Topol wrote of the almost idyllic “democracy” that had taken root in Tahrir Square. “After wandering around the protests for days, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t been groped, a constant annoyance when I’m faced with large crowds in Cairo. When I pointed this out to other women in the square, we all took a moment to reflect. ‘I hadn’t even thought of that,’ one woman told me. ‘But it’s because we’re all so focused on one goal, we’re a family here’.”
As the weeks wore on and entry into the square was policed less, isolated incidents of sexual harassment began to be reported – culminating in Logan’s horrifying attack.
Like the 35-year-old doctor who was overpowered by three men, assaulted and then raped at the Pelonomi Private Hospital in Free State last year, Lara Logan is a woman who was sexually molested while doing her job. So too, was Rebecca Havrilla, a former sergeant and explosive ordnance disposal technician in the US military, who this week, along with 16 others, filed a law suit against US defence secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alleging that the military’s repeated failures to act in rape cases had created a culture where violence against women was tolerated. Havrilla faced repeated sexual harassment and rape while deployed in Afghanistan. These are women paying with their sanity, their bodily integrity for the right to earn a living. It is a malaise more endemic than we care to admit. Away from the weary eyes of newscasters and audiences chatting about concert tickets tossed into the Jukskei River, or education ministers with a taste for foot-in-mouth, this is a painful truth to admit. It is far easier to shy away from it, pretend it’s grossly exaggerated until we’re confronted with its abhorrent reality when we least expect.
Lara Logan’s experience does not detract from the integrity of the revolution. It does not pass judgement on whether the Egyptian people can govern themselves. It does, however, prove that Egypt’s problems, like its high rate of unemployment among young people and the staggering incidence of sexual harassment, did not disappear when Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The freedom the people of Egypt are now embracing, the freedom the people of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen are fighting for, the freedom I was taught to revere as a child of the democracy in South Africa, this freedom is severely limited when it does not guarantee the rights of women to earn a living. Certainly revolution is not a magic wand.
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