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We ask the wrong questions when a female journalist is assaulted Add to ...

The “brutal and sustained” sexual assault and beating of CBS senior correspondent Lara Logan by male demonstrators in Cairo – and the skewed reaction to it in some parts – is a story that is so ugly and discomfiting on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

The reporting of it unleashed a disappointing slew of inappropriate “she asked for it” responses on Twitter, in blogs, and even in the mainstream media that would make anyone sit up and check their calendar. Is this really 2011?

Ms. Logan, 39, was in effect blamed for WWB – working while blond – especially in a Muslim country. Countless irrelevant photos have circulated picturing her in low-cut evening attire – as if she were wearing cocktail dresses to Tahrir Square, instead of her usual working attire.

One self-described “jerk,” Nir Rosen, a left-leaning journalist and fellow at New York University, was forced to resign Wednesday after tweeting: “Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified, we should at least remember her role as a major war monger,” and following it up with a dismissive: “Look, she was probably groped like thousands of other women.”

And right-wing blogger Debbie Schlussel wrote: “So sad, too bad, Lara. No one told her to go there. She knew the risks. And she should have known what Islam is all about. Now she knows.”

Both these towering cultural commentators, too widely quoted , should go back to the obscurity they so richly deserve.

Let’s start with the facts as we know them. CBS, with apparent reluctance after rumours began to swirl, confirmed last Tuesday that on the night Tahrir Square was filled with celebrants after the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Ms. Logan, 39, became separated from her crew and was sexually assaulted and beaten by a mob of men before being rescued by a group of Egyptian women and about 20 soldiers.

After flying back to the United States and being admitted to hospital, the experienced war-zone correspondent is recovering at home with her husband and two young children. Ms. Logan is not yet talking to the media, but is said to be in “good spirits.”

Now the nuances. How exactly was she assaulted? Her own network said she suffered “serious internal injuries,” but declined to elaborate. Only if there are legal proceedings against any of the assailants, or if Ms. Logan decides to tell her story, will we know more.

We do know that sexual groping is a serious problem in Egypt, highlighted in a 2008 report from the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights that stated 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign visitors said they were sexually harassed, from groping to assault, “on a daily basis.” Most incidents go unreported to authorities.

We also know that female correspondents face particular danger, simply because they are women. The other night, I talked to a young female journalist who just got back from reporting in Egypt. She told me she was “really rattled” by Lara Logan’s story and the groping she herself experienced in Tahrir Square. At one point, she said, “I went ballistic and turned and just yelled at the men who had touched me.”

So, does that mean female journalists should not be sent to countries where sexual harassment is prevalent and where men regard women as their personal property?

Of course not.

In a CBC forum last March on the challenges women foreign correspondents face, two of the network’s journalists, Nahlah Ayed and Mellissa Fung (who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2008), said they were sometimes treated as a “third sex” in some countries, and given more freedom and respect than local women.

But in Cairo, that didn’t seem to be the case. There’s no question that some men must have decided it was open season on female foreign journalists, and it may be just luck that more of them were not seriously hurt.

Of course, male journalists were beaten up too – including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who in obvious anger devoted a large part of his show Wednesday night to parsing the troubling response to Ms. Logan’s attack.

The problem with this story lies – as with any sexual assault story in any country, including North America – with how we struggle to wrap our heads around women who have been sexually brutalized, and how we fail.

We can’t seem to get beyond their looks if they are beautiful, even though study after study shows that men sexually assault women of all ages and appearances.

We also incline toward restricting freedom of women instead of aggressively pursuing and punishing their attackers.

And we blame “foreign” elements if the event happened somewhere else – instead of accepting the deadly notion that women everywhere are vulnerable to sexual assault while going about their work and lives, simply because some men think they can get away with it.

On the day Ms. Logan’s story was featured front and centre, my eye was caught by another – “Woman held as sex slave in Brooklyn” – in which a man named John Hopkins was charged with luring a woman over Craigslist, holding her captive in his apartment and raping her.

I hope Ms. Logan finds a comfortable way to go public with more details of her horrific ordeal, details that will not only help other female journalists protect themselves abroad, but perhaps also provide perspective on all sexual assault in the line of duty.

Why we need any more perspective on sexual assault at all – what it is, what it isn’t – is beyond me. But we clearly do.

 

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