Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sexual harassment in Egypt

Under the Luxor sun, the brain melts into mush. It was the kind of heat that caused linen pants to stick to the seat from which I attempted to get up. My female friend and I both looked modest; modest was very important to us in Egypt. Long sleeves, long pants, a pashmina, and rivers of sweat.

And yet, as we made our way to the Valley of the Kings, we were greeted with the familiar sounds that accompanied our walking down the street in Egypt: First, the hissing, then the sound of lips being pursed together to blow kisses, then the all-time classic "how much do you want for one of your sisters/beauties/wives?" to the male friend walking with us. He was offered camels, chickens and a Ferrari -- though it was hard to ascertain whether the gentleman who had asked for our hand in marriage actually owned a Ferrari. To this day, the sound of blowing kisses causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand upright. 

My friend and I were not the first to experience harassment on the street in Egypt. Even what we thought was remarkable -- such as my getting groped by a policeman in uniform in broad daylight -- was, in fact, trite and had happened to someone before with no regard for whether the recipient of the dirty words, hissing, kissing, grabbing or groping was Egyptian or foreign, a woman in a hijab or a girl in jeans. The phenomenon is so widespread that there are now online maps of street harassment incidents in Cairo.

Frustrating as it was to feel uncomfortable in public, we took care to clarify that we understood this was not what we were taking away from our time and experience in Egypt. We emphasized the kindness of strangers, the hospitality, the incidents that make you love a country, not resent it. I stand by those sentiments, but I am growing unwilling to tolerate that treatment under the guise of cultural relativism.

What marked the shift in my attitudes was the Lara Logan sexual assault. Lara Logan is the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for CBS News and has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the night of February 11, she was covering the jubilation in Tahrir Square following Hosni Mubarak's resignation. She was separated from her crew, mobbed, beaten and sexually assaulted. She was eventually saved by a group of Egyptian women and soldiers.

I understand those who say that this incident mars an otherwise peaceful protest. Many women, including foreigners, reporters and friends on the ground in Cairo, claimed they felt safer on average and were treated more respectfully during the protests than they had before. Protesters, too, are devastated because they tried to protect the message of the protests by restraining fellow countrymen whose actions could undermine the spirit of the movement. 

However, there is a particular aspect of the coverage of Lara Logan's assault that infuriates me. In response to the news, individuals ranging from anonymous blog commenters to well-known pundits have expressed some variation of this: "Lara Logan is pretty." "Lara Logan's sex history suggests she could be promiscuous or provocative." "Lara Logan brought this on herself." Such comments, many of which are reprinted or summarized here, prompted NPR to republish its commenting guidelines, including "Blaming the victim is an old tired game. Please don't." 

Lara Logan is a seasoned war correspondent, accomplished in her own right, and yes, very pretty. That last bit absolutely does not merit her being assaulted and suggestions that she invited it, or even deserved it, by virtue of being a pretty woman reporting from Cairo are ill-informed and, frankly, nauseating. The fact that this is a popular sentiment in the comments of blogs and articles on her assault baffles me because it suggests a slew of misunderstandings about the nature of sexual assault, the role of female correspondents in areas of conflict, and the particular accomplishments of Lara Logan.

Logan is one of the few female correspondents who have publicly discussed sexual harassment. Following her revelation, many women working or reporting from conflict zones have come forth to discuss their own stories. Foreign Policy has profiled some of the stories focusing on harassment of women inside the US army, and Judith Matloff discusses others in the Columbia Journalism Review. Both articles seem to agree that many women are hesitant to come forth in reporting such incidents because they are concerned about personal and professional backlash. 

The kind of change that is needed in Egypt is not only constitution-deep. A change of attitude is required, particularly with reference to the perceptions and treatment of women. I hope this transitional period triggers, encourages, and allows this process to unfold. In the meantime, there is something the rest of us can do from home, in addition to understanding the magnitude of sexual harassment in conflict zones and being empathetic of the challenges female correspondents, aid workers or soldiers face. We can be less ignorant, less callous, and less insensitive about the realities of sexual assault, stepping away from the old and tired "blame the victim" mentality and committing ourselves to finding and punishing the perpetrators. Our tolerance of the attitude that "pretty women may invite harassment" is, in itself, a form of compliance with the harsh realities of assault. 

There are very few attitudes for which I find intolerance to be an acceptable response. Let this be one of them.

In addition to the Judith Matloff and Foreign Policy pieces that are hyperlinked in this post, excellent commentary on the response to Lara Logan's assault can be found at Wronging Rights. The Sunday New York Times have also devoted an article to "Why We Need Women in War Zones."

6 comments:

  1. I've gotten caught up in reading the articles you've linked to here and strayed away from thanking you for this thoughtful post, and especially for sharing your personal experience. I'm frustrated by my inability to articulate all the many things this incident has made me feel--the rage of course, and the frustration that so many people seem to miss the real message here. And such pain for the women who don't have a media platform, the ones suffering assaults of all types in areas where they have no power.

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  2. It's maddening and sickening - the things these people have been slinging about regarding Lara. Horrifying. The "light" that has been made of the situation is inexcusable. It is a magnifying glass zeroing in on a much bigger problem. Bringing it home. Let us not let this pass us by - unnoticed, unmentioned and worst of all tolerated. Thank you for a terrific post shedding more light on this.

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  3. Thank you both for reading this and raising awareness of sexual harassment in conflict zones. This story tears my heart up. Jezebel has more and, though I am not sure I agree with all of it, I wanted to add this link to the list:

    http://jezebel.com/#!5766171/what-lara-logans-experience-means-for-female-journalists

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  4. Thank you for sharing this frank and honest post. I was taken aback by the media responses to the Lara Logan case - I'm glad we have voices like yours and that of Wronging Rights' to stand against such outrageous suggestions.

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  5. Your posts always blow me away with their insight and wisdom. This one, in particular, has taken my breath away. Thank you for writing it, and so efficiently elucidating the issues. Of course, I'm nodding vigorously in agreement.

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  6. This makes my blood boil. Just yesterday I wrote a post making a similar point about this 'blame the beauty of a woman' mentality when it comes to rape and violence against women. This time it deals with Italy's PM:

    http://www.hopeforthesold.com/uproar-in-italy-prime-minister-silvio-berlusconi-on-trial-for-underaged-sex-scandal/

    This kind of thing takes the blame off male perpetrators. When are they even mentioned? I agree with you Roxanne, cultural relativism only goes so far.

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