Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why We Are All Lara Logan

Originally published in the BG News on Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Army Africa under Creative Commons 3.0

Lara Logan was just doing her job.  As the chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News since 2006, she was expected to cover the world.  But Logan met what many believed to be an unavoidable fate when she was sexually assaulted in Egypt.
Following the attack that left her visibly injured, Logan was hospitalized, martyred, and eventually blamed for being the victim of a crime. 
Since the tragedy, other women have come forward, sharing tales of sexual misconduct amongst foreign sources while serving as female watchdogs.  These confessions force domestic audiences to consider whether women belong on the front lines, given the obvious dangers.
Western media outlets agree; women are taking an added risk when exploring other cultures in the name of journalism.  But is it too risky to for a woman to be a war correspondent?
Last week, the LA Times published shocking testimony from an Egyptian woman who was groped during the demonstration in Cairo and then told to keep quiet so as not to “tarnish the revolution.” 
Apparently this was a familiar scene in Tahrir Square, proving Egypt’s protests were violent, despite the county’s own news coverage of orderly resistance.  With the streets unsafe for native women, it’s obvious why Logan, an attractive blond, was brutalized.
At least that’s what ethnocentrism would like us to think.  And the LA Times was only assisting the spread of xenophobia as it described a foreign land that customarily disrespected and assaulted women.
“Catcalls, fondling, indecent exposure and other forms of sexual harassment by strangers are an everyday occurrence for women on the streets of Cairo,” reported Bob Drogin.
But Drogin failed to mention catcalls, fondling, and indecent exposure are an everyday occurrence for women in the United States as well.  Just ask Hollaback; a website dedicated to ending street harassment.  Young women across the nation share their stories, and if they’re quick enough, post photos of their harassers in this safe, online space.
Last November Hollaback showcased a flasher caught on the NYC subway.  His victim quickly turned the tables by speaking up, telling the man she had nothing better to do that day than bring him to justice. 
Her bravery, captured on film by another passenger, was uploaded to YouTube, garnering national attention— including an online community of exhibitionists.  The criminals’ responses on their “dickflash” website ranged from disgusting to frightening: if she didn’t want to see, she should have just looked away.  Others suggested physical or sexual violence to retaliate against the “sex-starved bitch.”  
But this is nothing like Egypt, where “predatory packs have brutalized women at several public places,” according to Drogin and the LA Times. 
Except, less than two years ago, CNN reportedas many as 20 people were involved in or stood and watched the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl outside a California high school homecoming dance.”  This group effort lasted more than two hours in a very public place.  In fact, it was a suburb of one of America’s most desirable cities—San Francisco.
Miles away from the Nile, cloaked in a burka of denial, Americans analyzed why this sort of thing happens in Egypt.  
According to experts, Egyptian men are marrying later because they don’t have jobs.   And when premarital sex is taboo, sexual frustration between puberty and wedded bliss is abnormally high— making men abnormally rapey.
But a lengthy consideration of “us” and “them” reveals our conditions are remarkably similar.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor currently rates our unemployment at 9.8 percent.  And Egypt’s unemployment rate for 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook, was 9.7 percent.

As for marriage, USA Today reported The median age [in 2008 was] the oldest since the U.S. Census started keeping track in the 1890s: almost 26 for women and almost 28 for men.”  And in a culture emphasizing abstinence with glittery vampires and purity with musical brothers, while commodifying the female form to sell anything and everything, one might argue Americans are sexually frustrated too.

Clinging to notions of unequivocal cultural difference, the LA Times referred to a poll stating 83 percent of Egyptian women and 93 percent of foreign women were harassed in Egypt. 
But these numbers come from the website “Stop Street Harrassment,” which offers multiple studies from around the world.  A Chicago sample of women ages 10-19 revealed “86 percent had been catcalled on the street, 36 percent said men harassed them daily, and 60 percent said they felt unsafe walking in their neighborhoods.” 
Four years later, a survey of women using the subway in Manhattan found “63 percent reported being sexually harassed and one-tenth had been sexually assaulted on the subway or at a subway station.”
But what about foreigners in the melting pot? 
Well, remember Ines Sainz, the Azteca sports reporter sexually harassed by the Jets and then verbally assaulted on national television by several smug anchormen?  Her portrayal as the “hot tamale” stereotype, paired with the idea she was “trespassing” on the football field (and in the locker room) enabled weeks of victim-blaming.  Somewhere between jeans and MySpace, everyone forgot she had a job to do.
And this brings me back to the original question: is overseas reporting too dangerous for women journalists? 
Given the data, women are just as likely to encounter harassment at home as they are abroad.  While the scare tactics of “othering” the Middle East excites nationalism and keeps women in their place, a more careful investigation challenges conventional wisdom—and the information presented in the LA Times.
Walking down the street, taking public transportation, or having a career all put women at risk for sexual harassment and sexual assault; no matter the city, country or continent.  But in a world that makes occupying space feel like a radical protest, most women will take their chances.

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