Female Foreign Correspondents’ Code of Silence, Finally Broken

Most journalists don’t report sexual assault and rape. Lara Logan has broken that code of silence.

Thou­sands of men blocked the road, sur­round­ing the S.U.V. of the chief jus­tice of Pakis­tan, a natio­nal hero for stan­ding up to mili­ta­ry rule. As a cor­re­spon­dent for The Chi­ca­go Tri­bu­ne, I knew I couldn’t just watch from behind a car win­dow. I had to get out the­re.

So, wea­ring a black heads­carf and a loo­se, long-sleeved red tunic over jeans, I waded through the crowd and star­ted taking notes: on the men throwing rose petals, on the men shou­ting that they would die for the chief jus­tice, on the men sacri­fi­cing a goat.

And then, almost pre­dictab­ly, some­one grab­bed my buttocks. I spun around and shouted, but then it hap­pe­ned again, and again, until final­ly I caught one offender’s hand and pun­ched him in the face. The men kept grab­bing. I kept pun­ching. At a cer­tain point — may­be becau­se I was crea­ting a sce­ne — I was invited into the chief justice’s vehicle.

At the time, in June 2007, I saw this as just one of the rea­lities of cove­ring the news in Pakis­tan. I didn’t com­plain to my bos­ses. To do so would only make me seem weak. Inste­ad, I made a joke out of it and tur­ned the expe­ri­en­ce into a posi­ti­ve one: See, being a woman hel­ped me gain access to the chief jus­tice.

Repor­ter Kim Bar­ker repor­ting in Afgha­ni­stan. (Kuni Taka­hashi)

And real­ly, I was lucky. A few gro­pes, a mis­placed hand, an unwan­ted advan­ce — those are easi­ly dis­mis­sed. I knew other female cor­re­spon­dents who weren’t so lucky, those who were molested in their hotel rooms, or part­ly strip­ped by mobs. But I can’t ever remem­ber sit­ting down with my female peers and tal­king about what had hap­pe­ned, except to make dark jokes, becau­se such sto­ries would make us seem dif­fe­rent from the male cor­re­spon­dents, more vul­ne­rab­le. I would never tell my bos­ses for fear that they might keep me at home the next time somet­hing major hap­pe­ned.

I was hard­ly alo­ne in kee­ping qui­et. The Com­mittee to Pro­tect Jour­na­lists may be able to say that 44 jour­na­lists from around the world were kil­led last year becau­se of their work, but the group doesn’t keep data on sexu­al assault and rape. Most jour­na­lists just don’t report it.

The CBS cor­re­spon­dent Lara Logan has bro­ken that code of silen­ce. She has covered some of the most dan­gerous sto­ries in the world, and done a lot of bra­ve things in her care­er. But her deci­sion to go pub­lic ear­li­er this week with her attack by a mob in Tahrir Squa­re in Cai­ro was by far the bravest. Hos­pi­ta­lized for days, she is still recu­pe­ra­ting from the attack, descri­bed by CBS as a bru­tal and sustai­ned sexu­al assault and bea­ting.

Seve­r­al com­men­ta­tors have sug­ge­sted that Ms. Logan was somehow at fault: becau­se she’s pret­ty; becau­se she deci­ded to go into the crowd; becau­se she’s a war junkie. This wasn’t her fault. It was the mob’s fault. This attack also had not­hing to do with Islam. Sexu­al vio­len­ce has always been a tool of war. Female repor­ters some­ti­mes are just con­ve­ni­ent.

In the coming weeks, I fear that the con­clu­sions drawn from Ms. Logan’s expe­ri­en­ce will be less reac­tio­na­ry but somehow dar­ker, that the­re will be sugge­stions that female cor­re­spon­dents should not be sent into dan­gerous situa­tions. It’s pos­sib­le that bos­ses will make uncon­scious deci­sions to send men inste­ad, just in case. Sure, men can be vic­tims, too — on Wed­nes­day a mob beat up a male ABC repor­ter in Bah­rain, and a few male jour­na­lists have told of being sodo­mized by cap­tors — but the pub­li­city around Ms. Logan’s attack could make edi­tors think, “Why take the risk?” That would be the wrong les­son. Women can cover the figh­ting just as well as men, depen­ding on their coura­ge.

More impor­tant, they also do a pret­ty good job of cove­ring what it’s like to live in a war, not just die in one. Wit­hout female cor­re­spon­dents in war zones, the expe­ri­en­ces of women the­re may be only a rumor.

Look at the artic­les about women who set them­sel­ves on fire in Afgha­ni­stan to pro­test their arran­ged mar­ria­ges, or about girls being mai­med by fun­da­men­ta­lists, about child mar­riage in India, about rape in Con­go and Hai­ti. Female jour­na­lists often tell those sto­ries in the most com­pel­ling ways, becau­se abu­sed women are some­ti­mes more com­for­tab­le tal­king to them. And those sto­ries are at least as impor­tant as accounts of batt­les.

The­re is an added bene­fit. Ms. Logan is a minor cele­brity, one of the hig­hest-pro­fi­le women to ack­now­led­ge being sexual­ly assaulted. Alt­hough she has reported from the front lines, the les­son she is now giving young women is pro­bab­ly her most pro­found: It’s not your fault. And there’s no shame in tel­ling it like it is.

Crea­ti­ve Com­mons licen­se
This article was first pub­lis­hed by Pro­Pub­li­ca on Feb. 19, 2011. It was co-pub­lis­hed in the New York Times. Repub­lis­hed here accor­ding to the Crea­ti­ve Com­mons licen­se by-nc-nd. See Pro­Pub­li­ca for details on repub­lish­ing terms.


  1. […] This post was men­tio­ned on Twit­ter by Vox Pub­li­ca, Vox Pub­li­ca. Vox Pub­li­ca said: Lara Logan bry­ter taus­het om tra­kas­se­ring av kvin­ne­li­ge urix-jour­na­lis­ter, skri­ver Kim Bar­ker: http://bit.ly/g3Q1QA #egypt #pro­pub­li­ca […]

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