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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