Female journalists face threat of sexual violence

In a photo released by CBS, "60 Minutes" correspondent Lara Logan covers the reaction in Cairo's Tahrir Square the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. CBS News says Logan was attacked, beaten and sexually assaulted before being saved by a group of women and Egyptian soldiers.

In a photo released by CBS, "60 Minutes" correspondent Lara Logan covers the reaction in Cairo's Tahrir Square the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. CBS News says Logan was attacked, beaten and sexually assaulted before being saved by a group of women and Egyptian soldiers.  (AP)

The sexual assault on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Egypt has trained a spotlight on the danger — ever-present but little-discussed — facing female journalists in zones of upheaval.

Complicating matters, some say, is a fear that employers will shut them out of choice assignments if they draw attention to the problem.

Female journalists say the threat of sexual violence is commonplace in the world's trouble spots, where the combination of conflict and conservative cultural norms often creates a tense and unpleasant working environment. Trouble can begin with an opportune grope and deteriorate into physical assault or worse.

Photojournalist Alexandra Avakian said she fended off an attempted rape by a commander she had known for years in Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave fought over by Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

"It was very difficult, but I got my hand on the door handle of his four-wheel drive, opened it and slipped out from under him," Avakian, who has worked extensively with the National Geographic Society since 1995, recounted in an e-mail.

"He told me to get back in the car and drove like a madman back to his base, but he didn't touch me again," said Avakian, whose work has taken her all over the globe.

Other female journalists spoke of sexually charged talk and groping. Sometimes a woman working in a closed, sexually repressive society will even be assaulted by male colleagues who misinterpret social signals. When covering a conflict, a female journalist is often the only woman around.

"Whenever there is trouble and difficulties, women tend to be kept away, and as a corespondent you tend to go to these places," said Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, National Public Radio's Jerusalem-based correspondent, who has covered Kosovo, Haiti, Iraq, Colombia, Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza and Egypt.

"Violence often has a sexual tinge to it, especially when you're surrounded by young men hopped up on the difficult situation they face," she said. "If one person gets away with it, all of a sudden you have dozens of hands on you."

Women in Egypt had reported that Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, had been free of the groping and leering endemic in the country. Then, on Feb. 11, Logan was sexually assaulted and beaten on the final night of the 18-day revolt. The Associated Press does not name victims of sexual assault unless they agree to be identified.

Middle East-based photojournalist Heidi Levine of the French photo agency Sipa Press, who covered the protests in the square, said the situation quickly deteriorated as it became clear Mubarak was gone.

"All of a sudden, the chaos somehow gave permission to everybody to grab," said Levine, who has worked in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Egypt.

Traveling alone anywhere makes a woman vulnerable to attack. "I've often reflected on how lucky I am that I haven't been raped," wrote photographer Kate Brooks in an e-mail.

Many female journalists see plenty of threats in large groups, where men can molest women without easily being identified and are emboldened by seeing others do it.

Paula Bronstein, senior staff photographer at Getty Images, said she's had "so many experiences that deal with ... groping and grabbing, just complete disrespect for a woman's body." She said it even happened at the funeral of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank.

Harassment and assault are often an unwanted byproduct of conservative mores that keep women out of the public eye. Women on the streets — especially unchaperoned, foreign women with less recourse to punish offenders — are viewed as fair game.

Los Angeles Times correspondent Laura King, based in Afghanistan, says her most frightening experience was in the Balkans, where the sexual menace "would be alcohol-fueled." She did not elaborate.

Female journalists reported that sometimes they will not venture out alone, and will have ready access to transport and a native speaker at hand. If they assess a situation might be too dangerous, they will leave the scene.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has sparse data on sexual violence against journalists, but is updating its security handbook to address the issue, said Joel Simon, its executive director.

Female journalists say they often do not make a big deal of the sexual menace, knowing it comes with the territory, but also fearful that complaining could create trouble for them with their bosses.

Many had warm words for editors who worry about their safety but do not balk at sending them on dangerous assignments. But some said they feared bosses would hold it against them if they made too much of the sexual assaults.

"We wouldn't want to draw attention to ourselves as females going off to a war zone and creating more problems out of fear we wouldn't be able to be sent out on an assignment," said Levine, the Sipa photographer.

With the assault on Logan drawing so much attention to the risk of sexual attack, "maybe now I would be more comfortable about discussing it than I would have in the past," she said.

Douglas Jehl, the foreign editor at The Washington Post, said "the security of all of our foreign correspondents is of paramount importance to the Post and is a major consideration in all coverage decisions, regardless of gender." He did not elaborate.

Avakian said she hoped the Logan assault would not backfire against women.

"I hope that it will serve to raise awareness of the challenges faced by women journalists, and not used as an excuse not to send women to cover conflict," she said.