A Post reporter shares her perspective on hazards for female journalists abroad

April 14, 2011

As a 28-year-old reporter about to cover Africa in 2002, I was sent to rural Virginia to attend hostile-environment training, where former British Royal Marines taught journalists such survival techniques as how to filter your own urine if you are dehydrated in a desert and how to drag a wounded 200-pound colleague through a field studded with land mines.

Interesting stuff, but luckily I never had to put those skills into use. Female correspondents deployed to countries such as Egypt, Pakistan or India might be better served by instruction in handling less extreme but more pervasive challenges: what to do if a stranger grabs your buttocks while you are reporting on the street, or if a male hotel worker enters your room while you are showering. How to deflect the chai wallah who insists on clicking photos of you to show his friends, or the flirtatious fixer who wants a good-night kiss.

Foreign female journalists face challenges most often in parts of the world where protections for women are weak even in peacetime — in societies where men and women lead highly segregated lives and often don’t have sex before marriage. In these countries, men often say they view Western women as the sexual equivalent of junk food: fast and cheap.

Even highly placed sources can behave inappropriately. Kim Barker, who was the South Asia bureau chief with the Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2008, was offered an iPhone by former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. But that phone would not really have been free: His pickup line was, “I’m fat and old. But I would still like to be your friend,” she writes in her book, “The Taliban Shuffle.”

These dangers increase exponentially when countries are in the midst of revolution and lawlessness, when war is essentially a workplace. The sexual attacks on CBS News’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, Lara Logan, in Egypt and the treatment of photojournalist Lynsey Addario in Libya have brought the issue into sharp focus. (The Libyan military reportedly captured four reporters this week — one of whom is Clare Morgana Gillis, a U.S. citizen and freelancer for TheAtlantic.com and USA Today.)

Logan was hospitalized after she was assaulted on Feb. 11 in Egypt, according to a network statement. The incident took place as Logan was covering celebrations in Tahrir Square for “60 Minutes” shortly after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. “In the crush of the mob, she was separated from her crew,” the statement said. “She was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.”

While reporting on the unfolding revolution turned civil war in Libya, Addario, a close friend of mine, was kidnapped by Gaddafi loyalists in Libya with three other New York Times journalists — Tyler Hicks, Stephen Farrell and Anthony Shadid. They were held for six days last month before being released. First the captors bound the feet and hands of Addario and her colleagues. They then began grabbing Addario’s breasts and buttocks. When she cried, they punched her in the face, again and again.

On the first night, they blindfolded Addario and the other journalists and put them into an armored personnel carrier. “A guy covered my mouth. He said, ‘Don’t speak,’ ” Addario said. “He started grabbing me. He pressed up against me from the backside and was touching me all over. I was really pleading for him to stop. But he kept going the whole time we were in the tank.”

Addario spent the hours praying she wouldn’t be killed or raped.

“I just didn’t want them to take my clothes off,” she said. “In my experience, I don’t try to be very aggressive. I usually just plead. I would say, ‘Please don’t, I have a husband, please don’t.’ ” Since being released, Addario has been speaking openly about her attack because she wants to expose how Gaddafi’s troops treat prisoners.

Female reporters often say they feel for those who can’t catapult themselves out of these countries, places where wives, mothers and daughters have few legal rights. Their lives often include forced marriage, genital mutilation, beatings and a long list of daily indignities that make the problems of first-world women seem negligible.

“No matter what female reporters do, we can always leave,” said Tracy Wood, one of the pioneering war correspondents who contributed to “War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam.” “What happens to the female civilians we leave behind? Women should cover war, because women have been living in war zones and in crumbling societies for thousands of years.”

Addario has done some of the profession’s most in-depth documentation of Afghan women who set themselves on fire to escape abusive marriages. In 2009, she won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her documentation of human rights violations, which were often crimes against women. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, she was able to enter homes and hospital wards where foreign men in many conservative societies would never be allowed access.

I think of the time I spent reporting in Congo, when male reporters cringed when I said I was working on a story about a hospital ward filled with women who had to have their vaginas reconstructed because the gang rapes by rebels were so brutal. “I won’t go near that story,” one male journalist said. I couldn’t allow myself to ignore it.

Readers agreed and sent the hospital huge donations.

Although there have also been sexual assaults on male reporters in these situations, one of the most dispiriting results of these high-profile assaults on female journalists has been the online commentators questioning whether women should be reporting in the Muslim world or covering war at all. In the one of most publicized examples, Nir Rosen, then a fellow at New York University’s law school, tweeted that Logan “was probably groped like thousands of other women.” He has since resigned for what Karen J. Greenberg, director of NYU’s Center for Law and Security, called “cruel and insensitive and completely unacceptable” comments.

But one positive outcome of the Logan and Addario assaults is that the challenges women face are now finally being openly discussed — and female correspondents are leading the conversation. For the first time, many female correspondents say they are urging editors to hold seminars with veteran female war correspondents to explain to young female reporters what to expect and to offer tips.

The New York Times held a paper-wide discussion with Addario and her colleagues. After the recent incidents, the Committee to Protect Journalists launched a widespread survey of female reporters and photographers in war zones — including those from the conflict areas — in order to document attacks. CPJ will also include guidelines on sexual assault in the next edition of its handbook.

“With the issue coming to light between Logan and Addario, women seem more willing to speak out, and we are getting a better picture of what’s going on,” said Lauren Wolfe, senior editor with CPJ. Right now, the committee keeps track of how many reporters get killed or arrested. But it doesn’t have data on rape or sexual harassment.

Many female correspondents have said in interviews that they would have benefited from an honest discussion about what to expect before heading off to South Asia or the Middle East. Some returning correspondents said they were suffering from various levels of post-traumatic stress disorder after harrowing experiences. Most female reporters say they don’t speak out because they fear their editors will see them as weak and take them off important stories. The dailyness of the incidents made the harassment seem like just another part of the job, like a stomach virus while covering a remote civil war or getting tear-gassed when reporting on a revolution.

“It’s astonishing to me that we talk about it so little,” said Tina Susman, who has worked for more than 15 years in Africa and the Middle East for Newsday, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. Susman says she traveled with an electronic device that sounded an alarm if anyone attempted to pry open her door.

“If I was an editor and sending a woman overseas, I would sit her down and tell her, ‘Some guy makes a pass at you, tries to enter your hotel room, grabs you and this is what you do,’ ” Susman said.

Centurion Risk Assessment Services, the gold standard of security training for journalists about to go abroad, currently doesn’t have a female trainer among its crew of former Marines, police officers and military intelligence officers.

“We have had female trainers in the past, but they did not cover gender issues any differently than what the male instructors did,” said Tim Holleran, a leader with the group. “Centurion is a small company, and all trainers need to be able to teach every subject.”

Holleran said that now, as a result of the Logan and Addario attacks, Centurion is going to more frequently discuss personal safety issues and the possibility of rape with female correspondents.

In 2002, I attended this program. Back then, I don’t remember discussing any gender issues. Several female correspondents told me they did get hit on by the Centurion trainers, though.

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