Women Reporters Face Added Risks In Conflict Zones

The recent sexual assault of a top U-S TV journalist in Cairo shocked audiences. CBS Chief Foreign Correspondent, Lara Logan, was attacked in the midst of a crowd while covering celebratory demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Host Michel Martin discusses the added risks facing women reporters, with Martha Raddatz, ABC Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent and Al Jazeera International reporter Rawya Rageh, a reporter for Al Jazeera, who is in Cairo reporting on upheaval in the region. Also weighing in is executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation, Liza Gross. Be advised, this conversation contains sensitive language. Listener discretion is advised.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As the street protests demanding freedom spread across the Middle East and North Africa - Libya is the latest country to erupt and there the protests have been met with considerable violence - we decided to talk about how women are faring in all of this. We'll talk about the experiences of women journalists when they've been sent out in these kinds of chaotic situations. We'll also hear about how women in general are faring on the streets in these countries.

Then we will hear about how women and some men - who say they have also suffered sexual abuse while serving in the U.S. military, and now they have filed a class action lawsuit demanding changes.

Given the subjects we're going to talk about in the first half of the program, we feel it's appropriate to mention that some of the language might not be suitable for all listeners. In the second half of the program we will go back to our black history minute and to our regular moms conversation.

But first, to North Africa, where on February 11th so many in Egypt celebrated the fall of a dictatorship. Amid jubilation, though, there was an attack that stunned many watching the events from a distance. CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan was separated from her crew and sexually assaulted in the midst of the crowd in Tahrir Square.

CBS says that Ms. Logan is now back home recovering with her family. The story sparked wide reaction, but it hit a particular nerve among women who report on events overseas and are also interested more broadly in the conditions of women overseas. So we've called upon three of them. Martha Raddatz is ABC News senior foreign affairs correspondent. She's with us from the studios of ABC Radio in Washington, D.C.

Rawya Rageh is a reporter for Al-Jazeera International. She's with us on the phone once again from Cairo, where she's been keeping us up to date on recent upheaval across the region.

And also with us from New York, Liza Gross, the executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. MARTHA RADDATZ (ABC News): Great to be with you.

Ms. RAWYA RAGEH (Al-Jazeera): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Rawya, if I could start with you, because you've been with us from time to time and we know you've been out, you know, covering these events, you know, from the beginning. And I wanted to ask you, did you have any concerns about your safety when you were out on the street?

Ms. RAGEH: Not at all, Michel. What happened to Lara Logan was actually quite surprising for many people here, myself included. Particularly in the reference of this taking place in Tahrir Square during the protests. All throughout the 18 days of the protest in Tahrir Square, the gatherings were refreshingly free of the sexual harassment and taunting that women are not particularly strangers to here in Egypt.

In fact, I witnessed firsthand in the square how organizers of the protests were very keen on having space for the women, allowing the passage through more comfortable areas rather than being crushed in the sea of humanity that's been camped out there for days. There's a lot of respect for women in the square. Female activists have long been a part of the opposition movement here. But we also saw a lot of newcomers, conservative women covered up in the niqab, upper class women clad in designer clothes, a mixture of women from all walks of life, really.

And I remember thinking to myself how comfortably they were all gathered there, with the threat or prospect of being harassed, really. The last thing on their minds, certainly on my mind, for one, the known gender boundaries, really, in the Egyptian society, had completely broken down during this uprising.

MARTIN: I want to mention that - Liza Gross, I want to bring you into this conversation. Ninety-eight percent of visitors to Egypt and 83 percent of Egyptian women say that they've experienced street harassment of some form. That according to the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights. Why would that be?

Ms. LIZA GROSS (International Women's Media Foundation): For the past 20 years the IWMF has focused on women journalists globally and their work, and I have to say that I am not surprised about what happened to Lara Logan. We have seen this happen to women journalists in many, many countries in the last two decades.

MARTIN: Where where specifically? Are there any particular areas of concern?

Ms. GROSS: Yes, every year we honor three women from anywhere in the world who have exhibited exceptional courage while pursuing their journalistic profession. And many of them have reported being the victims or the targets of rape and sexual violence as a tool for intimidation. We can point to Colombia, we can point to Eastern Europe, Africa. So take your pick.

MARTIN: Martha Raddatz, with her two different views - Rawya tells us that she was very surprised to hear about what happened to Laura. And Liza was telling us that she actually was not. What about you? May I ask your reaction when you heard about the attack on Lara Logan?

Ms. RADDATZ: Well, I think the thing that surprised me most was the day it happened, because most of the violence in Tahrir Square had been days before that, before Mubarak had stepped down. And when he did, it was largely a celebration. So I was stunned by the fact that in that crowd that you looked at as celebratory, that those horrible things were going on somewhere in that crowd with Lara.

I have not ever experienced any feeling that anyone was looking at me in any different way. In other words, yes, there's always danger. I was in Yemen during some of the protests last week and certainly there is a sense of danger there. But I didn't feel particularly any more danger as a female correspondent than as a male correspondent.

MARTIN: You've reported, I should mention, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and as you mentioned recently, Yemen - do you feel that physical appearance, you know, it's a sensitive issue, but physical appearance plays some role, you know, in it? You, like Lara Logan are, you know, blond, you know, Western in appearance, for whatever that, you know, means. Does that do you think that matters?

Ms. RADDATZ: Well, I think in some ways, I guess I try so hard not to think about it. I try so hard not to think that I am a stranger in a strange land. But I know that I stand out. I - of course I stand out. And one of the things that's important to me is that I am aware of that to the degree that it could cause others harm as well.

Like, I am aware of that if I am in the Swat Valley in Pakistan when the Taliban was taking over, that I did not want to create problems for my crew. So I remember in that particular situation, I certainly covered my hair, although that just doesn't do it. You know, you can cover your hair, you can wear all sorts of things, but I think you still stand out in many ways. I'm blond, I have blue eyes, I - you know, my skin is pale and obviously I am a stranger in those villages.

So I try to work very quickly in a place like that. I don't linger. I will stay in the car until the last minute that I'm going to jump out and do a standup or jump out and do some interviews. We just don't stay in one place very long. So yes, I take precautions. I try not to think about it to the extent that it's going to interfere with my reporting, but I think about it to the degree and I think you just have to, I mean you have to be responsible in situations where you go out and you do what you can.

And I'm sure that in Lara's case, I mean, they, again, they were in a crowd that was celebrating. This is not - this did not appear to be a hostile crowd, probably, when they got there. And she had security and it, you know, sounds like she was doing absolutely everything all right and then it suddenly turned. And I think in a case like that, there is just not a whole lot you can do except try to get out of there and she couldn't get out of there.

MARTIN: And it is worth mentioning that Richard Engel, Anderson Cooper, other American journalists, and also journalists from other parts of world -international journalists did report being attacked, at various points, in the course of their reporting.

If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're speaking about journalists in hot zones, particularly women journalists and we're also talking more broadly about the conditions women in general, particularly in chaotic situations. We're talking with Martha Raddatz of ABC News; Rawya Rageh of Al-Jazeera English; and Liza Gross of the International Women's Media Foundation.

Rawya, can you talk about just more broadly, is the subject of how women are fairing in the midst of the sort of upheaval in Egypt, is that a subject of interest to the media in Egypt right now? And, for example, was the story of the attack on Lara Logan and the other journalists, is that a subject of interest?

Ms. RAGEH: Well, Michel, in all fairness, what happened to Lara cannot be looked at as an isolated issue where we talk about it just because she was a journalist who was harassed. What happened to Lara is something that women in Egypt know about all too well. Sexual harassment is not a new issue in Egypt. It had been escalating over the last few years with the government and the former first lady herself trying to downplay the issue.

Many argue here that sexual harassment and (unintelligible) were yet another byproduct of the Egyptian government failure. You have a patriarchal society with an incredibly high rate of poverty, where it's very difficult and costly for young men and women to get married. And this, of course, is a society where premarital sex is not condoned. So you have the lethal combination of poverty, illiteracy and frustration. And to top it off, lack of accountability with such incidents going unpunished.

Just before the revolution, Michel, there was an independent movie produced to highlight this very issue with a shocking trailer featuring incidents of abuse in Cairo's notoriously crammed public transport buses, for example. Until very recently, many women were very reluctant to openly discuss these experiences. But we started seeing, for the first time, a few women coming forward and forcing authorities to prosecute men for sexual harassment.

For example, just a few years ago, we had a landmark court case in which a man was sentenced to three years of hard labor for sexually harassing a young woman. So now we are seeing civil society groups and even personal initiatives on the Internet to stand up to this issue. So this is really the larger picture, or the backdrop, at which this particular incident had happened.

MARTIN: Yes, exactly. That's exactly my question, was there a larger backdrop? And we only have a minute left. We're going to take a short break in just a moment and we're going to continue with all of these guests. And when we come back, I am going to ask if there are any special precautions that you have taken in the past or that you do take when you are out reporting on these issues.

We're speaking with Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News. She's with us from ABC Radio in Washington, D.C. Rawya Rageh is a reporter for Al-Jazeera. She's with us on the phone from Cairo. And Liza Gross is the executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation. She's with us from New York. I'm going to ask all of our guests to stay with us for just a few more minutes.

I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking today about the events overseas, the protest spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. And in the wake of the attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan, we're talking about women journalists and the specific circumstances, more broadly, that they face when they report overseas, and also the circumstances that women in those countries face all the time.

Later in the program we will also talk about the allegation by more than a dozen U.S. service members former service members - that this country's military does not respond appropriately when its members are attacked. And in some cases, women and some men say that they have actually been ridiculed and drummed out of the service for reporting that they have been attacked. We will have that conversation later in the program.

But, first, we're going to spend a few more minutes speaking with Martha Raddatz, ABC News' senior foreign affairs correspondent. Rawya Rageh, reporter for Al-Jazeera international, and Liza Gross, executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation. They have extensive experience reporting internationally and addressing these matters.

And I just want to play a short clip from Lara Logan. Some people raise the question of, you know, why do you go? You know, why do you want to go? And this is her speaking to Charlie Rose in an interview in, earlier this month in February. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Ms. LARA LOGAN (Journalist): We're still working on the story, but fundamentally it's in my blood to be there and to be on the street and to be listening to people and to do the best reporting that I can. At the same time, I'm also aware of the fact that I put my family through a very difficult situation.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask each of you this, Martha, do you ever feel that you're under special pressure to go or not to go on stories like this, in part because you are a woman?

Ms. RADDATZ: I have to say that I feel the same as Lara does. I mean, it is my job. It is what I feel is important for me to do in my life. There are important stories that need to be covered. I know women are often asked about going when they have children. I have two children. They're grown children. I don't think they particularly enjoy it when I'm in a dangerous situation, but they also understand that this is something I feel strongly about. It's what I've done my whole life.

And so I don't feel - if you mean do I feel pressure because I have to prove because I was a woman

MARTIN: To represent.

Ms. RADDATZ: I don't. I don't. I feel the same way my male colleagues feel about it, too. We all feel it important. As you can tell, I'm one of those people that's like, I want to think as all us good journalists. I feel it's important to go because I have a strong knowledge of it. I know that people often wonder how you leave your family. And women get asked that question a whole lot more than men get asked that question.

There was a period of time when I started going into war zones, you know, a long time ago and I thought if something happened to me that people would think I was a pretty terrible person for leaving children. I don't want anything bad to happen to me. I mitigate the circumstances as much as I can. I take cautions as much as I can. But I have raised my children to find something that they believe in, that they believe is important, that they're good at.

I always joke with my son that I watched him play high school football as the quarterback and that wasn't exactly a relaxing day for me either.

MARTIN: I see. I understand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RADDATZ: But I would never discourage him from doing what he loves - to a degree.

MARTIN: Rawya, can I ask you this question as well? Does anyone ever suggest that perhaps you should not be there reporting on these events? And has this -have these momentous events opened up more space in some way for women to pursue what they want to do?

Ms. RAGEH: Well, Michel, I am not at the stage in my life where I had to face a difficult position or questions that some of my other female colleagues have, having to leave a family behind, I do not have any children, I'm not married. I don't have this pressing issue, but I can tell you that even as a single woman, I never think of my position as different from any of that of my male colleagues. I look at a story at its threat, at its prospects as a story that's unfolding with its newsworthiness, with simply, what are the issues going on? Not whether I can - I would be restricted because I'm a woman or not. I just look at it the same way I think a male colleague would look at the story.

In fact, if anything, at times I would feel more privileged being a woman in certain societies in more conservative societies. For example, when I covered the annual pilgrimage of Hajj in 2004, at that time I was working for the Associated Press, not for Al-Jazeera and I was very fortunate to have a lot of access to the female camps in Hajj.

And other stories, I understand, my colleagues in Afghanistan, for example, you are able to talk to women in more conservative societies. You're able to talk to rape victims, for example, the victims of sexual abuse who are more comfortable, I suppose, addressing these issues with women rather than with men.

So I have never looked at it as a disadvantage, but rather, as an advantage, being who I am and what I am, covering a story.

MARTIN: And, Liza, I'm going to ask you for a final thought. What do you think we are learning from all this? Do you think that there might be any lasting effect from the issues that we're talking about here? Rawya had told us earlier that these stories weren't even considered stories, until relatively recently, in some parts of the world.

So do you feel that there's any, perhaps, a lasting benefit to even these terrible things that have happened to some people that they're experiencing? Is there something we are learning from this or something that might change as a result of this?

Ms. GROSS: We have been doing this for 20 years. So if I didn't think that there would be some positive coming out of this, maybe I should close shop. But yes indeed, is this tragic episode that happened to Lara Logan has one positive outcome, is that it brings to the fore, it puts a spotlight on the fact that women face specific threats and very different threats when they need to tell the stories that need to be told when they act as journalists.

MARTIN: Liza Gross is executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation. She was with us from New York.

Rawya Rageh is a reporter for Al-Jazeera international. She was with us on the phone from Cairo.

And Martha Raddatz is ABC News senior foreign affairs correspondent. She was with us from the studios at ABC News in Washington, D.C.

Ladies, I thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. RADDATZ: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. GROSS: Thank you.

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