The sexual assault and battery to which South African broadcast journalist Lara Logan was recently subjected in Egypt, and the response by sections of the international media to her horrific ordeal, brings home the fact that much remains to be done in the area of gender-media activism.
This is after decades of sustained work across the world to combat gender stereotyping in the media. So it is difficult to digest the persistent prevalence of antediluvian attitudes towards women in general, and women media professionals in particular, such as those reflected in some of the commentary on the traumatic event.
Logan, who has reported on conflict in several global hot-spots, including Afghanistan and Iraq, is currently Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for United States-based CBS News. She was in Cairo's Tahrir Square covering the story of Hosni Mubarak's resignation and the ensuing public celebrations for the network's well-known current affairs programme, 60 Minutes.
She is also, ironically, a member of the board of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists. According to a CPJ statement, she is "A brilliant, courageous, and committed reporter" who serves on their Journalist Assistance Committee, which oversees financial and other support to journalists around the world who have been victims of violence and repression.
Despite her professional credentials, several reports and comments on her harrowing experience opted to highlight her appearance. "Why did this attractive blonde female reporter wander into Tahrir Square last Friday?" asked one blogger.
Another writer - a woman, sadly - referred to Logan's "shocking good looks" and described her as the "gutsy stunner" and "60 Minutes firecracker." She also quoted from a 2008 tabloid report on "the sexy CBS siren's" private life.
Some publications chose to illustrate stories on the attack with an unrelated photograph of Logan in an evening gown with a plunging neckline - obviously dressed for a party - instead of in her normal work attire.
Fortunately, some writers - as well as many members of the media consuming public - criticised such ridiculous coverage of a serious, violent crime.
As Shannon Galpin wrote in Huffington Post, "Lara Logan didn't wander. She wasn't in Tahrir Square because she took a wrong turn. She knew exactly where she was and why. Lara Logan was in the square on purpose, covering the revolution in Egypt because IT'S HER JOB. What in the world does attractive and blonde have to do with it?"
Mary Elizabeth Williams, in salon.com, pointed out that "like countless women around the world, Lara Logan was attacked in the line of duty. She was assaulted doing her job. It was a crime of unspeakable violence. And your opinion of how she does that job, the religion her assailants share with a few million other people, or the colour of her hair has nothing to do with it."
"It's sad to say that the assault on Lara Logan didn't end when she was rescued in Egypt," wrote Amanda Marcotte in The Guardian, "and to note that it's now being expanded as an assault on all women who have ambitions, or who are willing to be out in public while looking attractive."
Kim Barker of ProPublica, whose piece was co-published in The New York Times, made a broader point about the possible impact of Logan's experience on women journalists. She commended the CBS correspondent for her brave decision to go public with the attack, thereby breaking the code of silence around the sexual harassment and violence many female correspondents face.
However, she suggested, the publicity around the incident could have a negative impact, making editors think twice about sending female correspondents into dangerous situations. "That would be the wrong lesson," she wrote, pointing out that women cannot only cover the fighting just as well as men, they often go further, covering "what it's like to live in a war, not just die in one." Without female correspondents in war zones, she proposed, the experiences of women there may remain just a rumour.
The issues raised by this episode and the subsequent media debate point to a possible gap in the wide range of concerns addressed by individuals and organisations, like Gender Links, working on matters at the intersection of media and gender. Issues relating to women media professionals seem to have slipped off the agenda in recent times - possibly because of the general assumption, supported by evidence of the growing visibility and obvious achievements of many women journalists across the world, that most of the old battles had been won.
In the early days the primary concern was to help increase women's presence in media professions, broad-base their participation and ensure parity in remuneration; later the focus shifted to advocating women's elevation to decision-making positions. Some attention was paid to working conditions, especially workplace policies and facilities. The question of safety - especially the particular vulnerability of women to sexual attacks - was rarely in focus.
Of course, many women journalists themselves may not have initiated or welcomed intervention, on the legitimate ground that it could jeopardise their careers. Barkar, who experienced sexual harassment by a mob while covering a story in Pakistan, admits that she did not report the incident to the authorities, her bosses or, indeed, female peers, mainly for fear of being left out of important assignments that may entail some element of danger. She points out that while organisations like the CPJ keep count of the number of journalists around the world killed in the line of duty, they do not compile data on sexual assault and rape, probably because most journalists do not report such occurrences.
Logan's decision to break the silence may well lead to change. In the wake of her experience, a senior editor at CPJ posted a blog on "Documenting sexual violence about journalists." The International News Safety Institute has now issued a Safety Advisory for Female Journalists (which could do with some improvement). It is also important to ensure that women's vulnerability to sexual assault does not become a hurdle in their professional paths. This may be an area that could benefit from collaboration between associations of women journalists and gender-media activists.
- Ammu Joseph is a journalist and member of the Network of Women in Media, India. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service special series marking the 10-year anniversary of Gender Links.