Anna Therese Day is a freelance journalist covering women’s issues and youth movements in the Arab Spring. Ms. Day has worked, traveled, studied, and volunteered throughout the region since 2007, and her coverage has included Gaza post-Operation Cast Lead, Lebanon’s 2009 post-election violence, a variety of aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the recent Bahraini government crackdown, and the continued Libyan unrest. Safely back to her home base of Cairo, Day discusses the challenges and choices involved in covering the Arab world as a young woman.
At the end of March of 2011, my colleague, David, and I were consumed by an unending debate over our next destination: Libya or Yemen. When we asked for a deciding opinion, our friend responded, “You’re asking me which way I’d prefer either of you to commit suicide – jumping off a cliff [Yemen] or shooting yourself in the face [Libya].”
A week prior, NATO had begun bombarding Gaddafi forces with airstrikes in response to his violent crackdown on protests in the East that killed over 200 Libyans within its first week. In Yemen, public demonstrations were continuing into their fourth week; however, nearly 50 people had been shot dead by snipers on the previous Friday.
Method to My Madness
…I wanted to jump off a cliff, that is to say, I was on Team Yemen. For me, the decision included two considerations. The first: I’m particularly interested in political organizing in closed societies, and thus, I prefer to cover movements as opposed to armed conflict. Though Libya’s upheaval undoubtedly started through youth organizing, the situation had deteriorated into a civil war with foreign military intervention. Internet communication was down in the East, and I was out of touch with my contacts – youth organizers whom I had met through Twitter. Those Libyans of the resistance movement, who were not arming themselves to fight as rebels, were dispersed to their homes, confined to the indoors as urban warfare consumed many of the dissenting towns. In Yemen, on the other hand, Friday demonstrations persisted despite the danger of sniper fire, and internet communication kept me in touch with local cyber-organizers and women’s activists. In short, I could cover a movement in Yemen instead of a war in Libya.
My second consideration was my preference for urban over rural coverage, a bias that stems from my gender. Though a woman’s safety is sadly always subject to circumstance, I cling to a “safety-in-numbers”-mentality, if only for my own sanity. In a city, someone will hear my scream, I rationalize, and often, I even take it a step further, using little tactics that, I’ve convinced myself, turn my weaknesses into strengths, like smiling with wide-eyed curiosity and a horrible Arabic accent in order to get close enough to authorities to snap pictures of the detained. Or, for another example, asking nonsensical “dumb blonde” questions when a conversation gets too heated in a room full of Hezbollah fighters. Other times, I use timeless gender roles to my advantage (think Madonna-Whore paradox), and when one man begins harassing me on the street, I quickly turn to another and frantically beg for help. Though my appearance as a Western woman immediately relegates me to the “whore”-category in the Arab world, this region’s culture is even more protective of their women’s “honor” than that of the West. Thus, when I innocently and desperately ask for protection, these men’s “Muslim sensibilities” (as they’ve described it) kick in, and they rally around me, shaming and sometimes attacking my aggressor. [Note for other women travelers: when asking for help, pick one man, make eye-contact and point at him, as if to demand: “YOU help ME.” This strategy ensures that someone in particular feels responsible – we’ve all heard horror stories about the inaction of crowds so this helps to hopefully address that tendency in some small way.]
Though flirting with the enemy or playing damsel in distress hardly represent new tactics for working women in a man’s world (and though I find these moments truly nauseating and try to push them out of my mind), I rationalize that, in many cases, the end (my coverage of which I am proud) justifies the means (behavior that is usually totally beneath me). To summarize, these are sacrifices or maneuvers that I make in order to keep up with the risks that my male colleagues are able to take without much thought, and, resulting from my safety thus far, I tell myself that I have in fact adapted to the foreign-urban setting. Thus, while Yemen included danger and uncertainty, that uncertainty included enough familiarities to score it lower on my risk assessment than a car ride through the rural, Eastern Libyan countryside, where a kidnapping for money could easily escalate into a sexual crime.
The Lara Logan Reality Check
If only for my peace of mind, I have laid a basic foundation of safety maneuvers, a mechanical protocol for harassment that is all too common, and incessant threats that have unfortunately become normalized. The sexual assault of Lara Logan shattered this flimsy construct; it revealed my little games as just that: silly little games. My safety has and always will be a fragile house of cards, a gamble that could easily go the other way in too many scenarios to count.
My experience in the Egyptian Revolution was the opposite of that of Ms. Logan. During the demonstrations, young Egyptian men helped me to safety through tear-gas bombardments; they helped me scale better vantage points and even protected me when I ran far too close to police vehicles to get better shots. I experienced an all-encompassing feeling of camaraderie among the protestors that they extended graciously to members of the foreign press, encouraging coverage of the disproportionate and violent repression of Mubarak’s state police.
Ms. Logan was not doing anything riskier than what I or many other women correspondents did during the revolution. Moreover, the very fact that she was assaulted in such an overwhelmingly joyous part of the events – the night of Mubarak’s departure – should shock the world even more. This nightmare sadly reveals that a woman’s safety in these situations dwindles down to a matter of luck. I have been very lucky, and, in the same circumstances, Ms. Logan was not. She was targeted based on her gender and race and was subsequently terrorized, tortured, and traumatized for life.
Lessons from Libya
Yemen’s repressive government, not surprisingly, was on Team Libya. After being repeatedly denied a visa to Yemen, David and I set off to East Libya, known as an “Al Qaeda stronghold” according to Gadaffi, the day after Osama bin Laden was killed. Fantastic, I thought to myself as we set out on our journey. Our trip, however, had been arranged through trusted contacts, and two phone companies had renewed cellular phone access to users in the East that enabled us to schedule our interviews. Before I knew it, we were bribing our way across the border and cruising along Libya’s Mediterranean coast with fiery young rebels en route to Benghazi.
Upon meeting the women of East Libya, my reluctance melted instantly as my sense of purpose renewed. With many of the men away at war, women were taking up unprecedented leadership roles in their communities, making plans and taking tangible steps toward building “Free Libya” as they called it. As American operatives and journalists rushed to Benghazi and Misrata with America’s ally, the eclectic assortment of characters that make up Libya’s Western-armed rebels, I couldn’t help but scribble in my notes: “Wrong way. Partners for Peace = Women of Derna.”
As my coverage of their progress deepened, the Libyan women approached me with stories of sexual assault and abuse. These women were confident, defiant, and outraged about the story of Eman Al-Obeidy and provided names and stories of other women and children who had faced similar fates. When men entered the room, however, their voices shifted into whispers and vague outlines – the stigma of sexual assault heightened by the presence of men.
While the mere thought of these stories make me shake with rage and even hopelessness at times, these women took the first step in combating violence against women by breaking the silence. Whether they confided in me because I am another woman or because I am a journalist with a stated interest in covering women’s issues, these women opened up to me in a way that they didn’t to my colleagues – men who aren’t specifically interested in women’s coverage. This is why I will continue to cover conflict zones. This is why I will continue to cover women’s issues. Until the unspeakable reality of women in conflict becomes a fundamental part of war conversations and considerations, there is a vital need and undeniable obligation for journalists to seek out these crimes, to take that extra step to delicately extract these nightmares from the whispers of hushed voices and the shadows of women’s spaces. In short, despite the risks, as long as there are Eman Al-Obeidys, we need Lara Logans.
From the Congo to College Campuses
Crimes against women are as vast as they are deep. From 1,000 rapes/day during the height of the Congo wars to the reality of femicide in China to sexual assault on American college campuses, “women’s issues” is a gaping and precipitous niche that I encourage other aspiring young journalists, both women and men, to explore and to embrace. Bearing witness to such rich human experiences is as much of a privilege as it is a responsibility, and while stories of despair put a necessary human face to the reality of war, stories of hope both amplify courage and illuminate potential partners for peace. More often than not, I find these emotions inextricably tied together, a humbling and inspiring combination that, for me, makes all of the risks well worth it.
Reposted from PolicyMic!