A woman has been sexually assaulted—what should the reaction to such a heinous crime be? Blaming its victim? Disparaging the country she’s in? Looking for a scapegoat?
Stunningly enough, all of these reactions have been voiced since yesterday, when it was revealed that Lara Logan, the chief foreign correspondent for CBS, had survived sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The network has released few details about the attack, except to say that, when Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was announced and crowds filled the square, a mob surrounded Logan and her crew. She was separated from them in the ensuing frenzy and suffered “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.” Logan flew back to the United States the following day and is now recovering in a hospital.
Not two hours after the statement was made, Debbie Schlussel, the pundit for whom every conflict can be reduced to Islam’s inherent evil, turned in this gem: “Too bad, Lara.… This never happened to her or any other mainstream media reporter when Mubarak was allowed to treat his country of savages in the only way they can be controlled.” The formulation is disgustingly racist, but a more polite form of it is already circulating—the idea being that Egypt’s new revolution is doomed and that the country needs what Lee Smith once termed a “strong horse.”
In Slate, for instance, Rachel Larimore wondered if the attack on Logan was a bad omen for Egypt. “I wish I could say I was surprised by the news,” she wrote. “But amid the cacophony of revolution, however, quieter voices expressed concern about what life would be like for women after the revolution, drawing comparisons to the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the ouster of the Shah led to reduced freedoms for women." What Larimore doesn’t mention is that sexual assaults occurred frequently enough during Mubarak’s secular thirty-year rule that some Egyptian women openly expressed fear for their safety. In fact, what made the Egyptian revolution successful was that the women who took part in it did so at grave risk to themselves.
Meanwhile, some Egyptians who took part in the protests in Tahrir Square argued that, up until the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation, the demonstrations had been peaceful and remarkably free of sexual harassment. Activists such as Mona Seif and Nadia El-Awady camped in Tahrir Square night after night during the uprising. So the news of Lara Logan’s attack was greeted with shock. “I believe it was a deliberate act,” wrote a popular blogger, who goes by the name of Zeinobia. The implication here seemed to be that the perpetrators could only have been the police or baltagiya—i.e., the “bad guys” in the new Egypt. But whether the attackers were Mubarak thugs or pro-democracy activists is completely beside the point. The attack is horrific, no matter who perpetrated it.
In the mounting rhetoric, what is getting lost is the fact that a reporter has been sexually assaulted. As Judith Matloff explained in a Columbia Journalism Review article, female foreign correspondents are often subjected to sexual abuse, and rarely report it for fear of losing assignments. Lara Logan has broken a powerful taboo by coming forward about her assault. And the only reaction to this horrific crime, wherever it took place and whoever the perpetrators may be, ought to be disgust and condemnation.