Men — men everywhere. Clawing, groping and raping with their hands. Others watching. Women averting their eyes. That is the story that independent journalist and student Natasha Smith described on her blog this week.
Men — men everywhere. Clawing, groping and raping with their hands. Others watching. Women averting their eyes.
That is the story of being attacked in Egypt's Tahrir Square that independent journalist and student Natasha Smith described on her blog this week. Smith, who was in Egypt to film a documentary on women’s rights and abuses against women in Egypt since the revolution according to her website, tells of the mob, the men who saved her and the days that followed.
It’s a story that has been heard too many times, most recently and perhaps most notably by Lara Logan during the Egyptian uprising last winter. Though no matter how familiar the narrative, the honest and horrific — yet brave — detail that the women go into when telling their stories gets no easier to read. As Smith writes:
Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around. They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way. So many men. All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions.
Smith explains how quickly the mood changed – the groping had been going on for a while, but suddenly she was dragged from her friend “with increasing force and aggression.” She tried to protect her camera, to no avail. All of the footage and photos she had gathered for her documentary were lost.
As Lauren Wolfe for the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, Atul Singh, editor-in-chief at Fair Observer, where Smith is an associate editor, confirmed that "the attack occurred," but would not elaborate.
At a point during the attack, as some men tried to help her, and others continued to drag her around naked, Smith prayed: “Please God. Please make it stop.” The violation continued:
I sat with my back against a chair and surveyed the surging mob. Although a few men tried to form a human shield around me, offering me rags to cover my bruised body, men were still able to touch me. There were just too many.
She then wondered if this was the end; if this is how she was going to die.
The story is frighteningly similar to the one of CBS’ Lara Logan, which she for recounted the Women Under Seige Project in February.
In that piece, Logan wrote that her previous experiences with Muslim men who were caring and protective of her drove her belief that someone would stop the attack against her that night. But the attack would only stop once her security man compelled the Egyptian soldiers to act. As Logan wrote in the Women Under Seige piece:
And what I did not know then was how deeply entrenched sexualized violence is in Egyptian society. Or that agents from the Mubarak regime, intent on discrediting the revolution, had targeted me deliberately and incited the mob. Nor did I know that other female journalists were attacked that night, albeit none as severely. And I could not have known that there would be more attacks in the months that followed, until foreign female journalists would be advised by at least one international press freedom group not to travel to Egypt—handing the regime the propaganda victory they had sought.
And while these are two highly publicized cases of sexual violence against female reporters, they are certainly not the only two.
During a panel discussion on the psychological cost of war reporting, former foreign correspondent and current CTV National anchor Lisa Laflamme acknowledged that sexual violence against women is a reality, citing an experience she had in Egypt where she was surrounded by a pro-Mubarak gang. But she, like Logan, was quick to point out that it was not true of all Middle East countries all of the time; she had experience being treated very well by Muslim males as well.
A feature by Ruane Remy in the Winter 2012 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism looked deeper into the issue of female foreign correspondents and rape. Remy spoke with Columbia Journalism adjunct professor and former long-time correspondent Judith Matloff, whose 2007 Columbia Journalism Review feature Unspoken—written on this very subject—went relatively unnoticed until Logan’s attack. The Logan episode “really blew the lid off what had basically been a dirty secret in the industry for a long time,” Matloff said in that RRJ piece.
For a long time, women who had been sexually assaulted while on assignment kept quiet. “[T]he compulsion to be part of the macho club is so fierce that women often don’t tell their bosses,” Matloff wrote in the CJR feature. To the RRJ, she elaborated: “The bosses don’t know about it because the women don’t talk about it. And then because the bosses don’t talk about it, the next generation of women don’t talk about it.”
Lauren Wolfe of the CPJ found the same thing in a report released last year. The CPJ interviewed more than four dozen journalists who had been sexually assaulted in some way—from groping to rape by multiple attackers:
Most of the individuals interviewed by CPJ have not previously disclosed their experiences beyond speaking with friends or family. Journalists from all over the world said they largely kept assaults to themselves because of broad cultural stigmas and a lack of faith that authorities would act upon their complaints. But time and again, journalists also said that professional considerations played an important role; many were reluctant to disclose an assault to their editors for fear they would be perceived as vulnerable and be denied future assignments.
But with the reports, the features, and the brave women coming forward with their stories, perhaps this is a trend that can be bucked.
Matloff is one of the organizers of a course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism continuing education department called “Reporting Safely in Crisis Zones.” It is a three-day course that tackles some of the biggest challenges of crisis reporting, including rape prevention.
Smith, whose attack took place mere days ago during the Egyptian elections, says that the attack will not stop her:
I have to do this; I will not be driven into submission. I will overcome this and come back stronger and wiser. My documentary will be fuelled by my passion to help make people aware of just how serious this issue is, and that it’s not just a passing news story that briefly gets people’s attention then is forgotten. This is a consistent trend and it has to stop. Arab women, western women – there are so many sufferers.
And perhaps her first step to accomplishing all of this is the very act of talking about it.