By Susan Taylor Martin, Times Senior Correspondent
In Print: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Life, they say, can turn on a dime.
One minute you're covering the glorious celebration of a tyrant's downfall. The next, you are the target.
That's the harrowing situation CBS correspondent Lara Logan found herself in last week when "a mob of more than 200 people'' beat and sexually assaulted her in Cairo's Tahrir Square as Egyptians rejoiced over the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Details remain sketchy. Was Logan singled out because she is a gorgeous, high-profile Western TV correspondent? Or was Logan attacked because she is a dogged reporter who also happens to be a woman?
If the latter is the case, it comes as little surprise to the International Women's Media Foundation and its executive director, Liza Gross.
"Every year we give out Courage in Journalism awards to women who have faced significant challenges telling stories that need to be told,'' Gross says, "and to many of these women the use of sexual intimidation and sexual violence as a tool to prevent them from speaking out is far from unknown.''
Of course male journalists face dangers too. CNN's Anderson Cooper was among several Western correspondents roughed up by Mubarak supporters in Cairo. But how many men have ever been threatened with rape, as Anne Garrels was while serving as National Public Radio's bureau chief in Baghdad? How many men have been lewdly pawed, as freelancer Vanessa Gezari was in northern Afghanistan?
In 2004, Gezari, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter, was leaving a New Year's celebration when she became separated from a male co-worker.
The day "would have been perfect if we hadn't been caught on our way out in a throng of men, all of whom somehow found a way to grab and grope me when Noori was swept ahead with the crowd,'' Gezari later wrote for the online magazine Slate. "I reached the other side relieved to find my wallet and clothes intact. Noori was sick with fury.
"I apologize on behalf of my countrymen," he said sadly.
Now, seven years later, Gezari says the incident was worse than she described: "quite gross,'' as she puts it. But her reluctance to go into the details is not unusual.
"Women don't talk about this because they fear they will not be sent out again by their bosses,'' says Gross of the women's media foundation.
There are plenty of people, including some male journalists, who think female journalists don't belong in hot spots. (Or if they do go, they deserve what they get and ought not complain about it.)
Witness the dismissive, joking comments made on Twitter by left-wing journalist Nir Rosen, who said Logan "was probably groped like thousands of other women." He was forced to resign his fellowship at New York University.
Yet rarely have there been so many women reporters distinguishing themselves in some of the most dangerous countries on earth. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other leading media organizations have had women bureau chiefs and/or reporters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"The number of female correspondents is stunning, and I think that they can cover these stories in some ways that give a richer sense of what is happening," says Gezari, who is writing a book about Afghanistan. "It's important to know that at a time when people are saying, 'Why are you sending women to places like this?' "
Though journalists, male and female, are attacked in many parts of the world, the assault on Logan in Egypt invariably focuses attention on the challenges confronting women reporters in conservative countries, including Muslim ones.
In such places, they "face the double burden of trying to deal with issues of freedom of expression as journalists but also facing societal disapproval because they are women engaging in unwomanly pursuits," Gross says.
For a female journalist from the West, there's an added challenge. Do you try to physically blend in as much as possible, donning a head scarf, abaya or Afghan shalwar kameez?
No, says Kathy Gannon, the Associated Press special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. After two decades in the region, Gannon is fluent in Urdu but typically shuns native dress in favor of jeans and a long shirt.
"I think it's very important you don't try to be something you're not," she says. "I'm very much a Westerner, I'm a Canadian, I have blond hair. I think sometimes we misjudge the people in these regions and I honestly think they do respect who you are as long as you respect who they are."
For years leading up to the Sept. 11 hijackings, Gannon covered the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a result she was the first Western reporter the Taliban permitted to re-enter the country after three weeks of American-led bombing.
"They didn't see me as a woman, they saw me as someone who had been covering them all along. I remember one Taliban official who said, "You know what we call people like