Anna Therese Day is a freelance journalist covering women’s issues and youth movements in the Arab Spring. Since 2007, her coverage has taken her to Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya. Safely back to her home base of Cairo, Day discusses the challenges involved in covering the Arab world as a young woman in this two-part series with PolicyMic. Click here to read Part 1.
The Lara Logan Reality Check
If only for peace of mind, I have laid a basic foundation of safety maneuvers, a mechanical protocol for harassment all too common, against incessant threats that have unfortunately become normalized. The sexual assault of CBS news reporter Lara Logan in Cairo shattered this concept. 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 Logan's. 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.
Logan was not doing anything riskier than what I or many other female 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.
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 Dietz and I set off to east Libya, known as an “Al-Qaeda stronghold,” according to Libyan leader Muammar 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, 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 Iman al-Obeidy, who was allegedly raped by Libyan loyalist forces, and provided names and stories of other women and children who had faced similar fates. However, when men entered the room, they 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 Iman 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 a 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 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.
Photo Credit: Anna Therese Day