Sunday, February 20, 2011

Human Nature When Civilization Crumbles

New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise writes about the dangers of being a woman reporter:
...women reporters face another set of challenges. We are often harassed in ways that male colleagues are not. This is a hazard of the job that most of us have experienced and few of us talk about.

Last week, CBS News said that its reporter Lara Logan was assaulted by a crowd of men in Cairo. CBS News did not detail the circumstances, but the network’s statement — that she had suffered a “brutal and sustained sexual assault” — said enough. Threatening had turned frightening. The moment when you hold your breath in a crowd did not pass safely for her.

I have worked in a half-dozen countries since the late 1990s, including Lebanon, Gaza in Israel, Pakistan, Turkey and Russia. In none of these places was I dragged off and raped, but I have encountered abuse in many of them. The assaults usually took place in crowds, where I was pinned in place by men.

The risk of something happening is especially high when all the rules have fallen away and society is held together by a sense that anything can happen. This was the case for me in Baghdad in 2003 at the gun market, when a crowd of young men, impoverished and not used to seeing foreigners, first started touching me, and then began ripping at my clothes. A colleague helped me fend them off.

It was a beginner’s mistake. I was wearing pants, baggy and formless, but still looking nothing like any of the women in the area, who all wore abayas, black sheaths completely covering their bodies. That same day I went to an Iraqi clothing shop to stock up on ankle-length jean skirts and shirts that reached to mid-thigh.

Incidents would repeat themselves several times during my years in Iraq, the strangest being with British soldiers in a remote part of the southern province of Maysan. In the spring of 2006, I found myself at the center of an odd parade. A crowd of boys gathered around me, staring, as I walked with several British soldiers and a translator from our tank to their village.

Some were as young as 5, some were teenagers. A boy in a lime-green T-shirt darted out and grabbed me hard in the crotch. Then another, and another. A soldier, embarrassed, averted his eyes. The translator tried ineffectually to shoo them away. The crowd began to chant something in Arabic that I later learned had been a crude remark. When our strange parade reached the village police station, the officers fired their guns in the air to disperse the boys. One of the policemen grinned, offering, in a motion with his gun, to shoot at them.

In my experience, Muslim countries were not the worst places for sexual harassment. My closest calls came in Georgia with soldiers from Russia, a society whose veneer of rules and civility often covers a pattern of violence, often alcohol laced, toward women.

A military unit had allowed me to tag along after its seizure of the Georgian town of Gori. The men were drunk. I was working. It was dark with no electricity in a ransacked government office. One soldier became so aggressive with his advances that I found an empty room and barricaded it closed with a couch.

The following night, I walked into an empty hotel that was still closed from the fighting. A man who said he was a caretaker appeared. He stood close to me, watching as I unpacked my gear. He took a key and locked the lobby door from the inside. I asked him why, and he said he was protecting against looters.

The hotel was otherwise empty, and I began to panic. I told him that I had left something in my car. Please unlock the door, I asked. He opened it, and I left.

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