It’s been more than 11 years since Lamia Radi was assaulted by a group of men in Cairo. But when she recounts the incident, it’s clear that the memory is far from remote. Her voice quivers, not only when she speaks of the attack, but also the scepticism expressed by her colleagues when they heard the news.
It was May 25 2005, which later became known as “Black Wednesday”. Although sexual assault was a well-known problem in Cairo at the time, it was not yet being widely used as a political tool against demonstrators or reporters. That day, however, Lamia, who was working with AFP at the time, says the assault against her was just that – a “punishment” by the government against reporters who were protesting Hosni Mubarak attempts to groom his son, Gamal, for the presidency.
“They covered my face with posters of Mubarak so I couldn’t see who was attacking me…. Then they began to grope me. I still shiver with anger when I remember what happened."
“There were about 300 of us [journalists and activists] holding a sit-in at the steps of the Press Syndicate,” Lamia recalls. “Suddenly, Mubarak’s thugs came at us from across the street. They were yelling and insulting us. We recognised them because we used to see them everywhere. They were joined by some women too and they all looked really scary.”
The men went up the steps and isolated one female activist and began to assault her. “They took off her clothes and in a matter of seconds, she was in her underwear,” she says.
Lamia, too, was isolated.
“They covered my face with posters of Mubarak so I couldn’t see who was attacking me…. Then they began to grope me. I still shiver with anger when I remember what happened. I think it lasted for two minutes but it was too long. The police were there and they did nothing.”
The story was widely covered in the media, mainly because Lamia insisted that her news agency run it as a lead.
“When I called the office and told my colleague what happened, she said she would put it at the end of the story [that I was sexually assaulted]. But I insisted that this was the story – it was a violation against journalists. So it was run as an urgent flash.”
“Another friend of mine, a journalist from Al Ahram, told me she didn’t believe the story in the beginning, until she saw my name. For me it was strange that some women didn’t want to believe that it was true.”
Lamia then filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General, but a few months later the investigation was suspended because they couldn’t identify the perpetrators.
Many female journalists are unwilling to speak about sexual assault or harassment for fear of the stigma they may face. Some worry that they might be judged or held responsible for the attack. In many cases, harassment comes from within the workplace, from editors and colleagues.
In August 2016, Newsweek ran a story detailing horrific incidences of harassment against 35 journalists (33 women, and two men). Many of them asked not to be named. They said they had kept quiet for a long time because they feared that speaking out would cost them their jobs.
In 2016, Fox TV anchor Gretchon Carlson made the headlines when she sued her former boss, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment. She won compensation of $20 million and Ailes was dismissed from the network. Carlson then took the opportunity to speak candidly about the harassment that she went through at the beginning of her career; stories that she feels she can only share now that she’s well known.
Many journalists fear the attention they may get if they speak out publicly, yet many are harassed on regular basis. Italian journalist Francesca Borri has a long list of such incidents and this is the first time she has spoken in public about them.
“I was physically harassed in Tunisia, twice in Gaza, once in the West Bank, twice in Lebanon and once in Iraq,” she counts… then there’s the regular dose of inappropriate comments or tasteless jokes she gets from her colleagues.
“Once, I was having an argument with my editor because I wanted to cover the battle in Mosul. He resisted the idea, but I was determined. So in the end, he just dismissed me by saying that I should have sex to calm down and forget about it,” she says.
“I also proposed to interview a female journalist who has just written a book. But the editors dismissed the idea, saying they prefer that I stick to interviewing men instead of women. They were basically suggesting that I have a way with men that makes them talk to me, that men like me.”
Such incidences are very tricky because the words being used fall into a grey-area. If accused of harassment, the editor could simply defend themselves by saying it was a joke and that women need to have a sense of humour.
“There was a foreign editor who kept trying to invite me for dinner,” Francesca says. “With such invitations, you are walking a thin line between what is normal and what is not. Dinner, in Italy, usually means something else.”
Although no woman is immune to harassment, Francesca believes the problem is worse for single women. “When I was in a relationship, men didn’t come near me because they thought that I belonged to someone. But in Italy, once you become single, everybody feels free to say something to you.”
“Would a man like that be happy if someone spoke to his daughter like that? I might respond with something like ‘I’m sure your daughter has nice teeth too.’. That always seems to stop them.”
She tries her best to avoid unwanted attention, especially in the field, by dressing conservatively and avoiding social gatherings or parties held by foreign press corps. New York correspondent Maria Abi Habib also pays close attention to her attire and wears what she describes as unisex clothing. But she concedes that this measure will not stop harassment completely.
“Sexual harassment could happen no matter what you do or what you say,” Maria says. “But, and I hate to say this, I do see some female journalists who think they can get ahead by ‘brandishing their goods’, and I think that gets them nowhere, it only affects their credibility.”
Maria says she was never harassed, but there had been times when men tried to push the boundaries to see how far they can get.
“Once I was in a car with an interviewee. I was in the backseat and he was sitting next to the driver. As we were talking, he suddenly said he wishes he was in the backseat with me because he liked to look at my teeth.”
In such cases, Maria uses the “sister” or “daughter” trick. “Would a man like that be happy if someone spoke to his daughter like that?” she asks. “So in such case, I might respond with something like ‘oh, I’m sure your daughter has nice teeth too.’. That always seems to stop them.”
Maria always carries mace with her wherever she goes, and advises journalists to get one too. “It looks non-threatening, it’s pink and it’s part of my keychain. Alternatively you can get a siren. We live in a day and age where you can take precautions so I never go on a mini-assignment without my mace.”
Lamia, who is now the head of the Arabic service of the Associated Press in Cairo, says a journalist should realise that her first reaction to a comment or harassment attempt is important to stop any further advances.
“They [those who attempt harassment] will always play on the feeling that you may have misunderstood their comment. But it’s best to be firm, don’t smile, even if you come across as angry. Just show them that you’re not intimidated by them.”
More tips from Maria, Francesca and Lamia
- Never get trapped in a closed space with another man. “If you go to someone’s office, make sure they don’t lock the door or make sure a secretary or fixer is present,” Maria says. “Never ever go to someone’s hotel room, always meet them at the lobby. If you are working on a sensitive story and they don’t want to meet you in a public space, then make sure you take a male colleague with you, an assistant or fixer – someone you personally know and trust.
- Don’t share information about your private life, and don’t accept all invitations on Facebook and other social media. “If you give an official, editor or interviewee access to your social media, then they could know everything about your private life and they will use that as an excuse to pry on you.” One way to mitigate that would be to add the “follow” button so they don’t have access to your personal albums or refrain from sharing personal information about yourself on these websites.
- Keep your professional life and your social life separate, as much as possible. “I avoid parties and social gatherings held by foreign correspondents,” Francesca says. “When I’m in the field, I stay in my hotel room, or I only spend time with people I know very well. I also wear a wedding ring so they would think I’m off-limits, although that doesn’t always stop them.”
Photo by: EPA / Mohamed Omar