As soon as CBS announced yesterday that correspondent Lara Logan had been sexually assaulted while covering the Egyptian protests, the media sprang alive in search of a scapegoat. Two disturbing lines of commentary have emerged: one that cites irrelevant details about Logan's beauty or her past sexual history, the other blaming Muslims or Egyptian culture for the assault. In the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri noted that this happened to a "known, blonde white woman." And on her blog, Debbie Schlussel wrote that "she should have known what Islam is all about." "This never happened to her or any other mainstream media reporter when Mubarak was allowed to treat his country of savages in the only way they can be controlled," opined Schlussel.
But we would be wrong to assume that in controlling Egyptians, Mubarak somehow also kept women safe. In fact, state-sanctioned violence against women was widespread and well documented. For years Egypt has been cited by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for using rape, torture, and sexual assault to threaten and intimidate female activists who criticized the regime. These tactics were also used against female family members of dissidents. There is also considerable evidence that members of Mubarak's security forces ordered the assault of female protesters during the recent demonstrations.
In times of conflict, the perpetrators of sexual violence cross religious and ethnic lines. An estimated 20-50,000 Muslim women were raped during the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s. Closer to home, yesterday a class action lawsuit was announced by 17 American servicewomen who reported being raped by fellow members of the military. And in searching for spurious links between "American culture" and violence against women, we do not have to look toward military settings or exotic, war-torn locales. Take the most recent Super Bowl. Allegations of rape have hovered over both teams, while news agencies reported a disturbing increase in the sex trafficking of girls and women around the time of the Super Bowl. But we would chafe at allowing outsiders to generalize that all Americans exhibit violent tendencies toward women.
To be sure, sexual harassment is endemic in Egypt. And for the most part, we are fortunate to be able to walk down the street in the United States without the verbal and physical harassment that Egyptian women face on a daily basis. A 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health survey revealed that one third of Egyptian women are victims of domestic violence. Yet a 2010 study by the Population Reference bureau also points out that poor women are twice as likely in Egypt to be victimized. Similar studies in U.S. society have shown correlations between poverty and violence against women. And across all social classes, the statistics are grim. A U.S. Justice Department study showed that 1 in 6 of all American women will be raped during their lifetimes. 50% of all murders of women in the U.S. are committed by a romantic partner. Muslim countries hardly have the monopoly on violence against women.
To read this brutal attack as emblematic of Egyptian culture or Islam does a disservice to all those in Egyptian society who are working actively to end violence against women, women like physician Amal Abd El-Hadi, whose New Woman Foundation is dedicated to ending gender-based violence, and Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla, a psychiatrist who has created programs to rehabilitate victims of violence and torture. There is no excuse for what happened to Lara Logan, but explanations for violence should not be found in a religion, or in broad generalizations about Egyptian culture. Rather than blaming religion, we should work to end underdevelopment, poverty, and a lack of education, problems whose eradication is crucial to a prosperous and healthy society anywhere, whether in Egypt or here at home.
Rachel Newcomb is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rollins College and the author of Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.