From darkness, dignity: Why sexualized violence must move from the shadows

By — February 7, 2012

Lara Logan is seen here moments before a mob sexually assaulted and beat her in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. (60 Minutes)

When I was overwhelmed by a mob of men in Tahrir Square in Egypt last February, I was filled with the certainty that I would die there. In my mind, I could see an image of my body lying discarded in the dirt.

It struck me that it would be a truly meaningless death.

And yet I was so shocked by the sexual assault, that instead of fighting for my life, I was at first fighting for my dignity. I kept appealing for mercy, begging them to stop in the midst of the violence and the chaos, as they tore my clothes from my body and raped me with their hands. Hundreds of them.

What was driving this futile plea?

My faith in the sanctity of women in this Islamic society. I had been told so often by Muslim men and women in all different societies and countries over so many years that women were sacred. Protected. More valued even than in the West.

I had been told not to judge through a Western prism, but to open my mind to a different way of life, one that is steeped in a higher moral value where women may appear to be denied many of the rights I enjoy in Western society, but actually they are valued in a different, more meaningful way.

In my own experience, I had found myself frequently surrounded by Muslim men who were caring, protective, mindful of my status as a woman, respectful, and supportive. Some risked their lives for me. Foreign women often enjoy a place in Islamic society that is denied to local women in that culture. In Afghanistan, for example, I could enjoy eating a meal with men and I could have real, close, treasured friendships with men to whom I was not related by blood or marriage—something unheard of for Afghan women.

I realized when I thought about this afterward, that from Ramallah to Baghdad to Kabul to Islamabad, I had been shown so much kindness and care from Muslim men, and been told so often that women were to be protected above all else, that something in me in the middle of that terrible evil kept believing these men would stop.

I had lived on my own with Afghan soldiers for three months during the war with the Taliban and no one had dared lay a hand on me or show me disrespect. On the one occasion that someone did, my Afghan host hunted down the guilty man and put a gun to his head, ready to avenge that wrongdoing with one word from me.

I wanted my dignity restored, but not at the cost of a life and so managed to persuade him to let the man live.

This was what drove my belief at first that someone, something, would stop these men. Because everyone who was watching, everyone who was fighting for a piece of my body knew that what they were doing was wrong.

Of course, it didn’t end that way. And it was chance—chance that the seething mob stumbled into a corner where I was trapped between a group of women and some tents, and chance that my CBS security man Ray Jackson was able to break free and compel nearby Egyptian soldiers to act—that I was carried from that square alive instead of dead.

And what I did not know then was how deeply entrenched sexualized violence is in Egyptian society. Or that agents from the Mubarak regime, intent on discrediting the revolution, had targeted me deliberately and incited the mob. Nor did I know that other female journalists were attacked that night, albeit none as severely. And I could not have known that there would be more attacks in the months that followed, until foreign female journalists would be advised by at least one international press freedom group not to travel to Egypt—handing the regime the propaganda victory they had sought.  

I never understood before my attack that sexual violence is another form of oppression. A very effective means for men to not only dominate women, but also to deny them their rightful place in society. It is not as noticeable in Western societies like the U.S., because women are more powerful than in an Islamic country like Egypt. But it is still true.

I was able to reclaim my life because I could go home to a free society, stand tall, and be open about what happened to me. I could do that without shame. Without fear of retribution. And I could emerge with my dignity restored.

I could do all of that first because my husband, my family, and my company all stood by me. And when they did, my country did too. I say “my” country because, despite having been born in South Africa, America is where I have made my life. It is home. 

And it felt like the whole country stood together, with few exceptions, in condemning what was done to me. Support even came from across the world.

But my heart is with all those women—and men—who live in places where they are not allowed to speak out. Where they are forced to carry this terrible secret, their burden of shame, in silence and in darkness for all their lives. I cannot imagine anyone can ever be whole again when they live like that, their soul always in shadow.

We all know this can happen anywhere, in any society, to anyone.

But it must never be tolerated or excused.

Or become a way of life.

(Click here to read Women Under Siege's analysis of how sexualized violence is used as a weapon of war in Egypt.)

Lara Logan is a correspondent for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” and CBS News' chief foreign affairs correspondent, a position she has held since June 2008. Logan's reporting on Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has earned her multiple awards, including two Emmys, two Overseas Press Club Awards, a DuPont-Columbia Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award, as well as five American Women in Radio and Television Gracie Awards.