WASHINGTON -- Just behind the international news sensation of the killing of Osama bin Laden, another troubling American story was an also-ran. It had wholly different emotions and distinct lessons, but it, too, is one that we will remember for years.
As a journalist and a woman, I watched and read the story of CBS correspondent Lara Logan's horrible experience in Cairo's Tahrir Square several weeks ago with terrified interest. Because I was the first female foreign correspondent "out there" in the 1960s, I had an even greater, darker interest in her 21st-century ordeal.
Though it has been weeks since her savage beating by a mob of Egyptians, she told her story last Sunday on "60 Minutes" with a solemnity appropriate for a life-changing episode.
She told of how she, her Egyptian drivers, a bodyguard who was a tough British special services man with experience all over the world, and her producer went to Tahrir Square in the aftermath of the early protests and had already started to get out when the attack began. First, one of the Arab speakers in her group heard the Egyptians start saying, "Let's take her pants off." But as her group started to leave, she was suddenly cut off from them.
"I screamed," she related on TV, "but the savage assault turned into a murderous assault. First they tore my bra open, then my other clothes were giving way. I saw them taking pictures of me with my clothes off. They were beating me, raping me with their hands over and over. I thought I was going to die. They were tearing my body in every direction, trying to tear my scalp off of my skull. I thought, 'I'm going to die here.'"
This was not just a rape. This was not just an attack by one or two men, but rather a savage assault by more than 200 men on one helpless woman. It went on for half an hour, and the men never stopped. Finally, the whole apocalyptic scene, with humans piled on other humans as the crowd moved, was stopped by a fence where a group of Egyptian women were camped out. All were dressed in the typical Arab hejab, or black robes with black scarves covering their heads and, with some, faces.
The women came to life. One middle-aged woman put her arms around Lara and protected her to the degree she could. Then several Egyptian soldiers pushed their way through the crowd, and Lara, seeing them coming, grabbed the first soldier she could and didn't let go. He was finally able to get her out of the crowd by throwing her over his back and pushing his way out.
I have been an international correspondent for 50 years and have heard some vicious stories about Western women in situations like this. I've had a couple of bad experiences myself. But I have never heard a worse story from a Western woman journalist, nor one that has more to say to our future. The fact that Lara was taken out of Egypt and put in an American hospital for four days before weeks of recovery at home tells more of her nightmare.
But is there more of the story to tell than her hellish personal experience? The details of the attack have rightfully made many modern women angry -- and yet, there is still something else to say. I would recommend that Western or foreign women journalists in today's world cover themselves with what is appropriate to the country or culture they're covering. Lara is a beautiful young woman, and she was in the square that evening with long blond hair flying and dressed in modern pants and blouse. I doubt she would have been attacked if she had the Arab black robe and headpiece on. (If you notice, ABC's Christiane Amanpour, who has done such good work in the area, often wears a black scarf when in conservative and dangerous countries.)
There is probably no Western woman who hates the hejab, or the headscarf, or the abaya more than I do. I am nearly physically repulsed by them because they represent to me the total repression of women (they're ugly, too). But with some years of experience behind me, I can say that I would now wear at least the scarf in such situations, if only because the world is changing.
When I first went to the Middle East, most Egyptian women in Cairo were wearing Western clothes; now, most wear the robes. Egyptian mobs are probably the most dangerous in the region. Cities are devilishly crowded and conservative beliefs are growing. Women are afraid. I only wore a hejab once -- in 1973 in Baghdad, when I went to the great Shiite shrine of Karbala. It was certainly worth it to see such a magnificent historical place.
In my early days overseas, the most dangerous place by far for a woman was in the Soviet Union. The men, particularly the government thugs, often attacked Western women. It was nothing personal -- it was simply a "greeting" from the Communist government or from some drunken muzhik. I had only one unhappy personal experience, in Soviet Georgia, when a famous TV anchorman had too much too drink and could not resist my charms. I finally got rid of him without incident by making all sorts of promises, were he to come to Chicago!
I used to believe that women in journalism would provide us with a different viewpoint on the world -- that men and women experienced things differently. Aside from Lara's particular experience (and mine), I no longer believe that. I do see many excellent female correspondents and read their work. But the world is getting more dangerous for us, and we must take measures to protect ourselves in places where nobody else will.