Why A Woman’s Place is on the Frontlines

The author at the revolution in Egypt's Tahrir Square

Danger exists everywhere, says photojournalist Julie Dermansky — and the horrific assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan should not be used as a rationale to keep women in the background

When I arrived in Cairo the morning of the February 11, I was aware of the risks I was taking. Like Lara Logan, I made my way through the crowd, as did countless other journalists. She had the misfortune of being singled out and attacked — no fault of her own or anyone else’s, other than the thugs who attacked her. My friends and family emailed me accounts of what had happened. The story became a burden. Julie could be next, my friends and family thought. I’m a petite woman armed only with camera gear. There are plenty of people out there who could do me harm. But that isn’t what I think when I head out the door ready to cover a story. Instead I carry with me the knowledge  that plenty of people want to share their views and will gladly help me along the way. And that was my experience in Cairo.

On the night of the 11th, there were all kinds of people in Tahrir Square celebrating Murabak’s downfall, including  an unsavory element. I was a little uneasy as I made way deeper into the Square — as were my friends who told me it was a different crowd than they had encountered on the other nights that they had spent there. My ass was pinched and I was groped a couple times. I ignored the harassment and kept moving forward. My friends and a stranger in the crowd helped guide me away from troublemakers. But on the whole, there was a sense of community and camaraderie among those who brought Mubarak down — a sense of safety.

Logan’s attack made the news Friday morning, the 18th. I read about it before heading out to cover the latest mass gathering in Tahrir Square. Despite myself, her attack gave me brief pause. Fear will do that. But sexual assault and rape can happen anywhere. I refuse to live in fear. Sexual assault against female reporters was not the norm before, during or after the revolution in Egypt — or for that matter, anywhere else. When on the frontlines of any dangerous situation, one’s gender doesn’t change the fact you are in harm’s way. Thugs beat up men and women alike. Journalists can be a target anywhere when they are tell a story that someone doesn’t want them to tell. Egypt doesn’t hold a monopoly on thugs. If anything, they have a smaller number than in other hotspots around the world.

When I arrived in Tahrir Square on February 18, the crowd was a staggeringly large. I started working my way inside, gave up, turned around and tried again by staying close to a construction wall. A young man, Mohossam El Garhy, warned me not to go any further or I’d hit a dead end. I asked him what he thought was the best way to get to a platform TV crews were working on . He and I jumped a barricade and made our way around the back of the platform. He hoisted me up, offering his hands as a step. He joined me on the platform overlooking the square where I shot the prayer ceremony before the rally began. When I was ready to move on, he and his friend Ahmed Essam discussed the best way to go forward. They appointed themselves my personal security detail. During the next six hours, we weaved our way through the crowd as I worked. At the end of the day they volunteered to drive me home. We sat in gridlocked traffic until I realized I’d have to find a faster way; I had to file the day’s work, and proceeding on foot made the most sense. Though they were determined to protect me, they knew the danger of my being on my own was negligible, and gave me their blessing to go on unescorted.

I am a freelance photographer. No one sent me to Cairo. It was my decision to go. I wanted to document this momentous, historic time in Egypt. Being female was certainly not going to stop me. Egyptians risked their lives to bring change to their country. I choose to risk my safety to document their story. The fear of being assaulted is not something I carry around with me. I am not naive. Yes, it could happen to me — in Cairo, in Iraq, where I worked for five months or in New Orleans, where I currently live. But is my choice to be on the frontline of history and share my work with the world. That is what Lara Logan chose to do. I bet she wouldn’t want her assault to be used as a rationale to keep women in the background. That’s adding insult to injury.

Editor’s Note: Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. A show of her recent work on Haiti coming up at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans on April 21st. Visit her site here; for more on her coverage of the revolution in Egypt, click here

5 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Julie!  Thank you for so eloquently sharing your philosophy and your experience.  This article is the best rebuttal to Harry Benson’s “pretty women shouldn’t be assigned” ignorance published here on 21 Feb.

  2. avatar marywells says:

    100% agreed! Yes, both men and women might be sexually assaulted. And being “pretty” ou “young” does not increase the risk, as any specialist could tell. Victims are chosen because they are there.
    To think Logan was molested because she’s good-looking means to believe, deep down, that “rape” is a form of, or related to, “sex”, an old misconcept. Rape is violence. And it is the violence that somehow gratifyes the thugs, not mattering much whether the victim is good looking or not.
    I compliment Julie Dermansky for her courage. And it seems to me that she took some reasonable precautions: the picture shows her wearing a loose coat and tied hair. Wearing loose hair is considered immoral in many muslim countries, something a small child can do but a grown woman can only show to her husband, in intimacy – like a naked chest, for us.

  3. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    The key to safety anywhere is using common sense. Julie took precautions in the crowds as well as listening to those who knew the situation. She didn’t test the mob mentality but found an alternate route to get her pictures. Her actions prove that women are capable of working under any conditions they choose for themselves. I hope she covers more news on the front lines of history through these changing times.

  4. Julie, BRAVO! to you. I lived in Viet-Nam 68-70 and taught school and saw tanks at the airport and military with M16s. Follow your dreams. Stand tall. Be safe. Keep us informed. We need bright, young women to lead the world.

  5. avatar sophiawallace says:

    I think we are missing the point a bit here in talking about women covering conflict as being primarily about an individual woman’s choice and behavior. I would argue that the first misstep is not to challenge-on it’s face -the notion that any journalistic practice that marginalizes the reporting by women as a group could be a complete and uphold the tenants of journalistic integrity. The underlying belief in Harry Benson’s comment in response to Laura Logan being assaulted that “the last place for a young attractive woman to be is in the middle of an extremely dangerous situation” reveals not only a paternalistic attitude to the inherent frailty of women but more significantly that  that men’s voices are primary, authoritative, and on their own complete. This argument is fundamentally misogynistic. It is also a lie. Moreover, as a man he feels no responsibility or accountability for men’s violence against women. Rather, his solution is for men to do whatever they will do and for women to stay in the ‘safety’ of their homes. We all know that the domestic sphere is as violent as the public one for women.
    It’s important to look at the language we are using. Violence against women is not committed in the abstract. The term ‘violence against women’ in itself is misleading and incomplete as Sut Jhally points out in his extensive work on this subject.  The term presents an action (violence) and an object (women)  with no subject. Let’s speak accurately, the term is Men’s Violence Against Women. Men commit 90% of the violence against women. The vast majority of men are not violent but we need to question what is the responsibility of men within a conversation about men’s violence against women. The reason that men’s violence continues at an unprecedented rate is because men don’t take this on as their issue.