Friday, February 25, 2011

A Different Angle to Women Reporting on Conflict:Beyond Lara Logan

I must start this piece with a disclaimer (Usual readers: you'll see why this is necessary): At no point do I support or condone sexual violence towards or harassment of Lara Logan or any other journalist or indeed professional trying to do her job.  This piece is NOT about the sexual harassment/violence that women journalists face but rather of the "whitewashing" of the issue in the debate following the much publicized attack on Logan.

As a kid in India, I had family and friends who were/are journalists. Some of these are women. They covered riots, wars, crime, the Union Carbide gas tragedy. They were true heroines and my inspiration.  Growing up in India, writing fiction was not a viable career choice and I always thought that journalism was a respectable, even noble, second option.  Not surprisingly, after finishing my BA, I took up journalism. I worked as a reporter, editor and free-lancer off and on for fifteen years in all sorts of places in Africa, Latin America, India, on stories that ranged from culture to business to human rights abuses.  And I used those skills for a range of media driven organisations: state-owned, private corporation and advocacy groups.

What I learned in those years of reporting convinced me that just as the feminist theories of universal sisterhood had meant the silencing of non-white female experience, the same holds true for the practice of journalism.  Outside India, many of my colleagues were drawn from an internationally motley group, primarily made of Europeans and north Americans.  Most were male. Like many women reporters, I had to work twice as hard to get the "tough" assignments, to prove myself as capable as the men.

But I had a second disadvantage: I also had to prove myself better than the white female reporters. You see, despite self-avowedly "liberal" milieu of the typical international newsroom, an implicit hierarchy still exists. The liberalism of my editors and colleagues meant they pretended to be blind to my race while continuing to assign stories that demonstrated their racist assumptions. And no, I will not go over instances of the prejudice simply because this post is not a whine or a rant!

The colour-blindness played out more oddly at the level of colleagues.  My white male colleagues, for most part, would deal with me without the sexual charge that often informed their interaction with white female reporters. So in a way, my skin colour gave me the added benefit of being sexually invisible as well with the result that I could drink and "hang" with the boys and swap tips without any of the "baggage" that marked similar interactions for my white female colleagues.  This had its good and bad: I developed a great network, felt less sexual pressure, and felt no need to "out-tough" the guys. The bad side was that I felt invisible, was treated by many white female colleagues as the male "runt" of the press club litter and often dealt with visible contempt.  Crossing of race and gender ensured that I was always the outsider.

Yet the same qualities gave me a strange edge while in the field. Even as most Latin Americans recognised me as a foreigner, my dark skin provided a strange protection: identified clearly as not linked to the social, economic, political and military power structures (ie EU/UK/US), and people spoke to me with greater ease.  In Africa and parts of Asia, my Indian-ness was and still is recognised and generally greeted with great affection, something for which I have to thank Nehru's foreign policy and Bollywood films.

Time and time again, locals have stepped in to assist, protect and inform me in ways that were not available to my white colleagues, regardless of gender.  Moreover, my skin colour ensured that I could blend into the crowds in a way white colleagues could not; and sometimes that tiny fig leaf is greater protection than any one can hope for.

There is a more complex aspect to this. Another sort of sexual invisibility protected me in crowds: People often forget that sexual harassment and violence is mostly about power not desire.  Whiteness is an indicator of historic power disparities in many parts of the world (read Fanon, Said, Shohat for the complex arguments of these issues) even though many of us choose to deny or ignore this.  White women thus become symbols of a larger historic imbalance of power than their individual selves, a factor in many of the cases of sexual harassment that not only women reporters but also average travellers face.  In contrast, my colour gives me an unexpected advantage: harassing me provides little redress for historic grievances.  Not surprisingly, I meet camaraderie and respect in places where my white female friends and colleagues only find aggression and harassment. It is an advantage that I have been always been grateful for, though I have done little to win it.

Finally, perhaps there is also a cultural education angle to this. Unlike most of my European and American women friends and colleagues, I have grown up with an acute awareness of power imbalances between genders. There is also greater awareness of cultural codes with clear sense of covering one's body and/or head if necessary without major ideological agenda.  This translates to clothing, body language, even reporting techniques. Even at my most aggressive, I am/was aware of potentially transgressing cultural norms and made subtle adjustments as needed.

This too is a gift - however ambivalent - of growing up in India where we adapt and adjust as needed.  It may also be a result of a postcolonial heritage which has never granted me the privilege of cultural, racial even gendered arrogance/naivete that I often see amongst many European and Americans.  For example, unlike Sabrina Tevernise, I would never assume that walking into an empty hotel and encountering a man would be anything less than risky, regardless of the part of the world. That too is a complex negotiation of culture, race, gender and history!

As a nonwhite women journalist, I recognise that I occupied a strange space when covering international stories. Without ever being told so explicitly by my employers, I knew that my "value" was lower than that of my white female colleagues. And while things have changed in the past decade with increasing number of nonwhite women reporters working for mainstream media, many of the experiences and issues I mention here have not drastically changed as long as one works for a western media outlet.  In frankest of terms, this means that I always recognised that I made less of a story than my American or European colleagues would (For those who question it, compare the media inches granted to Logan vs the temporary detentions of Sonia Verma the Indo-Canadian reporter or Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros in Egypt).  This knowledge informed the risks I took as well as the professional decisions I made.

At the same time, I and other nonwhite reporters can access people and places that many "western" journalists can not, regardless of gender. And that is an advantage that few media outlets can ignore, especially as the power balance shifts away from the traditionally western centres of power. 

Perhaps, to reference Toni Morrison, it is the privilege of whiteness (or lack thereof).  I confess that I have used it to my advantage, as have many other women journalists from Latin America, Africa, Asia.  I also have to admit that it has worked to my disadvantage, although more at institutional rather than human/individual levels. 

As Kim Barker astutely noted: "Without female correspondents in war ones, the experience of women there may only be a rumour."  That is indeed true. But to whitewash the ways in which race and culture inform not only women reporters' functioning but also the response they receive is to be equally ingenuous as maintaining a silence on the issues of sexual harassment and violence.  

I hope these thoughts capture some of my own reactions to the debate triggered by the Lara Logan incident. I write in hope of giving voice to a set of women (and very able professional reporters) who are again being whitewashed from a narrative historically dominated by white middle-class women who position their own experience as universal; in making such a whitewashed case, and with greater access to mainstream western media, they also once again silence many of us who share their gender but not their race.

Update: Eyewitness accounts from Tahrir contradict the CBS statement on Lara Logan incident making my impression of Orientalist narrative that evolved around her even stronger.