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Roger Ebert’s ‘sad focus’

February 18, 2011

‘O my body, make of me always a man who questions!’
—Frantz Fanon (quoted by Judith Butler)

This post was going to be called ‘Roger and Me’ or ‘An Open Letter to Roger Ebert’ or something slightly catchier, but since Ebert’s tweet singling out ‘attitudes in the Middle East’ as a cause for Lara Logan’s sexual assault, and his total avoidance of many requests for him to explain or retract that remark (including my direct tweets to him over the course of four days), I have mostly just been sad and not feeling very clever.

Along with much of the sentient world I’ve been following events in Egypt with great interest. The day before news broke about the sexual attack on Lara Logan I had posted an account of visiting Egypt seven years ago, being sure to include an account of a friend’s frightening sexual assault aboard the metro. It was a post about a visceral, urban experience: it made sense to include everything my memory allowed, including details that are graphic and disturbing. (Incidentally, my own assault, which I mentioned very briefly, was by a woman, and I was literally saved by a young Egyptian man who came to my aid.)

With this mention I included a contrasting account of Tahrir Square during the January 25-February 11 revolution, in which Egyptian women were widely quoted as saying that the uprising had brought a remarkable and noticeable transformation in gender relations in the country:

‘I really believe the revolution has changed us. People are acting differently towards each other,’ Ms Kamel said. She pointed to the culture of fear that has pervaded Egypt for four decades as partly to blame for endemic harassment of women.

‘An oppressed people look for someone else to bully and oppress. Now, this is the first time in 40 years people have tasted freedom. Men are no longer touching women.’

The day when sexual harassment and assault by men against women, men against men, women against women and women against men is truly over anywhere has yet to transpire, nor likely to ever happen overnight, but many commentators noted the congruity of hard-won dignity won by Egyptians in their overthrow of Mubarak with an already noticeable difference in public display of dignity vis-à-vis the human body (especially the female body).

On February 15, I noticed that a reporter whose name I’d never heard of kept appearing in tweets, and soon after, as a Twitter trending topic. I clicked on ‘Lara Logan’ and read a dismaying press release:

On Friday, Feb. 11, the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan was covering the jubilation in Tahrir Square for a ’60 Minutes’ story when she and her team and their security were surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration. It was a mob of more than 200 people whipped into frenzy.

In the crush of the mob, she was separated from her crew. She was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers. She reconnected with the CBS team, returned to her hotel and returned to the United States on the first flight the next morning. She is currently home recovering.

Jumbled thoughts run through your head as you read something as horrific as this: she was attacked doing her job, the story’s published by her employer so she must have allowed it to be, there’s so much stigma on survivors of sexual assault and rape, she was courageous to make the story known, who did this, who would do this, and so on. Immediately underneath this press release I noticed a tweet by Roger Ebert:

At first glance I experienced a mild case of cognitive dissonance. Someone once described a journalist to me as a ‘popular historian, in the best sense of the word.’ Roger Ebert may be a film critic but he fits that term well: a popular historian of American attitudes, beliefs, imaginations, dreams and yes, movies. I had read enough articles by him, including this and this and this to know (though some reviews, like this one about Jafar Panahi’s The Circle, made me wince in its flattening of comparison: ‘Iran is relatively liberal compared to, say, Afghanistan under the Taliban.’) that Ebert takes strides to convey human experience beyond the usual fray, at a dizzyingly prolific speed and with swaths of accessibility connecting him to his blog and Twitter readership.

But this isn’t about Roger Ebert’s personal person or sniffing out an unpalatable remark to make a point. He is one of the most popular and beloved Verified People on Twitter. Just to give a sense of what kind of readership he commands: he gained 10,000 followers in the course of a handful of days from when he tweeted this statement to when people called for its retraction or justification. The tweet spread quickly and ‘thickly,’ meaning it entered a formal journalistic report: it took only 16 hours from the time his tweet—one tweet—made it into an MSNBC article (‘Lara Logan out of hospital, in “remarkably good spirits”‘). In Josh Grossberg’s story, the tweet was relayed as factual, uncontested, unverifiable but unchallenged, with the head-nodding that accompanies the gravitas of a noted cultural commentator. The tweet was retweeted 477 times and favorited by 87 users, as documented by @Dream23fb (at least 24 hours ago, so this is surely an understatement).

Beyond my own pointed and continual responses to Ebert, which are readily available, here’s a very small sampling of reactions [lightly modified] from Twitter:

@BrindisMom: Sadder yet, the flood of ill-informed, bigoted, sexist American responses to Logan, women, Islam, and the MiddleEast!’

@adarwish: ‘The Middle East is more than a plot, a screenplay, or a movie ending. Don’t presume that you know and can describe a region.’

@abubanda said: ‘[This] blurs global rape problem.’

@EmilyKnits: ‘If you think those attitudes toward women are exclusive to the Middle East, please read ['Rape Culture 101'] and think again.’

@jaclynF: ‘Rape is a crisis everywhere. Your voice has power. Pleases take back this hurtful, harmful tweet.’

@worsement: ‘#mooreandme made @mmflint admit rape = rape, in Stockholm or Flint. @ebertchicago STILL must admit misogyny = violence, in Cairo or Chicago.’

@mirza9: ‘I want to know what the hell @ebertchicago means when he says “Middle East” attitudes toward women. What’s a “Middle East” attitude.’

@Phat8m: ‘Please compare rape rates in the West to those in the Middle East before you call for a war to liberate Middle Eastern women!’

Several tweets took Ebert’s contention to its logical conclusion without any irony:

@jimmyk11: ‘Middle East attitudes, why don’t you say what it is: Muslim attitudes/barbarians.

Ebert completely ignored responding to anyone directly, though he did respond to a man worried about his broken toilet (Ebert suggested peeing in the sink). Yesterday he retweeted:

Is that how Roger Ebert feels about hundreds of people asking for a redress of a totally stereotypical comment? Bizarrely, he indirectly relates it to a commercial enterprise, as though taking accountability for a comment that applies to millions of people were like sending back a bad order at a pizza franchise.

Here’s why Ebert’s statement was out and out harmful and hurtful:

  • It singles out ‘Middle East attitudes toward women’ at the exclusion of all other regions and all other people.
  • It promotes a generality about ‘Middle East attitudes toward women’ that is unverifiable, but one that easily plays in to orientalist, bigoted and racist attitudes toward Middle Easterners, Arabs and Muslims.
  • It makes the indignities that women suffer, from unsolicited groping to catcalls to group sexual assault into a cultural issue rather than a grave and global obstacle to gender harmony.
  • It wrongly limits the scope of sexist attitudes to the Middle East. This is ethnic exceptionalism.
  • In the face of all these generalizations it obscures rape culture: ‘Rape culture is rape being used as a weapon, a tool of war and genocide and oppression. Rape culture is rape being used as a corrective to “cure” queer women. Rape culture is a militarized culture and “the natural product of all wars, everywhere, at all times, in all forms.”‘
  • In the past decade of the Global War on Terror, brown bodies have been attacked on the basis of such justifications. If women in the Middle East are mistreated and subjected to derogatory attitudes and beliefs, then Western ‘civilized’ nations are justified to ‘liberate’ Middle Eastern women from their men.

By Ebert’s logic, here’s a few major publicized cases of sexual assault and rape under which ‘USA attitudes toward women’ could be dealt:

‘Victim: Gang-Rape Cover-Up by U.S., Halliburton/KBR (Green Zone, Baghdad. Jamie Leigh Jones’ attackers drugged her, repeatedly raped her both vaginally and anally, then stuffed her in a shipping container and told her she’d lose her job if she sought medical care outside of Iraq. The U.S. Department of Justice has brought no charges against her assailants, and only one of them has been named.)

‘As many as 20 present at gang rape outside school dance’ (Richmond High School, San Francisco)

‘Six Arrested After Girl, 7, is Gang-Raped in New Jersey’ (Rowan Towers complex, Trenton, New Jersey)

‘Details Emerge in Alleged Army Rape, Killings’ (al-Mahmudiyya, Iraq. After a period of harassment by U.S. soldiers at checkpoints, 15-year old Abeer Qasim Hamza’s home was invaded, she was separated from her family by soldiers of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, gang-raped, killed, her body set ablaze and nearly her entire family killed after her.)

Back in 2006, Simon Tisdall covered the Mubarak regime’s use of sexual harassment and sexual assault as a weapon (to the exceedingly derogatory and unhinged commentators on the web who blame Lara Logan’s assault on her blond hair, journalist Abir al-Askari describes her veil being pulled):

President Hosni Mubarak’s enforcers have a particular way of dealing with female demonstrators: they sexually humiliate them. The case of journalist Abir al-Askari is but one example. When she arrived at Cairo’s high court last week for a disciplinary hearing against two pro-democracy judges, she was grabbed by several men.

‘They drove me to Sayyida Zeinab police station. I screamed and resisted and they beat me and pulled my hair and my veil,’ Ms Askari said. ‘Right in front of the police station they kicked me. When people gathered and told them to stop they replied: “She’s been committing adultery.”‘

Ms Askari told Human Rights Watch investigators that she was taken to a room where three female activists from the Kifaya reform group had previously been abused. ‘Nobody will know where you are,’ the officer said. ‘You are lost.’ They tore at my clothes, my shirt buttons. They continued to slap and punch me … I was lying on the floor. He placed his shoe on my face.

Ms Askari’s ordeal recalled a similar outrage in May last year when women protesters were assaulted and groped by plainclothes security men as police looked on. That incident was especially embarrassing for Mr Mubarak. Under US pressure, he had just promised a new era of democratic reform and announced Egypt’s first contested presidential election (which he later won by a landslide). He ordered an investigation. But no charges have been brought.

A week before Mubarak’s ouster, Matthew Cole and Sarah O. Wali reported on the long-known ‘rape rooms’ where sexual assault was calculatedly used along with other torturous methods, buttressed with U.S. aid. They quote Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy:

[Hamalawy] says he was threatened with electrocution and rape.’They said, “You think yourself a man? We’re going to bring a gay soldier to rape you.”‘ Just before his release, he says, an interrogator extended the threat of rape to include his girlfriend, mother and sister.

In the most widely disseminated photo of Lara Logan in Egypt, she is surrounded by Egyptian men, Arab men, brown bodies: some give the peace sign, others wave and try to get the camera’s attention, but the general scene is one of movement and ‘frenzy.’ ‘Frenzy’ is the word most often used to describe the conditions of that night before she was attacked. It conjures (rightfully) the most unsightly images in your mind, like a mob or mass of brown bodies (she was surrounded by Arab bodies) swelling around her. It reminded me of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, a blond and skeptical Doris Day surrounded by brown male Arab bodies in Morocco. As a spectator you want to protect her from unseemly eyes and gazes.

But that’s just the issue with sweeping cultural descriptors and embedded codes: they cause you to over-read, to look for simplistic answers, problematic as much for what they connote as they denote.

In her essay on ethical responsibility after 9/11, ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?’ Lila Abu-Lughod looks at ‘the danger of reifying culture, apparent in the tendencies to plaster neat cultural icons like the Muslim woman over messy historical and political dynamics,’ arguing that ‘rather than seeking to “save” others (with the superiority it implies and the violences it would entail) we might better think in terms of considering our own larger responsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves.’

I couldn’t agree more, and wish Roger Ebert stood with me.

[Related: Only married men in Afghanistan legally allowed to rape?]

[Related: Of thanatology: or how to prevent sexual assault]

[Related: Bomb Afghanistan, do it for the women]

[Related: Operation Khanjar, over my covered body]

[Related: Five inquiries on the worth of an Afghan woman]

7 Comments leave one →
  1. johndburger permalink
    February 19, 2011 09:35

    I just don’t get it – are you really saying attitudes toward women in the Middle East are no different than in the West? Then why was she wearing a veil???

  2. Anonymous permalink
    February 19, 2011 14:10

    So it’s now wrong for people to point out the terrible treatment many women in the Middle East receive at the hands of men?
    Brutality, patriarchy exists nearly everywhere but clearly there are issues unique to the Middle East that have led to the oppression and abuse of women.
    To accuse Ebert of racism or whatever starts one down a slippery slope.

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