Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tina Brown: Women Are Terrifyingly Vulnerable In Many Places


Tina Brown is back now for our regular series Word of Mouth, where she brings us her must-reads. Tina, of course, is the editor-in-chief of "The Daily Beast." She's also the founder of the annual Women in the World Summit. Today, she has three reads on women whose lives were changed by kidnapping and captivity. And just a warning: This conversation does include adult topics and sensitive language. Tina, good morning.

TINA BROWN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So now there's a new book out this week with a very disturbing story of a young teenager who was held by Libya's dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, as a sex slave in a kind of harem.

BROWN: It's an absolutely fascinating book, "Gaddafi's Harem." It's been written by Le Monde journalist Annick Cojean. And it's important because we've heard so little about the women of Libya. What happened to them? Where are there? What is the state of play with them after the revolution? And what we learn, which is absolutely terrifying - and I certainly didn't know, and I don't think most people do - is that Gaddafi wasn't just a tyrant. The man was a rapist. He used sex to subjugate his country, in short.

He really kept, in the basement, at least at any time, sort of 30 or 40 young women between the ages of 14 and 18, who were brought up to him at night, to be his sex slaves. And he would have these encounters four or five times a day, fueled by Viagra administered by an extremely sort of sinister, ex-corrupted mistress who had become the kind of madam and enforcer and pimp of his harem. And these young girls were just brought up to his room at night, and they were then brutally raped.

This story actually focuses on one brave, young woman, Soraya, who was taken at the age of 15. And what she describes is how Gadhafi used to visit schools, supposedly to kind of inspect schools and be presented with a bouquet. But what he was really doing was scanning the crowd for girls that he liked. And after he'd gone, he would send back his enforcers. The girl would be brought back to his fortress to, quote - you know - "present him with another bouquet."

And when they got there, they were essentially kidnapped. They were sent down to the basement. They were stripped. They were given little red bras to put on, and then they were told that they were going to go upstairs, where, you know - that the monster was sitting there, stark naked, waiting for them.

And it is so terrifying because what has happened since the revolution is that these same girls are the only members of this population that couldn't now sort of celebrate their liberation and say, you know, our lives had changed - because any kind of sexual infidelity is such a taboo in Libya. These women are also rejected by their families. They're rejected by their societies. So they can't go back to a normal life. But this is one of the great tragedies of Libya. And it's a very, very important book for all of us to read when we're thinking about the despotism and terror that exists in these kind of places.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's turn to another piece, not very far away - actually, in Somalia. This past New York Times magazine has a remarkable - and also, terrifying - tale of a woman held there in captivity for 15 months.

BROWN: This is a journalist, Amanda Lindhout, who - she was an amateur journalist and actually, I have to say, a somewhat reckless one in the sense that this was really going into the badlands of Mogadishu that no kind of credited journalist would have risked themselves doing. But she wanted to go, and she was optimistic. And she took with her her ex-boyfriend, who was also a photographer.

And on the drive out to Mogadishu, suddenly 12 men armed with AK-47s stopped the car and forced them out, and took them to this deserted hideout, where they were thrown into this room and told that they were being ransomed for $3 million. They know they can't get the money to buy themselves out. And one thing they tried to do to help themselves is, they convert to Islam. Of course, what they didn't realize is that when that happens, it means they're separated because no man and woman who are not married can exist in the same room.

So they're put in a cell next door to each other, and the only way they can communicate is by little notes that they leave in the bathroom for one another, hidden. And then they discovered that if they go to their windows, they can talk to each other through these windows while pretending to read the Quran. And they forge an escape plan, which involves prying loose the bars in the bathroom and squeezing their way out.

They conduct their escape. But as they squeeze out and head for the mosque - because they feel that they might be safe there, in the middle of prayer - they run and they run and, of course, they're pursued. Most of the people there think they're running from something bad, so they don't help them. They burst into the mosque. But once they're there, the kidnappers find them. They're there. And they beat them up and take them back to their cells, where they're then held for a further 10 months. And Amanda Lindhout is repeatedly then raped by her guard, Abdullah. Now works for an NGO, where she goes back and helps the women of Somalia, which is extraordinarily sort of brave of her, given what she went through.

MONTAGNE: Well, a place that has been very dangerous over these past years is Mexico during the drug war. This particular piece is about a journalist in Mexico who began risking her life investigating the government's relationship to the drug cartels - or rather, its - not just relationship but its partnership with the drug cartels. But she really started taking on these really hard and dangerous stories after her own father was kidnapped and then murdered.

BROWN: Yes, indeed. It's a riveting story, really, of this Anabel Hernandez, who has written this book, "Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers." And this was a piece in the Guardian about Anabel, who is such an incredibly brave journalist.

And she says, really, that it's not only that the drug cartels are murdering and ruthlessly killing so many innocent civilians; but she says that Mexico itself has become a mafiocracy, with bureaucrats, politicians and police cooperating with the drug cartels in a corrupt system, which simply continues.

And she's also - feels strongly that, you know, the new government actually is going to be more tolerant now of the drug cartels because after the Calderon era, where they took on so many of the drug lords, that Mexico has just become exhausted with all the killing and in a way, would rather make a deal with them at this point - which, of course, is a very frightening state of affairs, to feel that it would just simply become the status quo.

MONTAGNE: And what emerges in this particular piece is how different the experience in captivity is by a drug lord, than it is by any of the women we've heard of, or any of the women that are there in captivity with him.

BROWN: Absolutely. I mean, she describes the appalling scandal of El Chapo, who is the head of the Sinaloa cartel, who was - you know, was in custody. But he lived the life, literally, of a lord. I mean, he simply, you know, one Christmas Day, he had a huge kind of Christmas fiesta where drink is brought in and feast and girls, and they have a party; and the guards take part, and the head of the prison takes part. And on the contrary, for the women in the jail, they're actually used to be served up to the gangsters in prison. And she says that Zulema Hernandez - a young woman serving a sentence for robbery at the same prison as Guzman - ended up being prostituted around the prison by him. And after she was released, she was found dead in the trunk of a car with the letter Z - the sign of the Zeta cartel - carved into her body. Once she'd, you know, served her use, she was then murdered because she knew too much.

MONTAGNE: Well, Tina, taking this all together, what do you make of this - taking all these three pieces together?

BROWN: I keep thinking about how terrifyingly vulnerable women are in so many countries. You know, foreign affairs through the eyes of women is often a very, very different story to the ones, you know, that's foreign affairs through the eyes of men. And people don't even want to read these stories, really. I mean, they just look at, you know, drug wars; you know, Libya, whatever; they read a few lines. It's in the news. You see the Libyan revolution. What you don't think about is what it's like to live between the lines of the news, what it's like to be in these places.

And, you know, we've all moved on from Libya. We're now focused on Syria. But what about those women left behind, living with their scars and their shame and their trauma? I mean, talk about PTSD. These women are - you know, live in a constant state of emotional crisis and terror.

MONTAGNE: Tina Brown is editor-in-chief of "The Daily Beast." Thanks very much.

BROWN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 4, 2013 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the original version of this interview, Tina Brown said that journalist Amanda Lindhout had a child as a result of being raped while she was held in Somalia. Lindhout writes about the experience in her book A House In the Sky and says that claims she had a child by one of her rapists are not true.