Monday, August 16, 2010

Teaching Sociology: How American Media Uses Violence Against Women in Afghanistan to Veil the Public

One of the more difficult things I find when teaching popular culture is getting students to connect media trends to broader trends in society. It is not difficult for students to identify patterns of discrimination. But identifying discrimination alone misses critical context.

Since 2001, the media has been saturated with coverage of “The War on Terror” (or whatever the slogan of the day is). I recently read an extremely interesting journal article by Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar (2005) in Media, Culture & Society, titled “Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan.”

Stabile and Kumar’s article makes the following key points:

  • Prior to 9/11, American politicians and American media were not concerned at all with women’s rights in Afghanistan or other Middle Eastern countries. Following 9/11, all of a sudden, the American military became Afghan women’s saviors across American televisions and in major print sources.

  • American media constructs the military’s efforts to liberate Afghan women from their oppressive Afghan male counterparts as a first-time effort, thereby dismissing any and all efforts Afghan women have taken to liberate themselves.

  • American media fails to acknowledge that when the United States armed and trained the mujahideen in the 1980s to push back the Soviet Union, the CIA was completely aware of the mujahideen’s extreme sexist tendencies. Thus, American efforts were far more invested in securing contracts to oil pipelines through Afghanistan and winning the Cold War than they were in humanitarian/women’s rights.

  • American media never acknowledges that since the Soviet Union was ousted and the Taliban took over Afghanistan (due heavily to American support), Afghan women’s rights declined immensely.

  • And since America’s military presence in Afghanistan, our media suggests Afghan women’s conditions have improved, when in reality they have hardly changed.
Some text from Stabile and Kumar’s article:

When we look at the condition of women today in Afghanistan, it becomes clear that the US never really had their liberation in mind. While some things have changed since the collapse of the Taliban for women, much remains the same. So, for instance, women may now venture out in certain regions without a male escort, but they still do not enjoy basic human rights. And while 1.5 million Afghan children now attend schools – one third of them girls – more than 3 million children do not go to schools because no infrastructure exists. Reports reveal that women are still punished according to Islamic laws. Kabul jail had no women prisoners shortly after the fall of the Taliban, but as of April 2002 women were being incarcerated for crimes such as leaving their husbands or having relationships with members of the opposite sex (Ahmed-Ullah, 2002). One year after the US attacked Afghanistan, the war-ravaged country had the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world (Sierra Leone was number one): 1700 out of every 100,000 women died during pregnancy or childbirth. In the US, the maternal mortality rate is 12 out of every 100,000 (Reuters, 2002). In December 2002, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting continued violence against Afghan women, particularly in the Western regions of Afghanistan (Human Rights Watch, 2001). (p. 775, 776).

The bottom line is that the American media does not present a realistic, accurate portrayal of Afghan women because Afghan women's so-called emancipation due to American efforts serves as a moralistic veil, influencing the American public to continue supporting the war. But what’s clear is American economic, political, and military efforts are not truly invested in Afghan girls’ and women’s rights; they are interested in oil.

How then, do we interpret TIME magazine’s recent issue and its cover portrait, showing Aisha – an 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off after she fled her abusive in-laws? Richard Stengel, Managing Editor for TIME, discusses the cover portrait in his article, “The Plight of Afghan Women: A Disturbing Picture”:

In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.

The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war. Our story and the haunting cover image by the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground. As lawmakers and citizens begin to sort through the information about the war and make up their minds, our job is to provide context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time.

Explicitly, it appears TIME is taking an apolitical approach, simply reporting the news so to speak – reporting what is out there, in turn, allowing the public to make their own assessments. Implicitly, however, it is what is not reported (what is never reported) that makes this picture and the attendant discourse entirely political.

The messages implicitly conveyed: Afghan men and Afghan culture are horrible; American culture is great. We are, once again, the white knights coming in to save the tortured, helpless women of color from their demonic brown-skinned men. Orientalist discourse, truly at its best.

The messages never conveyed: American foreign policy helped set the stage for this hideous practice to transpire by knowingly supporting a regime rooted so deeply in sexism years ago. And now, America continues to invest more in its ubiquitous war machine than it does in say Afghan women’s and girls’ education (seriously, how many schools have been built and sustained by American efforts?) or in public health facilities. Oh, and dimensions of sexism (institutionalized and personal) persist in the United States.

At the risk of being opportunistic myself, the TIME magazine portrait and its attendant stories, coupled with Stabile and Kumar’s article make for an excellent teaching/learning opportunity. Simply viewing the TIME magazine cover and articles, one could easily point to horrifically sexist norms, and stop there. With Stabile and Kumar’s article, the questions and discussion become much richer.

Does the mainstream American media inadvertently (or deliberately) collude with American political, economic, and militaristic entities by using women’s rights as an opportunity to make our country look good, when really, we simply want resources? If efforts were truly being made to impede violence against women, why isn’t our military taking a stand in and around the Democratic Republic of the Congo (listen to this inspiring podcast)? What should America’s role really be in the Middle East if women's rights are a central concern?

Full Reference:

Stabile, C. A., & Kumar, D. (2005). Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan. Media, Culture & Society, 27 (5), 765-782.

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  1. Your certainly a sociologist and not an engineer.
    Engineers know that the Afghan oil pipeline story was always a bizarre myth.
    We can't get an economically viable oil pipeline over the American Rockies, we sure as heck aren't going to build one over the Hindu Kush. Do you have any idea how much energy it takes to pump oil across a mountain range like that? The pressures involved?
    Otherwise, I agree completely. Since we have had no historic interest in the rights of women in Afghanistan, it certainly makes no sense to have any interest in this now or in the future.

  2. I can go back and read the article by Stabile & Kumar a bit more carefully, and maybe do some other background reading on the oil pipeline. Agreed, the construction of a pipeline across any kind of terrain is not my expertise. It could be the goal of developing a pipeline was more important than protecting women, though never stated.

  3. Related podcast on NPR:

    "Brutality Against Women Stirs Fear In Afghanistan"


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