Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teaching Sociology: Reading Media Critically and Cultural Relativism

The past two semesters for my "Cross-Cultural Relations" courses -- all taught online -- I have required students to complete an assignment initially conceptualized in the following blog post:

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

Here is how I actually present the assignment:

First read this TIME Magazine story,
Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban (warning: graphic image; be sure to read all 4 parts). Then, before reading the second assigned article, answer the following questions:
  • What was your general response to this article? You may focus on any type of response you had – political, emotional, intellectual.
  • Did this article influence you to think one way or the other about the United States’ role in Afghanistan? If so, how so?

Now go into your Supplemental Readings folder, download and read the article titled Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan. Then answer the following questions:

  • How did this essay illustrate the United States’ historical and ongoing role in creating a social environment where Afghan women and girls were (and are) regularly victimized?
  • What does this article say about Afghan women’s lives before and after United States intervention in Afghanistan?
  • What would the authors of this essay say about the TIME Magazine article?
  • And finally, after reading this research-based article, how do you interpret the United States’ motivation for being in Afghanistan?

Of course responses vary among students who put in different effort levels and have differing levels of insight. However broadly speaking, the assignment seems to be effective in getting students to see very divergent viewpoints on Afghanistan's socio-political dynamics and the media we receive (and don't receive) that cover those dynamics.

The Los Angeles Times has an OP-ED published yesterday (1/13/11) that is a good supplement for this assignment: "
In Afghanistan, a woman's place is at the peace table: Let women play a bigger role in the country's affairs and see what happens to the peace process," by Ann Jones, which points out how current Afghan President Harmid Karzai -- who the United States supported in his ascent to Presidency -- perpetuates women's exclusion from political influence. In fact, the article shows a growing trend in how the U.S. supports patriarchial Afghan leadership and regrets doing so years later:

Modern ideas, including the idea of equality between the sexes, have been at the heart of Afghan cultural struggles for at least a century. In the 1920s, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women's complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, banned polygamy and the burka and banished ultraconservative mullahs who undermined the moderate Sufi ideals of Afghanistan. His modern ideas cost him his crown, but Amanullah and his modern, unveiled queen, Soraya, are remembered for their brave endeavor to drag the country into the modern world.

Thousands of Afghan citizens have shared Amanullah's modern views, expressed later by successive leaders, kings and communists alike. But in 2001 the U.S. — and by extension the entire international community — cast its lot with Hamid Karzai. We put him in power after a power-sharing conference in Bonn, to which only two Afghan women were invited. We paid millions to stage two presidential elections, in 2004 and 2009, and looked the other way while Karzai's men stuffed the ballot boxes. Now, it seems, we're stuck with him and his ultraconservative, misogynist "traditions," even though an ever-growing number of Afghanistan watchers now identify the Karzai government as the single greatest problem the U.S. faces in its never-ending war.

And what has Karzai done for the women of Afghanistan? Not a thing.

That's the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, an association of prominent aid and independent research groups in Afghanistan. Afghan researchers conducted extensive interviews with prominent male religious scholars, male political leaders and female leaders at the local, provincial and national levels.

The report notes that Karzai has supported increasingly repressive laws against women, most notoriously the " Taliban-style" Shia Personal Status Law, which not only legitimizes marital rape but prevents women from stepping out of their homes without their husbands' consent. The report points out that this law denies women even the basic freedoms guaranteed all citizens in Afghanistan's 2004 constitution.

In addition to these important points, an earlier part of the article addresses Resolution 1325, which Jones refers to as "...the most enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council." More from the article:

Passed on Oct. 31, 2000, the resolution was hailed worldwide as a great victory for both women and international peace. In a nutshell, it calls for women to participate equally in all processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking and reconstruction.

The resolution grew out of a recognition that while men at the negotiating table still jockey for power and wealth, women who are included commonly advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with those of civil society. They are concerned about their children and consequently about shelter, clean water, sanitation, jobs, healthcare, education — the things that make life livable for peaceable people.

It's been nine years since I started doing aid work in Afghanistan, and I am frustrated by the lack of progress toward a peaceful and livable society.

Yet whenever I present my modest proposal for the implementation of 1325 to American big men who lay claim to expertise on Afghanistan, most of them strongly object. They know the theory, they say, but they are precluded from throwing their weight behind the resolution by delicate considerations of "cultural relativism." Afghanistan, they remind me, is a "traditional" culture when it comes to women. Westerners, they say, must respect that. [emphasis added]

This presents an opportunity to discuss the sociological concept of cultural relativism (named directly in this article). Considering the ways violence against women manifests in certain parts of Afghanistan (and other parts of the world), particularly those parts under Sharia Law, as well as the lack of power women hold across multiple institutional spheres, how culturally relativistic should the United States be in setting Afghan policy?

And furthermore, if the United States does intervene under the declaration of safeguarding and empowering Afghan women -- thereby not employing the concept of cultural relativism -- how should such an intervention actually look such that it is not a superficial veil that masks other international motivations?

See what kind of independent, critical thinking skills students can muster.

Academics Blogs

No comments:

Post a Comment