Is Media Helping Or Hurting Women In Afghanistan?
The Shia Personal Status Law, a clear violation of women’s rights, was recently passed in Afghanistan. Some media respected the agency of Afghan women in their coverage of the law while others perpetuated racist, sexualized and reductionist portrayals. What are the implications for Afghan women and their rights?
by Masum Momaya
Shia Personal Status Law Serves as Political Football
In Late July 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the Shia Personal Status Law. The controversial law, widely condemned by human rights and women’s rights advocates in Afghanistan and many observers outside the country, codifies unequal gender roles for the Shia minority in the country around issues related to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.
The signing of the law followed months of international media coverage and local and global debate, during which Karzai promised a review of the proposed law and an alignment with international human rights standards under pressure from Western governments and media. Some of the most egregious provisions of the law were removed, but many others remained. Karzai quietly passed the law just before the recent presidential elections, without sending it for parliamentary review as promised.
Many were quick to point out – and it went widely undisputed – that Karzai, after seven years in his position, facing an increasingly tenuous hold on his presidency and a closely contested election, had backed the law to appeal to and appease conservative factions who argued that the law was consistent with the principles of Islam.
Technically speaking, the law applies only to a 15 to 25% Shia minority in the multi-ethnic country. However, many human rights and women’s rights activists worry that even though the law applies to a small minority, it represents a return to Taliban-style repression. Many of these activists have pointed out that the law violates the Afghan Constitution, which grants men and women equal rights before the law, and the country’s commitment as a signatory to CEDAW.
Of great concern to women’s rights activists in Afghanistan and elsewhere is the continued use of women’s rights as a political ‘football’ to appease conservative factions. In many contexts around the world, leaders pledge to uphold women’s rights in public but make backroom deals to allow repressive legislation in exchange for votes and political backing by conservative groups who control or have significant influence over politically-thorny constituents.
Media Conveys Messages about Gender
While most women’s rights and human rights advocates have been quick to condemn and call for repealing the law, a less discussed but nevertheless important concern is the portrayal of Afghan women and men in relation to this issue. Media markedly influence how people understand gender, gender roles and gender discrimination, especially in places that are faraway, physically inaccessible and culturally ‘foreign.’ Historically, western media has portrayed ‘others’ in the Global South in infantilizing, discriminatory, racist and sexualized ways, and these portrayals can and have been used for political gain by a wide range of actors.
The passage of the law in Afghanistan provided media with yet another window of opportunity to either transcend or perpetuate these portrayals.
Some media used the passing of the law to highlight the ongoing, repressive and brutal nature of violence against women in Afghanistan, pointing out that many women in Afghanistan – both Sunni and Shia – are already subject to the repressive relationships codified by the law, and worse. For instance, Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan-Canadian journalist, wrote, “the majority of all Afghan women are in fact hostage to far more draconian practices, enshrined in customs and traditions that date back to pre-sharia days.”
Similarly, the Women’s UN Report Network re-highlighted an Al Jazeera English article on how, in spite of reports that more girls attending school and more women getting elected to provincial councils in Afghanistan, the brutality and intensity of forced and/or child marriage, verbal and emotional domestic abuse, beatings, maiming, rape and murder has increased.
Additionally, various ABC News commentators observed that few people pay attention to legislation or even have the ability to read laws in the first place, and fewer turn to the legal system for redress as it is so widely regarded as corrupt and ineffective, especially in areas outside Kabul where the central government has very little connection to or authority over what happens.
Meanwhile, Women’s eNews has recently run articles about the intimidation of women voters and the complexities of U.S. aid for women’s rights, and RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, has run several reports of women’s protests against the law.
Yet these reports stand alongside far more familiar coverage that continues to racialize and sexualize Afghan women and men.
Media Racializes and Sexualizes Afghans
Racialized and sexualized portrayals of Afghans pre-date but were heightened during the Bush administration, which effectively used rhetoric to paint Afghan men as brutish thugs and Afghan women as victims in need of “rescue.” Accompanying imagery is often confined to women shrouded in burqas, bearded gun-toting warlords, and zealous mullahs spouting sermons condemning Western influence.
Such rhetoric and images were invoked again in coverage of the law.
Although the Sharia Personal Status Law encompasses a wide range of provisions related to domestic and family life, most recent mainstream media coverage of the law has focused on and even sensationalized specific provisions related to sexual relations, including: a stipulation that a husband has the right to withdraw material support to his wife, including denying her food, if she refuses to comply with his sexual demands; and another stipulation that women should to submit to sex with their husbands at least once every four days, the latter of which was removed from the final version.
Rather than interrogating why such rights are under attack and why the law is codifying gender and sexual relations in the first place, a media focus on these kinds of provisions ostensibly invites ‘international’ viewers into the intimate affairs of Afghans, sexualizes Afghan men, and provides support for the argument that Afghan women need to be “saved” from their savage, sexually voracious men, such that one form of aggression (military) is justified in trying to curb another (sexual).
Although there has been some discussion in academic circles about the racist and sexualized portrayal of Afghans, much of the media has continued to publish stories of backwardness and brutality, seeking to capture readership through sensationalism and hysteria. For example, leaders of conservative factions in Afghanistan gave numerous sermons extolling the merits of the law and its ‘Islamic’ roots, and the media was quick to translate and share these quotations, especially in reference to sexuality. This type of sensationalism sells more papers and undoubtedly generates more internet traffic and Youtube hits than contextualized, critical analysis.
Furthermore, this kind of media attention further feeds stereotypes and assumptions about Islam, Muslim men and women, and the sharia, eclipsing decades of work by women’s rights activists and others to disentangle religion from fundamentalism as a means to justify repression. For example, Moroccan feminist scholar Fatima Mernissi contends that there is no tradition in Islam or the Qur’an that justifies discriminatory treatment of women, saying “it is neither because of the Qur'an, nor the Prophet, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with those of the male elite.”
Additionally, this ongoing racialization and sexualization not only feeds Western righteousness around the mission of spreading ‘freedom’, democracy and civilization to the “primitive and backward” peoples of the Global South but also allows “feminist” rhetoric to be co-opted for the purposes of “saving” women in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The prevalence of these reductionist images also eclipses the perpetration of violence by military invaders, voyeuristically recorded and transmitted by the international media, selectively choosing to sensationalize and convey brutality rather than protest, resist, and ultimately recognize the agency of women and of Afghan people in general.
Media Can Perpetuate or Dismantle Injustice
At best, media can expose violations of rights, contextualize hot-button issues, hold leaders and governments accountable for their promises, and promote human rights – and in some cases the media are the only watchdogs in charged and contentious environments – but it can also collude in perpetuating racist and sexualized stereotypes and feed into the patriarchal and repressive agendas not only of Afghan mullahs and warlords, but also of western military powers who seek to ‘spread freedom and democracy’ through the barrel a of gun.
In Afghanistan, women continue to face extreme violence and perpetual challenges to their rights. Afghans more generally are also disenfranchised and threatened in the political process due to election fraud, vote rigging and voter intimidation. In the short run, little is likely to change, highlighting the need for long-term, ongoing international solidarity by and with human rights and women’s rights activists.
Additionally, women’s rights and human rights activists worldwide need to not only resist direct violations of rights but also indirect violations from the media through critical engagement with the media. Just as women’s movements have taken on issues of violence against women, political participation, and war and militarism, media justice must be considered as part and parcel of gender justice.
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The author would like to thank her AWID colleagues Shareen Gokal and Saira Zuberi for their contributions to this piece.