Oppressed and Downtrodden: The New York Times Profiles Abused Afghan Women

Covering Afghan women must be an especially hard task for many Western journalists. I say this because every piece I have read about Afghan women makes them seem like they are some of the most oppressed women in the world, with little to no hope for happiness, sans intervention by a Western savior or “Western” inspired program of some sort. A recent New York Times piece on Afghan women fleeing domestic violence, unfortunately, does little to break from this pattern.

Mariam. Image via Lynsey Addario for The New York Times.
Mariam. Image via Lynsey Addario for The New York Times.

Even before reading the article, the reader is already presented with a big image of the poor, oppressed Muslim woman, literally. A picture of Mariam (shown left), a woman who fled an abusive husband, is shown with her face covered by what appears to be a knitted scarf. Reading the story, it appears that she probably had her face covered to protect her identity. However, I still question why that image was the image to introduce the story when there were plenty of images to choose from including a few of women doing ordinary tasks. The picture has obvious Orientalist overtones and instead of humanizing the women, Miriam included, in the story, it instead otherizes them. We don’t see them as victims of domestic abuse but instead as victims of a foreign Muslim culture that abuses women.

The article itself is no better. We’re told Miriam’s story, which is tragic, and then we’re basically given a spin on “the West saved Muslim women from the Muslim brutes” idea with this statement:

Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, a more egalitarian notion of women’s rights has begun to take hold, founded in the country’s new Constitution and promoted by the newly created Ministry of Women’s Affairs and a small community of women’s advocates.

You would think from this quote that there hasn’t been a grassroots women rights movement in Afghanistan for decades now and long before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. However, that isn’t the case. The wording is also troubling. What does “a more egalitarian notion of women’s rights” mean? If activists are fighting for women’s rights, wouldn’t it be assumed that they want equality? Were women’s rights activists in Afghanistan fighting for non-egalitarian rights before the U.S. invasion?

The rest of the article highlights stories of other abused women and blames the plight of the women solely on culture, tradition, and patriarchy. While patriarchy certainly has a part in what happened to these women, I am tired of the narrative that blames culture and does not look at other factors. Miriam was sold to pay off the drug debt of her father. Why is there no discussion of the abject poverty that created the condition for her to be sold? Why is there no discussion of the role that Western countries played in creating this poverty? Blaming the abuse that women receive purely on “culture” and “tradition” is very over-simplistic. It doesn’t help the reader to actually relate to the women in the article and, once again, it makes a Muslim culture look inherently oppressive and misogynist.

The article did discuss the efforts of Afghan women activists to help abused women, but it was hard to focus on these efforts in the face of an overwhelmingly biased story. Because we’re presented with the usual narrative of oppressed Muslim women, it’s difficult to read the article and feel that Afghan women have much agency or hope. The article isn’t nuanced and presents an all-t0o-familiar narrative on Afghan women.

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