Behind the Globe and Mail’s Coverage of Women in Kandahar: Part 1

Behind the Globe and Mail’s Coverage of Women in Kandahar: Part 1 October 1, 2009

This post is the first of two that will analyze the recent Globe and Mail series on women in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  While the series included segments in print and broadcast media, my focus here is on the multimedia online section, accessible through the Globe and Mail‘s website.  Today’s post will be an overview of some of the introductory aspects of the series; next week, I will focus more on the content and the discussions with actual Afghan women.

When I first saw the Globe and Mail’s series called “Behind the Veil,” about women in Kandahar, two thoughts popped into my head at the same time:

  1. I should probably cover this for Muslimah Media Watch.
  2. “Behind the Veil”?  Seriously??? Ugh.  I am veiled-out.  I can’t go near a series with a title like that.
Image via The Globe and Mail.

Obviously, thought #1 won out, but not without some time devoted to the mind-boggling frustration factor of thought #2.  They could not have come up with a more clichéd title if they had tried, and there is absolutely no excuse for such a lack of creativity at such a big newspaper.  To illustrate just how overdone this title is, a Google search of “behind the veil” (in quotes) gives about 569,000 results, including articles and books on women in Iran, “Western” journalists’ encounters with “women in conservative Islamic societies”, representations of Muslim women in Indian writings, an Australian woman’s experiences as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, prostitution in Iran, HIV/AIDS in Muslim countries, and even a BBC report from 2001 that also focused on Afghan women.  The point is, it’s been done, ad nauseam, especially (but not exclusively) with regards to Muslim women, and “behind the veil” as a name is just plain lazy.  Maybe that sounds harsh, but my frustration comes from having seen titles like this time and time again, and the implication that the only reason to pay attention to Muslim women is in order to de-veil them.

In addition to the lack of creativity is the message that this title sends, particularly to Afghan women: “The veil is the only thing that comes to mind when we think of you.  It takes us a whole lot of effort to consider that, behind the clothing you wear, there might actually be real people worth talking to.”  I could maybe–maybe–understand this title if it referred to the existing media constructions of the veil (in the sense of “behind the one-dimensional portrait of Afghan women that we usually discuss”), and the fact that Afghan women are so often talked about in the context of what they wear, but my impression from the rest of the series is that it aims to look beyond the “veil” itself, and not necessarily beyond the meaning that has been attributed to the veil.

One more initial reaction: if you go to the main website for the project, the image there is of a woman who appears to be wearing a black shawl or chador of some kind, that has been lifted off her face; underneath, her head and face are covered, with the exception of her eyes (pictured above).  This made me giggle, because it suggests an answer to the age-old question of “what is behind the veil?” that I hadn’t even considered: maybe what we would find behind the veil is–get this–another veil.  And who knows how many veils she’s hiding behind that one…  (Yes, I realize that in this particular case, I am definitely reading too much into it.)

Listening to the journalist’s introduction, available in video form from the series’ website, and reading the foreign editor’s note explaining the rationale behind the series, I was struck by just how formulaic it all sounded.  Afghan women are to be pitied, and Afghan men and/or culture are at the root of all of their problems.  Oppression can be measured by how many layers of clothing women wear.  Not that there aren’t problems for Afghan women, but the lack of complexity anywhere in the introduction surprised me. Did the Globe and Mail really put so many resources into reproducing something that would be created with exactly the same perspective as pretty much every other portrayal of Afghan women that we’ve seen in Western media for almost the past decade?  I don’t know why I had expected something more creative or critical, but I have to say I was disappointed (this is still talking specifically about the angle from which the project was conducted; I have more to say about the actual content of the series, which I’ll talk about in detail next week.)

For example, the foreign editor, Stephen Northfield, starts his article with:

The road that led to the Behind the Veil project began one morning in late March, when word leaked out of a international conference in the Hague that Afghan President Hamid Karzai – our ally in the bloody and costly effort to bring peace to that war-savaged land – had endorsed a law that, among other things, allowed some men to demand sex from their wives.

We were skeptical at the initial reports. Could this really be true?

The answer turned out to be yes, and the response – a mix of anger and disappointment around the world – spoke volumes about the powerful and often conflicting emotions many of us have about the nation-building exercise in Afghanistan. Should we have been shocked that such a law could have emerged from an ancient, paternalistic culture that neither embraced nor endorsed Western notions of gender equality?

Probably not. But, realistic or not, we hoped for better.

Aside from the somewhat baffling suggestion that notions of gender equality are only ever Western (and that the “West” actually has gender equality or non-paternalistic cultures), this article reproduces a lot of the same assumptions that came out after the law was endorsed.  It suggests that “we” (I assume he means “Canadians,” although the undefined collective pronoun is rather presumptuous; see here for another discussion on the use of “we” in this context) were only ever in Afghanistan to liberate its women, and that the creation of this law is the fault only of the new Afghan government, a betrayal to the supposedly benevolent efforts of the invading and occupying military presence.  As I argued when the law was first publicized,

[Articles in Canadian media about the law] seem to assume that the situation of Afghan women is the primary reason that the Canadian forces are there, and that it is entirely the Afghan government’s fault that things are not as rosy as they should be.  No one seems to remember that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are there as part of the “war on terror,” and that women’s rights have been, at best, a side issue, and at worst, an issue raised only to drum up support for the mission.  The mere presence of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, surprisingly enough, is not going to magically result in improved conditions for Afghan women.  From the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, there have been various instances of leaders in some parts of the country being supported by the allied forces in their efforts to get rid of the Taliban, with little attention given to their own misogynistic policies (see here for one example.)

I was also uncomfortable with Northfield’s description of Afghan women as “a silent, shadowy presence, hidden behind veils and mud walls, almost absent from the narrative of the conflict.”  It reeks of Orientalist stereotypes, and of a narrow-minded view of the “conflict” (itself an interestingly de-politicized term.)  Women may have been absent from certain narratives, but certainly not all; and although Afghan women have certainly been silenced in many cases, the suggestion that they are primarily “silent” and “shadowy” dehumanizes them and overlooks the many ways in which Afghan women are resisting all of the oppressions that they are facing (in ways that may or may not fit into traditional definitions of “resistance.”)

The main journalist for the project, Jessica Leeder, introduces her work through a video clip.  She explains that, because of cultural norms in Kandahar that prevent women from speaking to male journalists, “the stories of what it’s like to be a woman in this almost pre-historic slice of Afghan society have largely gone untold.”  Aside from having issues with the term “pre-historic,” I also would have liked a bit more self-reflexivity here; the stories have “gone untold” to whom?  The lack of precision here suggests that the telling of the stories only matters when they are being told to outsiders (since, presumably, Afghan women probably talk to each other every so often.)  In the two-minute clip, Afghan women are described as being held back by their burqas (of course) and by not being allowed to drive cars. While neither of these is insignificant by any means, they both play into stereotypical representations of “conservative Muslim societies,” and at times seem to reflect more about the Western/non-Afghan/non-Muslim journalist’s projections about what is important, rather than what the women themselves identify as their major issues.  Leeder does, however, also raise some important points about the increasing insecurity in the country, describing, for example, a female politician who was recently assassinated, and the fear of her colleagues to speak to any media, even when they had been happy to do so only months before.

The one last introductory part that I’ll discuss, and that I did appreciate, was the methodology section.  It definitely helps to have an article that explicitly lays out how the project was conducted, acknowledging the ethical issues that were considered, as well as some of the limitations of the research:

Through a trusted contact we hired a local, female translator and interviewer and trained her on a basic video camera. The goal was to have her conduct on-camera interviews – without a Globe reporter present – with 10 “average” women in Kandahar representing diverse ages, educational backgrounds and home life situations. Those interviews would be supplemented by other in-person and telephone interviews conducted by a Globe reporter.

Each video subject was informed about the multimedia project and given the choice to use an assumed name and/or have their face blurred in photographs. Only one asked that we do this. All were asked the same basic slate of questions written by the Globe to highlight everything from their religious beliefs to thoughts on politics, women’s rights and the future of Afghanistan. The interviewer was asked to posit follow-up questions in situations that merited them. However, she is not a trained journalist, and it’s fair to say her instinct for when to do this evolved over the course of the month in which our interviews were done. It is partly for this reason that the raw interviews range in length from about five minutes to 20. Another critical factor is the discrepancy in education levels. Some women were simply not literate enough to understand and answer all of our questions.

While not without its own problems, this methodology article reflects a level of transparency and responsibility that I would love to see in more large-scale media projects of this kind.

I know I’m probably going to be criticized for being overly nitpicky with this post, but I’m just so tired of seeing the same things getting written over and over about Afghan women, and I’m frustrated that the people involved in this project didn’t give more critical thought to how to frame the issues that it covers.

Next week’s post will cover the actual content of the series, with a focus on the segments where Afghan women speak for themselves, segments that are far more nuanced and interesting than the eye-rolling cliches of the project’s title and introduction.

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