Behind the Globe and Mail’s Coverage of Women in Kandahar: Part 2

Behind the Globe and Mail’s Coverage of Women in Kandahar: Part 2 October 8, 2009

This is my second post covering the Globe and Mail‘s series on women in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  My first post examined the title and introductions to the project; this post will look at the online footage of the ten interviews that were conducted for the series.  There is more to the project than what is covered in my two posts, so explore it yourselves, and let me know if you think I missed anything important.

I totally missed the pun in the title of my first post covering this series: surprisingly, it actually wasn’t intentional to use the word “coverage” to refer to the series on veils. But perhaps the double entendre is apt. The obsession with veils in the title and introduction to the Globe‘s series suggests that the Canadian journalists involved in the project are projecting a lot more “coverage”–or at least a much greater significance to the physical act of covering–than may be experienced by the women themselves.

The raw footage of the interviews, which range from about seven to twenty minutes long and were conducted by a local Afghan female interviewer without a Globe reporter present, is available on the series website. As Emily said in her comment on my last post, the use of an interviewer who was herself from the area has a lot of potential to send some really interesting and empowering messages, both as an affirmation that Afghan women can act as researchers (and not only as research subjects), and as an acknowledgement of the limitations that foreign reporters may have in gaining the confidence of the interview participants.  I was dismayed, then, to read in the reflections on the series by Sarah Hampson and Sally Armstrong (two journalists involved with The Globe project), that Armstrong believed–and Hampson agreed–that “if The Globe reporters were conducting the interviews, we’d have had a lot more insight.”  Her explanation for this is that the interviewer was inexperienced, “bossy,” moved on to the next question without always following up, and caused the participants to be suspicious of her.  Both Armstrong and Hampson also felt that the interviewer did not get as much information out of each of the women as they would have liked.

Having watched all of the interviews, I can see, to some degree, what Armstrong means, although the language barrier (all interviews were conducted in Pashto or Dari and have English subtitles) makes it hard for me to gauge the interviewer’s style with much certainty.  I remain skeptical that a Globe and Mail reporter would have automatically been a more appropriate choice, even if language and logistical issues had permitted this.  As I’ll discuss in more detail later, some of the participants’ suspicion of the interviewer had to do with some of the questions that she was asking.  Moreover, having seen enough “bossy” Western reporters, I don’t think the bossiness or an “uppity and superior” attitude is limited to this interviewer, and I doubt that the women interviewed would have been any less intimidated if a Western reporter had interviewed them. I don’t mean to argue that the Afghan woman who conducted the interviews was definitively better or worse than a Western journalist, but I was concerned at the assumption that a Globe journalist would obviously have done a better job, and also at the suggestion that the interviews should have been significantly more invasive than they were.

The interview questions, developed by Globe and Mail journalists, followed a pretty set pattern, with the same core questions being asked to each woman (not necessarily in these exact words each time):

What is your name?

How old are you?

What is your religion?

Where were you born?  Where do you live now?

Are you married?  How many times have you been married?

Do you have children?  How many?  How old are they?

How many people are in your household?

What is the difference between men and women in Afghanistan?  Has this difference become the law? [This question was awkwardly worded – or at least awkwardly translated – but I assume the intention was to ask “Has the difference between men and women become so entrenched, it is as if it is a law?”]  What can be done to change this?

What is your daily routine?

Do you work?  Have you ever worked?  Would you want to work?  Would you do any kind of job?

Have you ever driven a car in Kandahar?  Would you want to drive a car?

Do you go to school?  Have you ever gone to school?

What do you think about politics in Afghanistan?  Will you be taking part in the election?  How will you decide who to vote for?

What do you think about ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan] and NATO?  Are you scared of ISAF and NATO in the city?

What hopes do you have for your own personal future?

Do you think Afghanistan’s situation will improve or worsen in the next ten years?  What do you think about the lives of women in Afghanistan in the next ten years?

[If the woman is married] How did you meet your husband?  How old were you when you got married?  What were you thinking when you got married?  What were your hopes for your marriage?  How has your life been since you got married?  If you could go back to the early days of your marriage, what would you do differently?

[If the woman is not married] How do you think you’ll get married?  What are your hopes?

There was a law recently passed affecting the Shia community that stated that a woman is not allowed to refuse to do anything that her husband asks.  What do you think of this law? [This question was phrased very euphemistically, and slightly differently in each interview, but most of the responses demonstrated that each of the women understood that the interview was asking about the requirement that, under this law, women are not allowed to refuse to have sex with their husbands.]

The law also states that women are not allowed to leave the house without their husband’s permission.  What do you think about that?

A lot of the questions were interesting, but the one about driving a car really made me cringe.  Considering the economic situations that many of these women were in, the idea of driving a car seemed not only absurd and frivolous, but also deeply insensitive.  Sakina, a woman who had been displaced from her home in a village in Kandahar province, responded to the interviewer’s question with, “Oh, sister, are you making fun of us? … We don’t even have control over ourselves and you’re talking about cars.”  Bibi Gul, a woman who makes a living by begging on the streets near her home, also responded to the question with, “Please don’t make fun of me.”

These responses reflected just how out-of-place a question like that is; the women interviewed spoke about their concerns regarding security and education, and it was obvious that even for the two who had actually driven cars before (neither one drove in Kandahar), or for the others who expressed interest in driving, this was clearly nowhere near the top of their priority list.  Why did this even made it onto the list of questions (or into the journalist’s comments in the series introduction)? My only guess is that when whoever developed the question thinks of “oppressed Muslim women,” she thinks also about laws against women driving in Saudi Arabia, and figured this must be a major concern for Afghan women. Either way, I found it really inappropriate.  On the other hand, I guess I’m glad that none of the questions specifically addressed the burqa.

Having said all of that, the interviews were pretty interesting to watch, and I’m glad that the raw footage was posted online, so that we could see un-edited clips of these women speaking for themselves.  Even with the questions guiding them, each woman managed to bring up some of the issues that were most important to her.

The ten women ranged in ages from 14 to 50, and varied widely in life situations, from the mother of five whose husband has died, to the government worker. Although the ten women do not represent a statistically representative sample in any way, it was interesting to see the major themes that arose, despite not being specifically mentioned in any of the questions.  Nearly everyone spoke about security as their main concern; several of them even raised this as a primary obstacle to achieving any kind of gender justice in the country.  Although there were diverging opinions as to the source of the current insecurity, I think it is a powerful message: these women are not asking the world to save them from their veils, but are rather identifying the country’s instability and violence as the main problem in their lives.

The other issue that arose in most of the interviews was the importance of education, and in particular of literacy.  Many women identified that as the determining factor for a woman’s success in obtaining a job, financial stability, or a sense of independence.  Barriers to education were identified as poverty, disapproval from family members, and violence and insecurity, among others.

Not surprisingly (to me, at least), the topic of the veil only came up once.  It seems that, “behind the veil,” people have things other than veils on their minds.  Shocking, I know.

The interviews are worth watching: in spite of all the problems I had with the way the project was framed, I’m glad to see that they left these interviews untouched.  Many of the stories are difficult to hear, and the responsibilities of the journalists who ran the project, and of all of us who have now taken part as audience members, to the women who shared so much about their lives, are issues that we should all be thinking about. All in all, the interviews present portraits of women with complex lives and opinions, who deserve a whole lot more than the one-dimensional veil title that was slapped onto this project.

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