Playing on Old Fears: Coverage of Iran’s Female Ninjas

Playing on Old Fears: Coverage of Iran’s Female Ninjas February 22, 2012

Amid speculations that Iran has made advances in nuclear technology for the purpose of making nuclear weapons, Iranian women have become inserted into the dicey conversation.

Female ninja in Iran. Image via the Daily Mail.

Numerous news sources have made it their prerogative to discuss exactly how Iranian women fit into this hypothetically catastrophic situation. Oddly enough, they aren’t plugging the ancient and sad mantra of helpless brown women caught between the desires of brown men and white men. Instead, they are approaching amusing, but equally problematic, dialogues.

During the past week, several online news sources, including the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail (okay, so we use the term “news sources” loosely), have been reporting on kunoichi members of a Ninjutsu club in Iran. Although this sounds like an exclusive dance club, it’s not. Kunoichi is an Iranian term for female ninjas. Some 3,000 plus Iranian women are being trained in the Japanese martial art, learning how to use bows, swords, and nunchucks, as well as how to be disciplined and sound in their use of such weapons.

A 28-year-old kunoichi, Raheleh Davoudzadeh, says of her training:

“What we’re seeing in the world of fitness and sports is the opportunity to receive training which increases our self-defense abilities and strengthens our bodies, so we are ready to defend our lives and assets.”

Another kunoichi says, “Our aim is for Iranian women to be strengthened and if a problem arises, we will definitely declare our readiness to defend our Islamic homeland.”

Sensei Akbar Faraji, the man who first introduced ninjutsu to Iran 22 years ago, explains that the ninjutsu club trains women to have strength and ability. One of the clubs instructors, Fatima Muamer, said in an interview with an Iranian TV station, that the sport greatly appeals to women because it helps them maintain a balance between the body and the mind. Ms. Muamer said of the sport and its participants, “The most important lesson in ninjutsu is respect and humility. They learn to respect themselves – first to respect their existence and then the art that they are mastering.”

While this is all swell, what’s got me less than enthusiastic is how this coverage is inserted into broader conversations regarding the treatment of women in Iran, as well as conversations regarding Israel and Iran’s tumultuous relationship—the latter resembling the clichéd positioning of Muslim women between the “East” and the “West.”

While the presence of female ninjas is being posited by news sources as Iran’s answer to Israel’s pressure to stop building nuclear weapons, it’s quite obvious that although these women may be mobilized in the advent of military conflict, the presence of ninjutsu clubs for women stretching back to 1989 makes it highly unlikely that they are being mobilized solely for the purpose of kickin’ it to Israel.  So, why the sudden interest from the Daily Fail, Huffington Post, and The Telegraph?

The fearmongering titles such as the Daily Mail’s, “Meet Iran’s female ninja Assassins: 3,000 women training to defend the Muslim state” reveal the intentions of these news sources.  With the title “Iran trains female ninjas as potential assassins,” The Telegraph mimics the overworked tactic, implying that it is just now, as pressures are mounting, that these women are being mobilized.

The foulest example of yellow journalism comes from International Business Times, which titled its article on the subject, “Iran’s Female Ninjutsu Warriors: Women Throw Away Hijab to Become Ninja Assassins.” Given that I’m sitting on my living-room couch, sans hijab, I won’t even touch this one – it would be much too easy for me to attack it, obviously.

As if the titles aren’t ludicrous enough, the content is full of instigations and and truisms. The Weekly World News reports that “Thousands of Iranian women are taking their fight against the infidels to a new level.”, a CBS affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas, uses eroticizing imageries when speaking about the kunoichis, describing them as “…black-clad “ninja” fighters, with their dusky eyes peeping through masks.” In most of the video and pictures provided, the women are not even wearing masks or niqab.

The Atlantic’s associate editor Max Fisher writes:

“But the Iranian regime’s 33-year quest to make Iranian women weak and helpless, to force them into child-like subservience, has failed. Though we in the West often perceive them this way because the hijab and the chador are all we see on the surface, women in Iran are stronger collectively and more assertive individually than the Islamic Republic would have us believe.”

While the Atlantic’s coverage was, for the most part, relatively sound and impartial, this statement hints at the notion that hijab and chador are indications of “subservience” and weakness. The shocked tone taken in the last sentence suggests that there is, in fact, some justly perceived incompatibility between autonomy and religious ideals. There is also an implied deception here: as if the government of Iran is quietly and systematically training militias of women and waiting for the right moment to expose and thrust these stealth fighters upon an unsuspecting “West”—a  very scaremongering-esque move by Max Fisher.

In addition to the obvious fatuous manner in which these articles are written, the commonplace rhetoric, political undertones, and exoticising descriptions make these articles seem like an exercise in demagogy. Choosing to cover this subject in this manner, during a time of heightened skepticism towards the Muslim world, and amidst discussions of nuclear advancement, makes it seem like a strategic attempt by media to play on the prejudices, fears, and emotions of a gullible public. Using Muslim women as political pawns in the muscle game between “East” and “West” has become an oldie but a goody—but, we are not that unsuspecting. Obviously, someone doesn’t “got the moves like Jagger.”

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