Nov 1 2000

The Press and the Patriarchy

Understatement marks coverage of the Taliban's gender apartheid

Amnesty International has declared the entire female population of Afghanistan to be prisoners of conscience. When the Taliban, a fanatical militia based in North West Pakistan, seized control of the capitol Kabul in 1996, they expelled girls from schools, fired women from their jobs and forced women to wear a head-to-toe burqa, which leaves only a small mesh-covered opening through which to see. Patriarchal zealots who now control 90 percent of the nation’s territory, the Taliban banned women from leaving their homes without a male relative, denied them admittance to most hospitals and treatment by male doctors. With some tiny adjustments, these edicts remain in place. The punishments for disobedience are beating, public flogging, even death.

Over half a decade of brutality, understatement has consistently characterized media coverage of Afghanistan. When the Taliban first overwhelmed Kabul, the New York Times headline (12/31/96) ran “How Afghans’ Stern Rulers Took Hold.” “Although the Islamic regime is harsh, there may be no other group capable of ruling,” declared Musa Qaleh, reporting for the Los Angeles Times (8/14/00).

The understatement is made possible in part by undercoverage. Although it’s a story rich in all the themes that are supposed to drive international reporting–human rights, the drug trade, refugees, religion, hunger, disease, regional stability and U.S. interests–Afghanis, and in particular Afghan women, bleed but do not lead.

Whose interest is lacking?

Compared to Bosnia or Kosovo–where the suppression of rights, killings and the displacement of thousands generated public outrage–two decades of aerial bombardment, the creation of 2.5 million refugees and the incarceration of one gender in their homes has been greeted with relative silence in U.S. media.

Editors and producers point to shrinking foreign-coverage budgets, lack of public interest, and lack of access to explain the lack of coverage. Given the practical challenges of covering remote and war-torn Afghanistan, television coverage–which relies on images–is the scarcest of any medium.

In 1997, the Taliban detained CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour for filming women in a Kabul hospital, and the story is repeated as if it explains why network coverage has been so minimal. Male reporters tend to speak only to Afghan men and women working for foreign aid agencies. Michael Sullivan’s report for NPR‘s Weekend Edition (8/26/00) implied, though it did not state explicitly, that the absence of female sources is a result of surveillance and women’s fear.

Some outlets, however, provide a regular stream of reports with female sources: Jane’s Intelligence Review, which covers military and security affairs, is one. BBC correspondent Kate Clark files frequently from inside Kabul. Time ran half a dozen stories this spring by Michael Fathers and Hannah Bloch, but they appeared only in the International Edition–not the version available in the United States.

Is the Afghan story unfit for U.S. consumption? Eleanor Smeal of the D.C.-based Feminist Majority has evidence that U.S. media-consumers, given the chance, seem to care. When the Feminist Majority’s “Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan” campaign was featured in the syndicated “Dear Abby” column, the item generated more than 40,000 responses. This summer, the group presented petitions with more than 211,000 signatures to the White House and the United Nations. “We’ve been told by the State Department that our letter-writing campaign thus far has produced more mail than any other single issue of foreign policy in this period,” says Smeal.

Helped by the Feminist Majority, a tour by Afghan women refugees and outspoken members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), the Afghan women’s organization, resulted in a slew of feature stories–in local papers and women’s magazines, and a handful of prestigious columns (by Bob Herbert, Katha Pollitt, Judy Mann). The stories generally focused on the women, their families and what they’ve endured–powerful, moving stuff; Glamour won an Amnesty International reporting prize for its May 2000 piece by Jan Goodwin.

But when it comes to in-depth reporting on the root of the Afghan crisis–its implications not just for women, but also for the Central Asian region–quality coverage is hard to find. And U.S. politics, not reporting difficulties or consumer preferences, seem to be to blame.

“What kind of religion is that?”

Attempting to “explain” the power of the Taliban, some reporters blame Islam. Fox News Channel‘s Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 6/30/00) put it crudely when he asked Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations: “How do you react…to Islamic states, like Afghanistan…which use the tenets of Islam to–some would say and I would be in agreement with this–to terrorize a large portion of their population? Like this, going, ‘Whoa, what kind of religion is that?'”

Reporters overwhelmingly describe the Taliban as “traditional,” “Islamic,” “fundamentalist” or all three–presenting their rise to power as a more or less natural outgrowth of the violent Afghan society, a reassertion of ancient ways. In fact, the Taliban have imposed a single sect’s relatively new, foreign-born teachings on a formerly pluralistic state.

Far from “traditional,” the religious schools that the Taliban came from developed out of a 19th Century movement founded in India that rejects many “fundamental” texts and teachings of Islam. The 55-nation Organization of Islamic Conferences has withheld recognition of the regime.

The blame-it-on-Islam version of Afghan history conveniently ignores key players: the governments of the United States and Pakistan. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States, through Pakistan’s intelligence service, sent more than $4 billion in lethal weapons and training to seven different Afghan resistance groups. The fractious war against the Soviets and their successor, President Najibullah, claimed 1.5 million lives and savaged Afghanistan’s economy, but throughout, U.S. media portrayed the Mujaheddin as “freedom fighters”–no matter how anti-democratic, anti-women or anti-Western they may have been.

This was the breeding ground from which both the Taliban and the factions that make up today’s Northern Alliance grew. The U.S. at first supported the line of stability at any cost. Afghanistan sits in a critical spot; at the time of the Taliban take-over, the California-based Unocal Oil Company was planning to build a pipeline through Afghanistan to tap into natural gas fields in Turkmenistan. (Under pressure, Unocal eventually withdrew.) Months passed before the State Department officially denied recognition to the Taliban regime. To this day, officials suggest life might be worse withoutthe Taliban. “There is no alternative to the Taliban,” an anonymous “senior Western aid official” told the L.A. Times (8/14/00).

Fostering extremism

While influential magazines (New York Times Magazine, 6/25/00; New Yorker, 5/15/00) have published long investigative pieces on the religious schools from which the Taliban recruits, they have yet to invest similar resources to reveal the roots of the situation stateside. Though typically driven by Congress, reporters have yet to follow the lead of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher(R.-Calif.), a Reagan administration veteran, who says the U.S. past and present bears responsibility for fostering the extremism in Afghanistan.

On more than one occasion, Rohrabacher has raised questions about U.S. policy on Capitol Hill–and met a resounding silence from the U.S. press. “Journalists don’t have to travel to Kabul to investigate this story,” Rohrabacher’s senior foreign policy adviser Al Santori said recently. As chair of the House International Relations Committee, the congressmember has requested access to all diplomatic documents concerning U.S. policy towards the Taliban, a request that’s so far been denied. As far as he knows, no media outlet has echoed Rohrabacher’s demand.

When the U.N. and the U.S. imposed sanctions last year, it was because the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, not because the regime imprisons women in their homes. The women of RAWA, who have worked from in and outside of Afghanistan since 1977, have stood up to Communists and patriarchs. They say sanctions hurt only those already hit worst by hunger, drought and, of course, the ban on leaving the house to work. Moreover, the sanctions have been imposed only on the Taliban, but not on rival, equally reactionary warlords, or on companies that do business with the Taliban.

The media version of fundamentalist horror in Afghanistan drains the situation of all hope, making it hard to mobilize people to act. Afghan women, for example, are generally presented as victims, shrouded, silent. As Katha Pollitt reported (The Nation, 5/29/00), the passive image contrasts starkly with the reality that last November, when the Taliban summoned the women of Kabul to witness that city’s first public execution of a woman, a RAWA member brought a camcorder under her burkha and smuggled out a tape of the whole outrage.

Far from hopeless, the women of RAWA and their colleagues are full of demands: The U.S. must impose sanctions on those countries, like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, who support the Taliban, and on companies that do business with the Taliban; peace negotiations should include not just the terrorist government but also pro-democracy forces, human rights groups, women’s groups and exiles; and U.S. funding should support health, education and pro-women democracy-building programs in Afghanistan and Afghan refugee camps.

At stake, they say, is not only the fate of this generation in Afghanistan, but their neighbors. Taliban influence is growing on the drugs-and-arms routes from Kabul to Tajikstan, the Caucasus and inside Pakistan, threatening “Afghanistanization” of the entire region. If only the world’s most powerful media professionals could see as clearly as some Afghan women seem to through the tiny square mesh in their veil.

Laura Flanders, a former FAIR staffer, now hosts a news show for Working Assets Broadcasting. For information about the Feminist Majority’s campaign to stop gender apartheid in Afghanistan, or their “Adopt-a-School” program to support women and girls education in Afghanistan, see