Originally posted December 2009
For the past 30 or more years, media content in Afghanistan mostly has been controlled by the central government and its supporters. During this period, as throughout the 20th century, the most important and widely available forms of media have been national radio and television. However, rural perspectives and the realities of rural life have been conspicuously absent from most media content. Moreover, because of traditionally rigid gender roles, Afghan women have had very limited or almost no access to media and information sources.
Media Images of Women in Historical Context
In spite of the strong hierarchy and patriarchy in Afghan society, central governments, such as that of Habibullah Khan in 1903, introduced a series of social and legal reforms to help raise the status of women and girls and used media to promote gender equality. Mahmud Tarzi started writing about gender equality, human rights, and social inclusion in his popular Siraj ul-Akhbar magazine, which was operated by the central government. During the same period, King Amanullah’s wife, Queen Soraya, established the first women’s magazine, Irshad-e Naswan, which focused on domestic violence and other social and political issues relating to women. This magazine was a perfect means for the Queen to convey her perspective and that of the King on women’s rights.
A second period of reform occurred during the rule of the Soviet-backed Communist regime. During the Communist era, a third of teachers were women. In addition, a substantial number of women held high-profile positions in the security field and served as doctors and nurses. These efforts to emancipate women were publicized by government-controlled radio and television networks and newspapers.
Nevertheless, Afghan women were depicted in television and radio programming and newspapers as “urban, educated, and modern” citizens. This did more harm than good to Afghan women. The rural communities felt left behind, intimidated, and overlooked by the elites influencing the central government. By representing only the educated elites, the central media created a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” women in the eyes of rural Afghans. Based on these media-created images, local communities gradually formed the opinion that those who were educated wore modern European-style clothing, and worked outside the home were not of good character. Furthermore, the broadcasted images of women created a very specific and strict gender model for women and girls in rural areas to emulate — although they were the country’s largest demographic. A local elder interviewed in 1990 described a rural woman as “pure, less morally corrupt, and a better Muslim” and stated that education would “pollute” a rural woman’s character. Although this statement represents the view of a single individual, my ten years of experience with rural Afghanistan has proved that this elder’s opinion is widely held in rural Afghanistan with regard to women and about women.
The Media and Rural Afghanistan: Neglected Terrain
Educating and creating jobs for women and girls in rural Afghanistan is a major challenge for the current central government and its international allies. Afghanistan’s emerging media can, and must, play a significant role in meeting this challenge.
According to the 2004 Human Development Report, a rural woman knows four times less than a rural man about the constitutional process or the constitutional rights of Afghan citizens. This fact illustrates the ill effects of rural Afghan women’s and girl’s extremely limited access to information. The low social status of rural women and girls confines them to the immediate surroundings of her household. Yet, it is important to mention that among the rural Afghanistan, few men have access to modern forms of media, especially radio, and rarely to television due to geographic constraints and sparse socioeconomic opportunities. Meanwhile, illiteracy in the countryside defeats the possibility that communities can be reached through print media, magazines, or newspapers.
Unfortunately, the emerging Afghan media continues to neglect rural communities. The “typical” Afghan woman is still depicted as educated, modern, and a member of the working class, while the majority of the country’s women are rural, uneducated, and have a very complicated lifestyle, which is different from those portrayed in national and private television channels. It is important to recognize the backlash and resistance in rural communities that such depictions can generate. As Homa Ghosh claims, rural Afghanistan is home to “the roots of tribal powers that have frequently doomed the Kabul-based modernization effort.” Today’s media, too, has overlooked the predominant role of the Afghan woman as rural housewife or rural daughter — one who does not attend school and does not work outside the home. Rural women and girls are not able to relate their lives to the content of current media programs. This creates a backlash whereby there is growing resistance to the idea of educating and empowering women and the stigmatizing of women who are educated or who do work outside the home as dishonorable.
The emerging media forms in Afghanistan have a very important role to play to undo the harm that has been created by previous media sectors with regards to their portrayal of the role and status of women in the country in its different regions. Experiences in Afghanistan have shown that inadequate or incomplete knowledge about an incident that involved women has had a huge impact, jeopardizing the social status of women. The recent examples of the killing of female journalists has sparked rumors that have spread from one part of the country to another, closing doors for women and girls to pursue journalism as a profession. Perhaps the female journalists were killed for the same reason that hundreds of their male counterparts have been. But the media’s failure to acknowledge this as a possibility has ramifications for how women are perceived and ultimately how they are treated.
We cannot ignore the impact of globalization on the emerging independent media in Afghanistan. With plenty of international intervention, the local media has almost lost its autonomy and functions as members of the global village of media actors. However, if the Afghan media endorses international standards of human rights for women with little understanding or regard for the differences between rural and urban populations, the gap between these segments of Afghan society will increase and eventually the country will be torn asunder. After all, international standards are far beyond the understanding and perception of a common villager, who still believes that if children are delivered at home by a daya employing traditional treatments, their children will be much healthier. This is not to suggest that the media should refrain from promoting gender equality. On the contrary, the emerging Afghan media should be doing so with greater vigor, though particular attention to challenging traditional stereotypes rather than reinforcing them.
Media has an important and vital role in social change, by encouraging equality and social inclusion. Therefore, the emerging media in Afghanistan must make an effort to incorporate the rural perspectives of women into the regular media content and to challenge the pervasiveness of domestic violence, gender disparities in health and education, and gender discrimination. The emerging media can accomplish these aims through several means. First, the media can feature male change agents who have had a positive impact on the lives of women and girls. Second, the media can condemn both obvious and hidden forms of gender discrimination. Third, the media can introduce to the public positive images of women as experts, authorities, and skilled resources on various issues such as health, education, security, politics, and governance. Fourth, the emerging media can take steps to strengthen its investigative research capacity and employ it to examine and bring to light the effects of domestic violence on women’s and children’s health, and the need to further the education and political participation of women and girls.
During the Communist era, a third of teachers were women