Reuters Gives Afghan Women a Makeover

by Racialicious special correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie

Jon Hemming for Reuters reports that a city in Afghanistan has its own answer to America’s Next Top Model. The news agency boasts that the television show “is breaking boundaries and revealing the beauty under the burqa.” (Thanks to NayLah for the tip!)

But before going on to totally ignore which kind of boundaries are being broken, Reuters is haughty enough to paint a quick Orientalist picture of Afghan women: “almost all women in deeply conservative Afghanistan still only appear in public wafting past in the burqa’s pale blue, their dark eyes only occasionally visible behind the bars of its grille” (my emphasis). Using words like “wafting” and commenting on “their dark eyes,” Reuters eroticizes Afghan women, making it seem like just going out to get the day’s groceries is an act full of sensuality! Apparently, in Afghanistan, there’s always somebody cute in the grocery store.

But don’t forget! Reuter’s use of the phrase “behind the bars of its [the burqa’s] grille” reminds us that these poor, sexy women are unfortunate prisoners of their brutal man-folk or their terribly oppressive religion! These women can’t possibly be making the choice to wear a burqa (or, as it’s really known in Afghanistan, the chaadari—again, good job, Reuters).

I have to apologize for my zealous sarcasm. But, come on! It’s been six years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and we’re still hearing Orientalist crap like this? We can’t get past the myths that all Muslim men are all savagely controlling or Islam is totally oppressive to women? Really? Even the title “Afghan models reveal the beauty under the burqa” makes it seem like the burqa is imprisoning these women.

Anyway, back to Afghan’s next top model. Reuters feeds its readers the idea that, by simply participating in this show, Afghan women are changing the entire country (despite the fact that this show is only aired in one liberal city). But they don’t illustrate how this could change anything. The article talks of all the boundaries the show breaks and all the opportunities these girls have—but they don’t go into any detail. What opportunities is this show really going to give Afghan women? The chance to illustrate the idea that Westernization doesn’t necessarily equate to liberation or liberalization? Will the winner of the contest actually get a modeling contract?

The author also quickly breezes over the fact that there is opposition to the show by some Afghans, making it seem like any outrage over Afghan women wearing camouflage combat trousers is totally unjustified. But in a country that is currently occupied by a foreign military presence that a large part of the population has a problem with, camouflage doesn’t seem like a sensitive choice.

Reuters also has a quote by Afghan Muslim cleric Abdul Raouf, just to reinforce the idea that Afghan men are threateningly oppressive: “According to Sharia law, Islam is absolutely against this. Not only is it banned by Islamic Sharia law, but if we apply Sharia law and to take this issue to justice, these girls should be punished.” But Hemming doesn’t press him on why this is against shari’a law. What part is Islam against? Television? Women on television? Women wearing military clothes on television? None of that sounds familiar to me.

And what does shari’a specifically ban? Reuters doesn’t press him for definitive answers, so readers may just assume he’s right, and that Islam really does ban women from television, or whatever it is that he thinks Islam is against. He also says that the girls should be punished. For doing what? How? Leaving the statement at “these girls should be punished” is really menacing and just bolsters the idea of an aggressive Afghan guy.

Wait a minute! Further in the story, a young Afghan man totally contradicts the cleric: “It [the show] also complies with Afghan culture, so it’s fine.” But again we’re left hanging: readers still have no idea how the show is or isn’t okay with Afghans.

I’m glad to see that women are taking a larger place for themselves in public society: for example, the 18-year-old producer of the show is an Afghan woman. I just wish that Jon Hemming and Reuters weren’t so obliviously optimistic.