Remember in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when it seemed like every talking head and every media outlet was asking plaintively "Why do they hate us?"—where the "they" meant Muslims?
The question prompted a media search for allies in an Islamic world that seemed universally hostile. But who were these sympathetic faces? A study that came out in April, entitled "The ‘Good’ Muslims: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Pakistan," discovered that newspapers identified women as the West’s best allies; it was through their intercession that the West—and especially the RELATED WEB LINK
"The ‘Good’ Muslims"
– icmpa.umd.eduUnited States—would find the solution to terrorism at the family, the tribal or ethnic, and the national level. In commentary and reporting, women were portrayed as the "good" Muslims who wanted peace and freedom.
The study—released by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, College Park—analyzed news coverage and commentary published on op-ed pages about Pakistan and Afghanistan by 13 major U.S. newspapers. [See Author’s Note below for the names of these papers.] Two time periods were examined: September 11, 2001 to December 31, 2002 and January 1, 2006 to January 15, 2007.
Like all studies of coverage of international affairs, the ICMPA study noted the limitations on what journalists are able to report. They don’t cover all news; in AUTHOR’S NOTE
Papers used in the ICMPA study: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.fact, they can’t cover all the news. So they triage, reporting news they think is important to their audience. In the case of U.S. reporting on global events that typically means news with a strong, direct link to American interests, usually security or economic, but at times humanitarian. They cover stories they can physically get to—where visas are available, plane flights possible, and costs in time and money not exorbitant—and still or video images can be taken. They cover major international breaking news but usually only in those places of long-term or specific interest to Americans: a hostage-taking in Iran and the British response, nuclear disarmament talks in North Korea, massive protests against the United States in Iraq, stark evidence of global warming in the Bay of Bengal. They cover global trends and issues—terrorism, nuclear weapons, cataclysmic disasters—especially those that have received attention by the White House or Congress or by some other significant political player.
Knowing that, this study analyzed how major American newspapers covered and characterized (through their selection of op-eds to publish) Pakistan, an essential staging ground in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a staunch Muslim ally (the government, if not the people), a frontline in the "war on terror," a critical player in nuclear politics, a key conduit in the narcotics trade, and a major recipient of American aid. Of course, the study also noted what potential aspects of this story remained uncovered, as well.
This examination of newspaper coverage and commentary revealed that during the time period just after 9/11, the role of women in Pakistan was regarded as essential. Although there was the occasional story from Pakistan that involved a woman or women, what strikingly emerged in the post-9/11 coverage was the insertion of women into stories that did not affect women specifically or predominately. Of course, it is common in mainstream news coverage of international affairs for entire countries (and even regions) to be tarred with a wide brush; often, for example, few distinctions are made among even very active political opposition groups within a country. Far too often, for example, much of the reporting and commentary about the Palestinians and the Iranians suffers from this problem.
In other situations, especially when reporters are stationed on the ground and there is ongoing interest in a region, nuances do emerge in coverage; politics and people are not represented so monolithically. In such reporting (and commentary)—coverage of the Balkans is a case in point—one distinct group is identified as holding the moral high ground. Sometimes that group is represented as the victims of another group. Sometimes that group is identified as potential "saviors"—indicating that if only that group held the reins of power the situation would be ameliorated, at the very least.
Women: Portrayed as ‘Saviors’
"The ‘Good’ Muslims" report documented how in the year following 9/11, in many articles and in commentary published in newspapers women were characterized as the "group" favoring peace and freedom. Women were bluntly seen as "saviors." It was through their intercession, courage and energy that religious extremism—equated with terrorism—could be moderated. In an interview published in The Boston Globe magazine the following words conveyed this point: "Terrorist ideology and women’s leadership are not compatible, so one way to attack terrorism is to advance the role of women." A columnist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described the potential power of political groups headed by women: "… there is a little-known but vigorous grass-roots movement within Pakistan of nongovernmental organizations—mostly headed by women—that is attracting moderate, educated people to push for government reform."
Journalists wrote about Pakistani and Afghan women struggling to gain an education or about their efforts to facilitate the education; the key message of these stories was the transformative power of women’s education. A front-page story in the Los Angeles Times, for instance, traced the extraordinary impact of just one school:
"When the Jalal family went door to door 20 years ago urging parents to let their daughters attend a new girls school, people in this desert outpost branded them heretics …. But a few dozen brave parents, particularly those working as servants, enrolled their girls anyway. And that has made all the difference in their lives.
"A decade after the first class graduated, this isolated desert region near the Iranian border has been affected in ways both simple and profound.
"The school, which now hums with the voices of nearly 1,000 girls, has brought jobs here. It has tilted the economic balance in favor of the graduates, who have emerged as their families’ breadwinners and hold the best-paying jobs in town.
"The school also has brought colorful clothing, confidence and even condoms here. Girls as young as 10 have learned to just say ‘no’ if they don’t like the men their parents have picked out for them to marry. Several have gone on to college, living in hostels a three-hour drive from home—independence inconceivable just a few years ago."
Reporters and commentators also wrote about women’s victimization at the hands of Muslim men through either extra-legal means or the Hudood Ordinance and the Qisas and Diyat Ordinances. Women’s "victim" status at the hands of men validated the binary idea that Muslim women are "good" and Muslim men are "cruel," perhaps even "terrorists." Women’s clothing also drew great scrutiny, and once again the act of "taking off the veil" was treated as a metaphorical statement; women’s freedom was measured by how "uncovered" they were and how close their clothing matched Western notions of female attire.
In such presentations of information, there often appeared to be a moral beyond the obvious one of confirming the second-class status of women; in this case, it was confirming the evil of what were considered aggressively male Muslim institutions. The Seattle Times, for example, took note of the treatment of women in local politics: "Pakistan’s leading human-rights group said yesterday it was shocked at the public humiliation of an elected female official beaten and paraded naked through a village on the orders of a powerful landlord …. Kamila Hyat, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the incident was not the first of its kind. ‘At least four similar cases have been reported this year,’ she said, adding the incident was indicative of the low status of women in Muslim, male-dominated Pakistan."
While each article or commentary touched on incidents and circumstances involving women’s lives, patterns revealed in our look at all of this coverage indicated that women’s lives—and what was happening to them—were often being used as a synecdoche for what was happening to the country as a whole. An op-ed in The New York Times, written a month after 9/11, included the following words: "When radical Muslim movements are on the rise, women are the canaries in the mines. The very visible repression of forced veiling and loss of hard-won freedoms coexists naturally with a general disrespect for human rights. This repression of women is not about religion; it is a political tool for achieving and consolidating power."
Coverage and commentary about men in Pakistan contrasted greatly with that of women. Men, and even boys, were characterized as people to be feared. Boys, even very young boys, were part of the terrorist matrix, identified as "Islamic religious schools," known as madrassas. In a February 2002 op-ed in The Boston Globe, a commentator observed:
"History and current demographic trends give us a new warning: Beware the wrath of boys.
"Journalists who covered the fleeing Taliban in Afghanistan commented on how young they were. ‘They all look about 12 years old,’ one reporter said. But boys can be deadlier than men, with no life experience to temper their impulses, especially if those impulses are manipulated by older people with a violent agenda ….
"Chaos and instability in society and young men who lack access to good jobs make an incendiary mixture—especially when you throw in messianic ideology or fundamentalist religion. And this may be the forecast for much of the world: boys who inculcate rage against the West, against their own societies, and against women at a very early age.
"For example, the religious schools that are springing up all over Pakistan create societies in which young boys are indoctrinated in a fundamentalist brand of Islam that teaches hatred of the West and of Jews. The schools are all-male societies in which the boys have no contact with girls or women—except maybe a mother or an aunt. They develop few social skills and come to regard the opposite sex as alien, the source of sin, uncleanness and a temptation to male virtue."
In the months following 9/11, numerous articles explained the education system, emphasizing that the boys who went to such schools were distanced from the softening "influence" of women, as in this story in The New York Times: "Boys, raised without fathers, were sent to religious schools, or madrassas, taken away from daily village life and away from the influence of women." And these words come from an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: "Hence, perhaps, the all-male madrassas in Pakistan, where boys as young as six are trained for jihad, far from the potentially softening influence of mothers and sisters."
Those were some of the findings from the ICMPA study’s examination of news coverage in 2001 and 2002. In the period following 9/11, there was an eager—if naive—hope that the fall of the Taliban would bring new opportunities for women and, through them, for the entire region. The Muslim women of Pakistan and Afghanistan were not just victims whose stories would gain readers’ sympathy; they were saviors who would change their communities and their countries. Women’s lives were not just the human-interest anecdotes shared as part of stories about larger concerns; women, in this period of time, were portrayed as being pivotal players.
Five years later, this was clearly not the case. By 2006, it was no longer considered news that the difficult situations of most women’s lives had not changed—and that women did not have the power to reverse decades of war, corruption and discrimination. An unchanging circumstance is never considered worth reporting. And as a result, in 2006 reporters wrote far fewer stories on women in Pakistan—and far fewer stories on Pakistan in general. The compelling narrative now became whether (and even how) America had become the "bad guys;" not only was the enemy acting reprehensibly, but it was the Bush administration’s prosecution of the "war on terror" that was now characterized as the "moral burden."
Susan Moeller is director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland in College Park and author of numerous major media studies, including "The ‘Good’ Muslims: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Pakistan."