I was going to write about the pandemic but history is moving too fast. The Taliban have taken over Afghanistan and the incumbent leader has fled the country. An interesting development has occurred along with their victory over a world dominating power for the second time. This interesting development is the acute and intense concern that the national digital media in India has developed for women’s rights in Afghanistan. The intensity of the concern is such that the number of stories published nationally rose by 9000% within a week of the Taliban’s ascent to power. While the national media published 3-4 stories per day on average in the whole of last year on the subjects of “taliban” and “women”, the number of stories rose to a staggering 361 stories in one day (Aug 17th 2021).
The Taliban do indeed face a considerable challenge with the new phase in their history. Merciful and just government, in a way, is more difficult than fighting off world powers. Giving women their rightful place in society is a problem that virtually every country is grappling with so the Taliban have their work cut out for them on this front. Given the kind of coverage we have seen from the world media and the self reported stories from Afghani women, a genuine concern for the women of Afghanistan is well placed.
But, there are several confounding factors though that give us pause and compel us to explore alternative angles to this rising concern for women in the Indian media.
The first and most obvious issue is the issue of power. The timing of this impressive rise in media coverage around women’s rights immediately after the siege of power in Kabul indicates that we cannot ignore the issue of power when interpreting the coverage trends. It makes sense that a group that occupies the seat of power can inflict much more harm to women than simply a group of rebels but the Taliban has had a tough stance on women’s rights from day one so a genuine concern for women’s rights by the media should have garnered more real estate in their newspapers throughout the year. The examination of associated themes and entities in the stories containing the words taliban and women reveals that the connection to power goes deeper.
There were a total of 2830 stories published in the last year containing the words taliban and women and roughly a third of these stories (956) were published in the last four days. In the list of the top ten people mentioned in these stories, there is not a single woman. Malala Yousafzai comes in at number 15 finding 111 mentions ahead of Narendra Modi at number 16. Afghani politician and women’s rights activist Fawzia Koofi ranks 27 and is mentioned 59 times. The top most mentioned person is Ashraf Ghani (786 mentions) followed by Joe Biden (666 mentions).
Among the top 5 organizations mentioned in the corpus of news stories, other than the Taliban, two are military establishments – NATO and the Pentagon. The United Nations ranks fourth being the only organization directly related to women’s rights. There are virtually no other women’s rights organizations that feature prominently in the conversation, space being given instead to military outfits like Al-Qaeda (110 mentions), ISIS (92 mentions) and political groups like the BJP (60), the Trump Administration (78) and intelligence agencies like the CIA (58). Human Rights Watch finds 31 mentions ranking 58 in the list.
There is a gaping void where one would expect strong representation from women and women’s rights groups in a conversation centered around women. There also is strongly suggestive evidence that the conversation shaped by the Indian digital news media on the themes of women and the Taliban is centered around power heralded by male political leaders and military establishments. There is enough here to motivate a deeper study into the connection between women’s rights and political power in the world today.
Let us now turn to the voice and sentiment behind the conversation. The word “rights” is often preceded with the word “women’s” as expected and followed by words like “advocates” “activists” but as seen earlier, we do not see their names in the content of the stories. Similar lack of specificity surrounds the word “fear” which is most preceded by the vague word “many” and followed by the words “that the taliban.”
The MIT Media Cloud, the tool I used to run this analysis, has introduced a new feature called the “word space” in which it shows you how words are used in the news story corpus. If you highlight a word, it tells you other words that were most frequently used “in similar contexts.” This is a hypothesis in linguistics attributed to J.R. Firth that says that words that are used in similar contexts have similar meanings. What’s interesting is that when I drew up the word space for my story corpus made of stories on taliban and women, the two words that were used in similar contexts were “women” and “war.”
There remains no doubt in my mind now that the subject of women in Afghanistan is intimately related to power and war. What’s more is that the conversation about women’s rights and the taliban carried on by the Indian national media in the last year is framed almost entirely within the context of political power and the theatre of war. There is no evidence that the conversation even touched the most important issues to women’s rights namely safety, representation, education, choice, consent and freedom (among many others).
In my next note, I will write about the testimony of a real woman and a real journalist – Yvonne Ridley, who was captured by the Taliban in 2001 and then released on the condition that she study the Quran. Two years later, she converted to Islam and took up a life of advocacy for women’s rights. She authored a bestselling book called In the Hands of the Taliban. I know that she is only one single voice in this conversation but that’s one more female voice than the national media seems to have included.
Your comments and criticisms are welcome and needed.