The following discussion is based on an extensive survey of UK mainstream television news reports broadcast between September and December 2001 during the military attacks on Afghanistan, known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Also conducted was a survey of British radio and print media published and produced within the specified period. I argue that the 2001 news media coverage of Afghanistan was an important precursor to current debates about Muslim women in Europe and the United States since it highlights many of the contradictions and hypocrisies housed within western public discourses on women's rights. Detailing numerous examples, I contend that the prevalent theme of women's liberation on international news agendas did nothing to alter the prevailing norm of news media coverage, which denied Afghan women access to media spaces throughout Operation Enduring Freedom. Afghan women were invariably the subjects rather than the agents of such debates. Moreover, regardless of their gender, the vast majority of journalists reporting the 2001 conflict failed to recognise and confront the co-option of women's rights for the purpose of justifying military aggression on humanitarian grounds. I argue that this has grave implications, not merely for future reporting on Afghan women, but for the widespread practice by mainstream politicians and their associates of co-opting the discourse of women's rights to justify military conflict.
Keywords: Afghan women; Operation Enduring Freedom; pseudo-feminist reporting
'[D]rag[ing] Afghanistan's brutalised men and invisible, downtrodden women out of the dark ages' (Jonathan Miller, Channel Four website, 2004).
'The brutal Taliban regime [...] makes its women non-people' (David Williams, the Daily Mail, 29 September 2001).
Contested interpretations of the veil
The concealment of female bodies under the burqua was a major focus of attention for British reporting on Afghan women during Operation Enduring Freedom, 2001. The British fixation with the veil has a long history extending to times of colonial expansion and periodically resurfacing in response to migration to the United Kingdom from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh during the twentieth century. This recurrent preoccupation again arose at the beginning of the so-called War on Terror. The enduring currency of the veil as a metonym for oppression has been the subject of many articles and commentaries by women from Asia and the Middle East advising that the garment be situated in its shifting historical, political and social contexts. Indeed, Nadia Wassef argues that the veil represents 'a gross essentialisation of a fabric worn by different women in different ways and in different settings to express different things' (2001: 118). Nevertheless, repeated vilification of the Afghan burqua during 2001 suggests how under-theorised this garment was in public debates throughout Britain and the United States.
As recent news media coverage of the burqua shows, there is a clear need to complicate British popular understandings of the garment. On 1 October 2001, for example, the Mirror carried an article headed by a photograph of a burqua-clad woman with a caption reading: '[a] mother in traditional Islamic dress'. This depiction may be criticised on two fronts. Firstly, it peddles what Nirmal Puwar has called 'homogenised, static readings' of the garment (2002: 65) and, secondly, it implies that Islam is, in the words of Nadia Wassef, the ultimate 'explanatory force behind women's lives' (113). One means of combating 'homogenised' readings of the garment is to historicise the burqua's origins and to catalogue its changing significance at different historical junctures. The burqua made its first appearance in the Ottoman Empire, where it was used as a curtained sedan-chair by upper-class Christian women to denote status and as protection from thieves and dust. …