Stabile and Kumar, Brumburg and Jackson, and Naryan

Gracie Hall

Naryan’s “Death by Culture” uses dowry-murder and sati to look at the way in which third-world women’s experiences are translated and understood by western women and men (specifically feminists and academics). I think that Naryan’s terms and ideas can be used to understand the issues raised in the other two articles. Specifically, the idea that information is decontextualized and therefore misunderstood. This practice “edits” and “reframes” issues so that they are seen as “different”, “alien”, and “other”. These “third-world gender issues”, Naryan notes, reinforce the “representative” and “iconic” status. She notes that when speaking of dowry-murder and sati, the use of “burning” and the term “dowry” are used to otherize the practice instead of highlighting the fact that similar practices (such as domestic abuse) happen in the United States everyday. Stabile and Kumar note a similar decontextualization of information. They begin by addressing why Afghanistan women are under Taliban rule to begin with. Through a short histroy of Afghan in the Cold War we learn that the United States played an integral role in the rise of the Taliban by funding the mujahideen. After the Soviet Union was defeated, the mujahideen rose to power and “women’s political situation immediately began to worsen”—and the United States chose not to act. When the United States reports on Afghanistan women, they never relay the information in this context. They never explain how they had a role in the current political and social conditions for women.

Another topic that Naryan highlights is the popular narrative that women are killed by their culture. In one example she explains how the word “tradition” is employed to justify and otherize these practices as a result of different culture. She states: “what is ‘understood,’…is their ‘Indianness,’ their status as ‘things that happen elsewhere,’ which in turn suggests that they are unlike ‘things that happen here’”. This implies that other cultures are backwards and barbaric which speaks to Stabile and Kumar’s argument of superior culture. They quote Young as saying, “However much we would like to regard women’s liberation as a natural right, it is the product and achievement of a complex, advanced civilization. Recent events remind us that this civilization is fragile, and that its enemies are hostile to freedom for anyone – but especially women. Feminists, more than anyone else, should realize that the West is worth defending.” This idea of superiority also hinders the United States from an internal critique. Brumberg and Jackson note this exact phenomenon in “The Burka and the Bikini”. They argue that by focusing on the burka and women abroad we don’t look at how our own treatment of women can have similarly detrimental effects. They state, “American girls and women have been stripped bare by a sexually expressive culture whose beauty dictates have exerted a major toll on their physical and emotional health.”

One thing that is important to note in both Brumberg and Jackson’s analysis, as well as Stabile and Kumar’s piece–is who the stakeholders are, and who is benefitting from all of this. Brumberg and Jackson note that “the Westernized image of the perfect body is one of our most succesful exports”. This statement made me instantly think of Professor Jafar’s panel on Friday afternoon–it seemed as if this idea was prevelant in almost all of the panalists’s research. Specifically, the two professors from American University presented on how the American ideal of the Hooters girl has been commodified and exported to Colombia! One think I wanted to know more about from this presentation, is who the stakeholders are. Stabile and Kumar make this very clear–the idea of saving burka clad women is directly benefiting the US govenment and private corporations. Specifically this argument is being used to sell and justify the war and western aggression to the American people. Furthermore, it is benefiting private corporations and the US economy through contracts with oil moguls and the securring of oil pipelines, while directly harming women and children.

I think that Stabile and Kumar’s analysis of when these arguments are used was relevant in showing how much they are used to serve US interests, rather than women and children’s interests in Afghanistan. They state: “From 1 January 2000 to 11 September 2001, a period of 18 months, only 15 newspaper articles appeared in mainstream US newspapers…from 12 September 2001 to 1 January 2002, 93 newspaper articles appeared – three times the number of articles that appeared in 1999 and six times the number that appeared in the 18 months before 11 September 2001.” This makes it easy to see how this narrative isn’t prompted by a general concern or actual knowledge, but instead as a justification. This specific argument made me think of the famous photo from the National Geographic–“Afghan Girl”. The first famous photograph which ran on the cover in 1985 was of Gula, a refugee in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The following series of photographs came out in 2002. This timing points to the ways in which the media used this narrative at strategic times for their own political and economic gains.

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3 thoughts on “Stabile and Kumar, Brumburg and Jackson, and Naryan

  1. Zoe Halpert

    The international news that we receive tends to lean towards the extreme; if it’s coming out of another country, it has to be really sensational for it to hold our attention. Thus, our perception of events in other countries can be a bit exaggerated. Narayan discusses how we exoticize violence that occurs in other cultures. For example, the exotic nature of fire, which makes murder through burning more shocking than say, murder through bullets. We assume Africans are barbaric when we read about people hacking at each other with machetes in Sierra Leone, yet gun violence in the US is normalized.

  2. Brittany Juliano

    I have always thought that the photos of Gula are incredibly beautiful. In fact, over the summer a friend of mine working at an art gallery was showing me one of photographs in the series. It was slightly different from the one that most people recognize from the cover of National Geographic, but her eyes were clearly recognizable in a huge print on the wall. Until I read Naryan’s article, however, I did not realize what implications such images of Islamic women might have. It is interesting to think how depictions of women in that “victim/protector” dichotomy would not only inform people of worldly issues, but also serve to propagate government wishes.

  3. Sophie Sharps

    While reading these articles, I too thought of the stakeholders involved in these issues. Stabile and Kumar establish early on that they saw the focus on women’s liberation in Afghanistan as a “cynical ploy” to sell the war to the US public. Not only did the US support the Taliban early on, but our country continuously funded them because of our own economic interests and access to oil. Similar to the stories Narayan explains of how Americans understand the practice of Indian dowry-murder, the people who have the power and the voice to acknowledge these injustices, inequalities and misconceptions are the ones who most directly benefit from them and will continue to perpetuate them.

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