While women anchorpersons as spectacle may contravene the puritan values dominating societies like we have in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the stereotypical ideas they popularize nonetheless breed conformity
The most coveted position in TV journalism, the anchor chair, has always been occupied by men. Women are generally annihilated. Symbolic annihilation refers to the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media. This annihilation is based on race, sex, sexual orientation, socio-or economic status. According to Gaye Tuchman, a feminist media critic, television symbolically annihilates women and tells society women are not very important by showing overwhelming majority of men in almost all kinds of television output.
Host of empirical studies around the issues of women representation on TV screen in various countries show that television symbolically annihilates women and portrays them as incompetent, inferior and always subservient to men. The symbolic annihilation of women will endanger social development, according to Tuchman, for girls and mature woman lack positive images on which to model their behavior. Hence, girls exposed to ‘television women’ may hope to be homemakers when are adults, but not workers outside the home.
In view of these findings and keeping the symbolic annihilation of women in mind, one wonders if women anchorpersons in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with extremely reactionary views, play any progressive role by appearing on screen.
In the case of Pakistan, presenter Meher Bokhari was bitterly criticized by sections of liberal and left orientation for her provocative role in portraying Governor Salman Taseer as a blasphemer mere because he sided with a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Or, for instance, Maya Khan [ridiculed as Vigil Aunty] earned liberal wrath when she played the moral police in her show [aired on January 17 this year], catching dating couples at public parks in Karachi. Another popular TV hostess Nadia Khan often presented a cocktail of life-style liberalism and televangelism on Geo TV.
In the case of Afghanistan, situation is bit different. For the first, unlike Pakistan talk shows are not hysterically conducted by noisy presenters. Often serious topics are soberly debated. [The trend is, however, changing]. Hence, we do not have a Meher Bokhari-clone or Maya Khan’s double. Political talk shows are as a rule conducted by men [with one exception that I know of]. For instance, on Tolo TV, considered the most popular channel, not a single talk show of political nature is anchored by a woman. The women presenters often host morning shows or cooking shows. Even in the cooking shows the chef is a man [except in one case] paired by a woman presenter.
Nikab [The Mask] perhaps is the only exception to the rule. Hosted by a woman in hijab, Nikab invites a woman victim of violence or rape. The guest appears in Nikab in order to hide her identity. The victim narrates her story and the opinion of the legal experts is sought to help find justice for the relevant victim. This programme has won some international recognition too in the West. The producer is a man in the case of Nikab too.However, by and large the Afghan women presenters repeat clichés and stereotypical notions which in fact draw people into dominant patriarchal ideology.
A caveat is in order here. From loud mouth Meher Bokhari and chatter-chatter Nadia Khan to timid and withdrawn host of Nikab, women anchorpersons are mere script-readers. The script is often, if not always, written and directed by the men. Hence to understand the role of women on TV screens we need to probe into the logic behind women’s idiotic representation and presence on the idiot box.
Women may appear on television for a host of reasons. Increasingly a vast number of young women are joining media inspired by the appeal of media field. Often media/journalistic jobs are considered exciting and thrilling. Also, a celebrity status is attributed to the media jobs. A few, driven by ideology, may join to change the world. Similarly, in some women-friendly countries women are employed merely because it is a management policy to have some gender balance. In the case of Afghanistan, even if it is hardly a women-friendly place, women representation is stressed because certain media outlets have foreign funding and gender balance is stressed by the donor agency. Often state-owned media outlets would practice positive discrimination benefitting women. Commercial media ventures may employ women as cheap labour. However, a core element of patriarchal culture is the display of women as spectacle to be looked at, subjected to the gaze of (male) audience.
It was Laura Mulvey who in an influential essay, written back in the 1970s, on women representation in Hollywood productions particularly, popularized the concept of employing women as an object of ‘visual pleasure’.
Using psychoanalysis to discover ‘where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formation that have moulded him’, she thinks ‘the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film’ and as ‘an advanced representation system, the cinema poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking’. Mulvey advocates an alternative cinema to adequately represent women.
In my view, Mulvey’s conceptualization, in general, pretty much explains the role woman anchorpersons have been assigned in commercial media outlets in Afghanistan and Pakistan too. The women anchorpersons on the commercial TV are media spectacle meant to satisfy the male gaze. I do not in any way mean to pour scorn on or blame any woman anchorperson. This denigration is structured, an inbuilt capitalist logic embedded in the commercial media. Also, there are women anchorpersons and presenters who buck the trend even on the commercial television. But this remains an exceptional case. Also, one must not confuse Amy Goodman on Democracy Now with Nadia Khan on Geo. In general, on commercial media women anchorpersons remain a spectacle.
While women anchorpersons as spectacle may contravene the puritan values dominating societies like we have in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the stereotypical ideas they popularize nonetheless breed conformity and submission. Hence, as is the case with politics whereby Maggie Thatcher’s presence in politics deradicalises politics, mere womanly presence on the television screens does not contribute to women liberation.
The women’s cause can only be served if not only women are present, both on screen and off screen making decisions, but they are also politically conscious. But this is least likely in the case of Fox, Tolo and Geo. It will require a project like Democracy Now.
Sahar Saba is an Afghan women rights' activist. For many years, she was spokesperson of Revolutionary Afghan Women Association (RAWA). Also, she has worked with RAWA for many years in refugee camps in Pakistan and in Afghanistan in different capacities. She has traveled to many countries in the past several years to speak on behalf of Afghan women. She was born in Kabul. Her family migrated to Pakistan where Sahar Saba became active with RAWA. She has a law degree from London University and writes on issues facing Afghan women.