When I met a well-known filmmaker and the director of a popular Afghan soap opera in Kabul, he told me that what he regrets most about filming in Afghanistan is that he must only film women’s faces. He said, “When we see American movies, we can see women’s profiles. There are even shots of women in the shower, but here we can only film their faces. We don’t have a lot to work with.”
What he meant of course was that he couldn’t film the rest of an Afghan woman’s body bare. It is no coincidence that his vision of ideal filmmaking is reminiscent of so many of the films I have watched while studying in the United States. This filmmaker’s frustrations are indicative of a broader change in Afghan media that often uses American media as a model. While feminists in America have spent decades combating the degradation of women through media, Afghan filmmakers are embracing these problematic practices in an attempt to liberate their art from perceived restrictions. However because the production process is heavily dominated by men and women are merely used as a props, this “liberation” of art comes at a price.
While Afghan movies and soap operas are unpopular among Afghans and go unnoticed, music videos are popular and advertisements are virtually impossible to avoid. The impact of foreign media is most visible in these mediums. Song like this one by Parisa Mursal, produced in the 80’s, portrays the image of young women singing and being the heroes of their production. The video remains focused on her skills as a performer. In the 1980s, women like her paved the way for female artists to perform publicly.
In music videos produced by men in the 1980s, women were either absent or singing partners. An example is the duets of Naghma and Mangal or Ahmadwali and Hangama.
In contrast, a more recent video produced in 2010, shows a group of women dancing around a male artist who praises their looks. In the background there is a woman in a black dress laying and dancing on a Hummer car, a signifier of the singer’s masculinity, wealth and power. (The video draws heavily on the video for Pitbull’s hit, I know You Want Me , which was wildly popular in Afghanistan in 2009. One problematic aspect is that the go-to format for music videos has shifted from being focused on the musicians to one that includes several women dancing or performing for the pleasure of men. This shift is happening because Afghan filmmakers see Western media as the superior mode of production.
Like songs, advertisements have also changed to become more Western. One ad shows an Afghan woman licking her lips and fingers seductively as she bites into an ice cream cone. She has bleached blond hair, which has become a symbol of sexiness because of Western media. She tells the viewers about the ice cream in an alluring auto-toned voice. A popular male actor appears on the screen afterwards to tell viewers, “She is right. This is a unique ice cream,” as if a woman’s message needs to be reconfirmed by a male figure.
A Haagen Dazs commercial produced in 2013 sends the same messages. A male figure seduces a woman using ice cream and she sexually licks the ice cream off of her own finger to tease him as the Afghan woman is doing to her male viewers.
Afghan advertisers have also learned to use commercials to portray and reproduce women and men’s traditional roles in families. While new to Afghan advertisement, this is a technique that has long marked Western advertisement. From home products such as swiffers being advertised by female actors only, to men driving cars, eating big burgers and drinking beer images that create and recreate our definitions of gender have dominated advertising in the West. Similarly, this commercial shows a group of men discussing ways to sell a car online as they eat in a restaurant. This advertisement marks both the freedom to be outside the house and normalizes the idea of men alone owning cars. Another advertisement, like dozens of its kinds, shows a woman washing clothes and taking care of children at home. The separation of the public and private sphere as two gendered environments is reproduced and exaggerated through these commercials. For example, Shayesta cooking oil’s slogan is “worthy of worthy women” even though the vast majority of professional chefs in Afghanistan are men. These are just a few examples of how womanhood and masculinity are defined by advertisement as Afghan producers copy Western ones.
With globalization on the rise, it is inevitable that different cultures will impact one another, but the one-sided imposition of Western ideals of beauty and desirability, i.e. the preference of blond hair and white complexion, and definitions of masculinity and femininity that have long oppressed men and women alike is problematic. Not only are these images incompatible with the context of Afghanistan but they also impose narrow worldviews that reproduce the cycle of male-dominance. In addition, with Afghan women’s organizations focused on more tangible atrocities, such as violence against women, child marriage, etc. there is little attention being paid to how women are being degraded in the media, even though the media recreates and sanctifies these oppressions in many ways. While activists in the west have the tools and the resources to combat the stereotypes and sexism in their media, this growing trend in Afghanistan remains prominent and uncontested as it produces a new layer in the oppression of women.