Afghan dress code
By Sasha Uzunov – Wednesday, 30 September 2009

An extraordinary war of words has erupted in the Canadian press over the controversial issue of Islamic dress for women in Afghanistan and Western involvement or interference, depending on your political point of view, in that country.

Highly decorated war reporter Scott Taylor, who is a staunch critic of American involvement in the Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has fired a powerful broadside at Canadian colleague Rosie DiManno over whether western journalists should “when in Rome do as the Romans do,” that is dress according to Afghan Islamic custom.

He wrote: “I also understand that being a western female journalist in such an Islamic fundamentalist society would pose an even steeper cultural hurdle to overcome. On the flip side of that, the entrenched and firmly enforced divide between the sexes in that part of the world makes it all but impossible for a male foreign reporter to get any sense of a female Afghan viewpoint.

“That said, I do take issue with those foreigners, reporters included, who feel no compulsion to conform to Afghan societal rules while they are visiting. In particular, a recent column by the Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno piqued my ire for her blatant condescension and disregard for local customs.

“Playing, no doubt, to the feminist sympathies of her Canadian readers, DiManno paints herself as a crusader for religious and gender freedoms. To those of us familiar with the cultural sensitivity and fierce pride of the Afghans, DiManno instead simply comes across as an oafish boor.”

Taylor, who was taken hostage by Islamic terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in Iraq in 2004 and survived to tell the story, is no fuddy-duddy. Having traveled with him to the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan as his cameraman/photographer I can attest to his open mindedness and genuine curiosity in going beyond the spin.

At issue here is whether female journalists who visit Afghanistan should cover up their bodies? Speaking from a male reporter’s view I can only say that in my two trips to Afghanistan I have grown a beard and worn Afghan attire for security reasons and for not wanting to offend the local people. Because of my dark features, my parents are Macedonian migrants to Australia; I was constantly mistaken for an Afghani and once barred from entering an English pub in Kabul, the Afghan capital!

Also, having been invited to meals by our Afghani hosts we would sit on the floor cross legged, something I am not used to. Taylor writes: “While our western laws are completely liberal when it comes to dress codes (which allow clothing optional beaches, etc), our society still self-regulates what is appropriate attire in business, casual or formal surroundings. If someone comes to my house, I would not expect I would have to “accommodate” their nakedness because they profess to be a nudist, nor would I allow them to defecate on my lawn because they claim to be environmentally conscious. This would not make me a bad host. It would simply make them an outrageously rude guest.”

The dress code issue is very sensitive because of the underlying treatment of Afghani women. SBS TV Dateline reporter, Sophie McNeill has been strident in her reporting of the lowly status of women in her article “In Karzai’s Afghanistan, Women Are Dirt” on September 10, 2009, she says:

“The Karzai Administration continues to treat women like second class citizens. So what, exactly, are we fighting for? “Allegations of electoral fraud linger, but the recent presidential election in Afghanistan has been declared a resounding victory for Hamid Karzai over his nearest rival, former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah. For many Afghani women, however, it didn’t really matter which of these men won – because it seems that whoever rules this country, they are condemned to lives of pain and suffering.” It is a very brave article from McNeill. The dilemma for journalists is if they criticise Afghani customs they are seen as interfering or arrogant, if they remain silent they endorse mistreatment.