Eastern women harmed more than helped by Western media

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In the past, violence against women in South Asia and the Middle East was largely taken as an inevitable part of life. Eastern women were often not just victims of abuse at home, but also criticized by their Western counterparts for being passive and poor portraits of feminism.

However, when specific cases of forced marriage and gang rape in those regions sprung to international attention, it became apparent that this violence was not an inherent ingredient of any culture. While the Western media was quick to transform the victims into heroes, the celebrity status came with a price — prolonged scrutiny of these women’s lives.

Without realizing that the “reality television culture” is not the preferred ticket to fame in many cultures, Western media does more harm than good by putting these women under the spotlight. Two examples that illustrate this are the stories of Mukhtar Mai and Nujood Ali.

In 2002, Mai took the media by storm when she pressed charges against her rapists in a country where society demands silence from rape victims. Mai was gang raped by six men on the orders of a council of tribal elders, which is akin to legal authority in the impoverished village of Meerwala where Mai resides.

Despite her circumstances, Mai did not commit suicide, which is often the chosen course of action for raped women in Pakistan, as it signifies cleansing the tainted reputation of the victim’s family.

She took her rapists to court, only to discover that five of the six men were released. Mai was awarded about $8000 from the government, which she used to establish the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization, a center for education, rehabilitation, and refuge for rural women. Mai became a symbol of courage and hope for oppressed women.

However, Mai’s image as a brave and progressive woman seemed to pale when she married a police constable who was responsible for her security. Mai’s marriage was conditional; she married her husband in order to prevent him from divorcing his first wife — a threat he repeatedly gave her along with suicide if she turned down his proposal. However, Mai’s personal decisions should be viewed in the context of her own culture and should not be a point of disapproval.

Similarly, 10-year-old Ali set an example for victims of child marriages. When Ali was beaten and raped by her husband, she hailed a cab and took it to the courthouse, where she demanded a divorce.

Ali vehemently avoids any media attention; she unwillingly sat with CNN for a recent interview because the news channel had earned permission from her parents in advance. At this point, the media needs to leave the child alone instead of trailing an already tortured individual.

Acknowledgment of these heroic women by the West is highly appreciated. But the constant scrutiny of their personal lives is unfair and detrimental to their emotional well-being. In the name of empowering these women, the Western media claims ownership of these “heroes” and builds certain expectations of them, which if not met, portray these women as symbols of continued passivity.