When I read Kathy Gannon’s series about women in Pakistan, I accidentally began at the finish and worked my way back to the start. The backwards view gave me a strange perspective on the culture I was reading about. Rather than reaching the end with hope, understanding that the wheel of change grinds slowly and painfully, I reached the end with a sense of sadness, forced to face the reality that the human race is forever susceptible to self-delusion.
Gannon and her editors took great pains to remain as disinterested as possible, and to share both sides of the equation. They couldn’t be pristinely unbiased while they told a story with a point of view, of course, but they were able to present both sides of the story without spin, giving the reader a chance to analyze the mind of the assailants. Each story (I’ll go chronologically this time) presented its own challenges to disinterested reporting:
- The first story highlighted how even rapists and acid-throwing monsters are given more consideration than the women they attack. A woman raped is considered to be more shamed than her attacker. The AP explains why they named the victim up front, and carefully pieces the story together with a series of factual statements and primary-source quotes.
- The second story tells of honor killings. The story paints a picture of a mother who felt she had no choice but to kill her youngest daughter, to save the family’s honor. Gannon used the words of the people involved to paint the heart-rending picture, and she did not shy away from presenting the other side of the story: The attackers felt so duty-bound by their religious and cultural traditions that the murders – in their eyes – were practically self-defense.
- The third story, about the mandatory 25-year sentence for honor-killing, takes pains to explain that law reflects culture as much as culture reflects law. The mindset of conservative families who feel duty-bound to put their honor above their humanity can’t simply be outlawed, unless the culture evolves along with the law.
- The fourth story explains the roles of two women – one conservative, one liberal – who worked separately to gain passage for the bill discussed in the third story. Gannon could have taken more time sharing the liberal angle – the low hanging fruit – but she dug deeper into the conservative angle, sharing a perspective that would be decidedly unpopular on liberal social media.
- The fifth and sixth stories could have been presented as the primary catalyst behind getting the bill passed: the honor-killing of Qandeel Balach. Gannon could have easily played up the notoriety of the story – like many other media outlets did – and how the story got the world’s attention. But she didn’t. It would have been easy to paint a picture of the cute Instagram girl whose brother strangled her for no reason. Instead, she told the story of her father, who loved her and did not recoil against her Western ways. She told her brother’s story, recounting how he was taunted mercilessly by his coworkers until he felt – like the mother in the first story – as if he had no choice. Gannon didn’t shy away from presenting the victim’s own foibles, or paint her as an innocent martyr. Rather than tell the already viral, processed story, she took great care – and great pains – to present the story with its whole grain intact.
- Many media entities would have published the final story elsewhere, thinking it was a bit anticlimactic. Coming after the sensational murder of Balach and the other recounted atrocities, perhaps it was – but Gannon went after it with the same aplomb and dedication she brought to every story, and the AP published it in the same series. In many ways I was most impressed with Gannon on this story, because her reporting placed her in the sort of danger that must have given her post-traumatic nightmares.
I’m sure you know the old saying – I learned it following baseball reporters – about journalists “keeping their elbows out” of their stories. I kept thinking of that saying while I read the series. Gannon’s role in the series is far too big for me to waste a few words trying – and failing – to capture, so I’ll leave that alone except to share my wonder at how she was able to dig so deeply into such a muddy pit and come out with her elbows clean.
The gist of the series is frightening. These people aren’t anthropological fossils, bound inside the peeling pages of some forgotten history book. Had her murder happened a few months later, Qandeel Balach would have been a budget line. Gannon painted a detailed, honest and graphic picture of the mindset behind every action; a thoughtful reader could not help transferring the words “tradition,” “honor” and “shame” to events far closer to home. The people of rural Pakistan could be the people of rural West Virginia, or rural Ohio. Or rural Washington.