Newsweek’s women woes

Newsweek editorial brass assumes the worst of Glamour, deems lesbianism unmentionable.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Boo, Newsweek.

Just a week after running an issue about “Power Women,” the newsweekly is facing criticism for its role in a Council on Foreign Relations event featuring Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week. According to a report by the Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar, Glamour magazine’s Shirley Velasquez stood to ask a question during the Q&A session following the discussion. But as soon as Velasquez identified herself as a reporter from Glamour, the event’s moderator, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, interrupted her to joke, “Glamour? Blue burqa vs. black burqa?” As Velasquez explained it to Sklar, everyone in the room exploded with mirth — Glamour! Blue burqas! Girls! Har! — before Karzai said something about being relieved to finally be getting an easy question.

According to the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath, who also wrote about the exchange in this week’s New Yorker, Zakaria’s quip in response to Velasquez was “She’s going to ask you about that cloak, Mr. President?” and Karzai’s response was “Let’s see — I hope.”

Yeah. It turns out that Velasquez is reporting a story about conditions for women in Afghanistan. Her question for Karzai, which she apparently managed to ask after all the snorting about burqas had died down, made reference to United Nations reports that fewer than half of Afghan girls are in school and that 70 percent of married women experience domestic abuse. Velasquez reportedly concluded: “My question, Mr. President, is why have these conditions persisted and how is your government improving the lives of women?”

Reportedly, Karzai replied that Velasquez’s first problem was her sourcing. “The U.N. doesn’t know what they’re saying,” he said, before being interrupted by Zakaria (again, Newsweek International editor), who warned the Afghan president, “Be careful … Remember you’re on the record.” After that super-helpful warning (Zakaria would no doubt have loved it if a source who was telling him that U.N. statistics were wrong was warned off), Karzai reportedly claimed that Afghanistan’s women had it good compared with women in neighboring countries. Awesome. As Sklar writes, “Blue burqa vs. black burqa? No doubt that is a question that will never vex Zakaria; as a man, he’d never be forced to wear one. Unlike Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs director and women’s rights activist Safia [Ama Jan], who was gunned down [Monday] in Kandahar. She was wearing a burqa.”

But this embarrassing contretemps wasn’t the only thing that earns Newsweek a place in Broadsheet’s shame barn this week. No. Thanks to Gawker, which did the math, we know that in the magazine’s 1,803-word cover story on photographer Annie Leibovitz, which focuses in part on “controversial” and “intimate” photos of the late Susan Sontag, Leibovitz’s longtime girlfriend, there are zero uses of the words “lesbian,” “partner,” “gay” or “lover.” Newsweek was able to call Sontag “the person [Leibovitz] was closest to for [a] decade and a half.” See? They were close. They also managed to describe how the photographer and critic met in the ’80s and that while “they never lived together … they each had an apartment within view of the other’s.”

Perhaps it’s harsh to harp on Newsweek on this technicality — after all, I have not seen Leibovitz’s new book and have no idea what words she herself used to describe her relationship with Sontag. But I do hope that at some point it will be OK to print a story about a same-sex pair — especially a story that is in part about a same-sex pair — in which that pair is simply called a couple.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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