Doctoral candidate studies how media shocks culture

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The people of Afghanistan experienced a five-year media blackout in the mid-1990s due to Taliban rule. The ban was lifted in 2001 and an onslaught of new media quickly filled the void. This created an interesting dynamic of both national and international influence.

Penn State doctoral candidate Azeta Hatef spent a month in the country’s capital of Kabul to examine how its people transitioned both culturally and socially from the dramatic change. Specifically, she studied the relationship between media and the changing beauty industry through interviews with consumers of cosmetic surgery.

Hatef’s interest in media’s cultural influence began years before. Growing up in an Afghan-American family in Fremont, California, just outside of San Francisco, Hatef said her community was diverse, but what she saw in the media was not.

“It was interesting that I could not identify with individuals on covers of magazines or on TV screens,” she said. In many ways, this early realization later inspired the dissertation work that would take Hatef to the other side of the world.

“How do we come to know ourselves and the world around us?”

—Azeta Hatef, Bellisario College doctoral student

A key moment in that journey happened during her undergraduate years at the University of California, Berkeley. In an introductory communications course, she learned about the media’s role in building and changing culture. Hatef paired this area of ethnographic research with an interest in the beauty industry, and an important academic focus emerged.

“I am drawn into understanding how it is we create our identities and create communities,” she said. “How do we come to know ourselves and the world around us?”

Hatef completed her master’s degree at Syracuse University. During that time, she made her trip to Afghanistan. She said other country’s media descended on Afghanistan to jockey for position after the media blackout was lifted. Her goal was to understand the motivations for seeking cosmetic surgery through a specific focus on media engagement.

“I remember walking through a mall (in Kabul) and seeing posters of the Kardashians and Selena Gomez,” she said. “These are global celebrities in a space that for a long time didn’t have media. During the blackout, you could go to jail for just owning a television, so it was a big change.”

Her project was published in the research journal Feminist Media Studies. It included 16 in-depth interviews with Afghan women who received cosmetic surgery. “It was a really fantastic experience, both personally, having an Afghan background, and as a researcher,” she said.

Hatef completed her master’s work and saw an opportunity to continue international research at Penn State. After meeting with a few faculty members in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, she enrolled as a doctoral student in communications media studies in 2014. Last year, Hatef was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct her research and she is currently in the middle of her field work in the Czech Republic.

“Azeta brings a truly international perspective to her research and teaching,” said Matt McAllister, professor of media studies and Hatef’s graduate adviser.

Hatef is examining social media within the Czech Republic’s Roma community, specifically to see its role in social and political change. The Roma people represent a small portion of the Czech population. However, they are a marginalized group in the country. In a 2010 survey conducted by the Czech Republic government's Ministry of Interior, nearly 50 percent of Czechs said they’d prefer the country expel Roma people. Hatef is hoping to gain a better understanding of how social media can be a space of resistance for this ostracized group of people.

“Social media give Roma people an easier, safer way to get information out,” she said. “It provides a space to produce identities and communities when living in an environment that may not be as welcoming.”

Hatef said some interesting results have emerged. She has found that many Roma people are using social media in response to the lack of or negative representation of Roma people in mainstream Czech media.

“If you turn on the TV, if you see Roma in the news, it’s often focusing on negative experiences,” she said. “I am seeing activists and organizations challenge traditional media by finding alternative spaces like social media” to broadcast their messages.

“Being an Afghan-American woman, a child of refugees and a woman of color in academia, I want to help students who oftentimes do not see themselves in their teachers.”

—Azeta Hatef

Hatef will complete her data gathering this summer. When she returns to University Park, she will resume one of her other favorite things about academia — teaching. Hatef says she has fallen in love with the classroom and is happy it will be a part of her career going forward. She aims to be an educator that provides support to students and inspire them to achieve great things.

“Being an Afghan-American woman, a child of refugees and a woman of color in academia, I want to help students who oftentimes do not see themselves in their teachers,” she said. “I want to help students navigate these spaces, whether that’s understanding the financial resources available to them or finding mentors and communities.”

Hatef teaches COMM 419: World Media Systems and COMM 410: International Mass Communications at Penn State. She said her teaching philosophy is to clarify diverse needs and ways of learning where students feel valued and respected. “Students need to feel like they belong in the classroom and that their academic and career goals matter.”

Last year, Hatef won the Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award, which is given to only 10 graduate student teachers University-wide. McAllister says Hatef is an “amazing teacher” who incorporates global sensibilities into her classrooms.

“Azeta has excellent classroom energy and shows her enthusiasm for international communications issues,” McAllister said. “Scholars and teachers like Azeta are an important part of Penn State's mission to internationalize its impact and reach.”

Hatef has a busy summer lined up. While completing her work in the Czech Republic, she will be organizing a preconference event at the International Communications Association conference this May in Brno, Czech Republic. In July, she will be attending the Romani Identities and Antigypsyism summer program at Central European University in Budapest.

She’ll return to Penn State this fall to teach and finish her dissertation. After that, she will begin searching for professor positions. Her ideal first job will allow her to continue teaching and researching, and she hopes to build a better understanding of engagement with and within Romani communities, and identify other transnational opportunities in this line of research.

“There are groups around the world that experience marginalization and oppression and I am interested in understanding these intersections,” she said. “I think this will help us better understand how to work toward change.”

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Last Updated May 24, 2018