Institute for Communication Studies together with JMIC and AMCAP (Association of Media and Communication Academic Professionals), hosted a two-day conference on women and media on 28 February and 1 March at Punjab University, Lahore. A considerable number of academics, journalists, and media students presented both journalistic experiences and research papers in plenaries and seminars. Participants came from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Norway, and from a wide range of cities in Pakistan.
Work with dedication! Persistence pays!
Several women spoke about how limited media freedom and commercialization contributed to the ways in which women were marginalized or discriminated: “Commercialized media contribute to the cosmetic butchering of our bodies,” said Humaira Awais, Media consultant and HR activist, former MoP. Prof. Asman Aswan Asmawati from Malaysia told that in her country, a woman is first and foremost represented as a mother, then as a beauty to attract men. She recommended academic courses in gender and media with critical perspectives. “It took six years to have it approved, I had to struggle for this course”, she added.
“I try to be the voice of unheard ladies. I used to be a novice, now I am an editor. Stay put! Work with dedication!” said Farah Zia, editor of News on Sunday. So does Farzana Ali, bureau chief in AAJ news, Peshawar, whose stories of women who had been beaten and shot at by their husbands, received little attention or protection even after complaints to the police, and media coverage. One police officer would say, “This type of women can do anything!” She also mentioned how some media would criticize Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai if there were a picture of her walking alone in the UK: “Is she out without her father?” or label her as a “Western agent”. According to her, 50 per cent of women in Pakistan have been physically battered, and 90 per cent mentally abused. She underlined the need to educate all women about existing laws, and increase awareness.
“Marginalization of women in Pakistan is a lifestyle. A very low percentage of women work in print media. You can hear people saying, ‘Are you going out without your brother?’ Women work more in electronic media. There are a few role model survivors”, said Nosheen Naqvi, senior journalist, ARY TV. Salma Umber, from Mass Communication studies in Faisalabad, said that parents prefer “female oriented studies, for example medicine, for their girls.” Family comes first. “English language media are more woman-friendly; while women in the Urdu press face more harassment.”
Samiksha Koirala, a Ph. D student from Nepal, told how her male colleague treated her in a radio studio, when she wanted to ask her own questions to guests: “I’ll give you the questions!”
Hasina Shirzad, student and advisor to JMIC, from Afghanistan, told the horrific tale of the lynching of a woman, Farkhunda Malikzada, outside a mosque in Kabul, after falsely being accused of blasphemy. She presented a study of media coverage of the assassination and a historic event, where Afghan women carried her coffin through the streets of the capital.
Social media: Stay strong! You decide!
Several speakers, among them Director of Development and Humanitarian Services in Afghanistan Najiba Ayubi, spoke about how active women face social media harassment, included sexualized threats: “There is no legal structure for this, and the war in our country is still on”. From Balochistan, Javaria Tareen told how her visibility as a media worker had been attempted stopped by letters to her family, where people threatened to disown the family (tribal) name, but also how her digital identity had been stolen, as had happened to many other women as well. Her message was “Once it happens, stay strong! You decide!” Blackmail will never stop.” Her advice was to use social media decently and be confident when it comes to whom you meet in social media.
Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, Nighat Dad, said that 64 per cent of all women in Pakistan own a cell phone, as compared to 81 per cent of the men. Her institution, which explores digital harassment and legal rights, sees social media as a place to exercise free speech, and for poor women to have a wider communication, but added that women need to learn how to build identities on these media, and that an ethical platform is needed. Two researchers, Ayesha Sadiqa and Noor-ul-Ain Nasir, found various degrees of ‘sexting’ reported by female university studies, creating disturbances in their lives. They recommended spreading of awareness, and motivation of females to show courage, not blame themselves. Naila Rafique and Director of ICS Noshina Saleem presented a study on female social media users, found that very few filed complaints to the authorities when being harassed, as it would be “embarrassing”. They recommended awareness sessions in schools.
A “Cyber Harassment Helpline”, created in 2016, reported that 33 per cent of the complainants were men. Some men also reach out on behalf of women, as supporters and bystanders.
From ‘far away’, Dr. Amparo Cadavid from Colombia spoke from a country, which has witnessed civil war for 56 years, and the way in which rural women have built a culture of solidarity and survival. Ph. D candidate Ragnhild Fjellro from Norway presented her study of how radio podcasts as genre created space for emotion and drew up a list of ‘intimacy values’, while Prof. Elisabeth Eide presented a study on media representation of Muslim women in Norway from the 1980s to this day.
This account could go on, about women in sports journalism, women filmmakers, female leadership in media, salary discrimination, and a range of other issues. The need to honour the leading ladies who from an early stage became media pioneers and role models in Pakistan was particularly mentioned by a male veteran journalist, Mr. Mazhar Abbas. So was the need to initiate a variety of educative initiatives. The need for women in media – whether academic or journalists – to show solidarity was emphasized, perhaps also in an organized way.
Saadia Salahuddin, assistant editor of the News, Lahore, who has worked as a journalist for 27 years, was somewhat optimistic. She was for four years the only female working the night shifts, and survived in the business. She, unlike some others, experienced no taboos on what women could report on. “Media has empowered women!” Others were not as optimist, though, stating that “questions were always raised about my motherhood”.
Transportation to work and daycare for children of journalists remain important issues, in some media houses also very basic facilities for women employees.
“Still inside the Glass Dome”, the headline of this story, is a citation from Janina Islam Abir, lecturer at the Independent University in Bangladesh. Yes, but this conference signals that the Dome should not feel very safe in the years to come – in neither South Asia nor elsewhere.