“The weapon against misogyny is women empowerment!”

—by Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Every March 8,people organize rallies, give speeches and attend gatherings to commemorate International Women’s Day. A day when people focus on the problems faced by women across the world.

Pakistan also observes this day by organizing events and rallies to mark this day, women and men congregate to raise their voices in unison, pledging to fight against chauvinism and misogyny, and support women rights.
These events have faced controversy in the past three years, especially the Aurat (woman) March and slogans that were generated to depict the important issues. Some The of these were misinterpreted as vulgar and obscene, and there was an outcry from a section of society.

Naturally the supporters of Aurat March defended the slogans, lashing out at the critics and explaining them to people.The #MeToo movement was misconstrued and its importance lost to the larger section of society that sees it as a threat to morality as they see it.

In Pakistan, Aurat March has become the focal point of Women’s Day – which is both a good and bad thing. Good, as it grasps the focus of society even if it is for one day. Bad, as it deflects from core issues like women rights and violence against women,taking the conversation on a tangent causing more confusion.

Commenting on this, senior journalist Sumera Mumtaz Hadi Naqvi – journalist and consultant in Strategic Communications and Resource Mobilisation – said “Aurat March has become controversial because society thinks it is just a commercial gimmick for the corporates to make profits from, when the real issues faced by working women remain unaddressed.”

Like Sumera many women in the media believe that the conversation needs to continue and the media needs to play a major role in this to clear the misconceptions and to spread awareness.

Mavra Bari – journalist, sociologist and Communications and Social Innovation Specialistapplauds the role of the media but said, “Media has played a very important role for women’s day in Pakistan, particularly, for the Aurat March since 2018 in useful and detrimental ways. Mainstream media has focused too heavily on certain slogans from the Aurat March and unfortunately, twisted the narrative toward skepticism towards the women’s movement.”

She added, “There is a lack of understanding by the media and public regarding feminism as a historical world movement but it is the media’s duty to educate their audience rather than spread disinformation. Feminism has highly polarized the country and often times, the media shows skewed perceptions towards either side but rather journalists need to strive towards more balance and promote healthy, respectful debate.”

Drawing from her own experiences, she said, “I myself have interviewed several individuals who hold opposed views about feminism than me and some have even been aggressive but I still feel it is important to cover their side, as that shows a fuller picture.”

Shafaq Nizam – digital content monitor, fact checker and researcher for Geo Media Group – said, “I don’t believe media can control misogyny in the media or in society, basically because it is not clear on the concept itself. Sometimes it seems the concept of Aurat March is not clear to people, except for the activists. I think it is the media’s responsibility not to show inappropriate things that can be misconstrued by society like the huge controversy on the slogans of Aurat March.”

Shafaq added, “I think the media needs to first spread awareness on these issues. I think there are enough women in the media nowadays that they can begin a conversation in society through their work in the media. They should begin by informing society of the constitutional rights of all citizens – men and women – as well as in religion. Unless this clarity is achieved, the dialogue cannot begin.” 

Women journalists face many problems at work but in the last couple of years, things have become quite dangerous. There has been an alarming increase in online – and offline – attacks against them, some of which have been fatal. The latest casualties include three women journalists workers who were killed in Afghanistan in the first few days of March, 2021.

According to the Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) data collected from 92 countries around the world reveals that attacks against women journalists have increased at an alarming rate since the beginning of 2021.

The CFWIJ documented 60 cases in January 2021 that included physical attacks, legal harassment, detainment’s, arrests and online attacks against women journalists, as well as the murder of Rebecca Jamie in Cameroon and Tin Hinan Laceb in Algeria.

In February, CFWIJ reported  97 cases of harassment, threats, assaults, and arrests of women journalists working around the world. CFWIJ’s report reveals that “Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was the most dangerous region with the highest incidence of violent attacks; Turkey was the leading country for legal harassment cases; the number of threats to women journalists increased by more than 60% compared to January 2021; 47 women journalists remain behind bars and at least 11 women journalists were targeted with online troll campaigns.”

According to the report things have not been good for Pakistan’s women journalists either with “repeated organized troll campaigns against female journalists. At least 20 of CFWIJ members in Pakistan have been targeted by the state in organized troll and misinformation campaigns. Some of these journalists had to temporarily flee the country after threats and impediments.” 

A global survey conducted in 2020 by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) revealed that ‘female journalists sit at the epicentre of risk’.

The survey said that online threats include ‘misogynistic harassment and abuse; orchestrated disinformation campaigns that exploit misogynistic narratives; digital privacy and security threats that increase physical risks associated with online violence’ that have added to the risks already faced by women journalists.

The online threats are only a different dimension of existing threats faced by women journalists. But these can only be tackled if the media, especially women journalists, is aware of the issues and possible solutions. However, this may be difficult as the majority of decision-makers – mostly men – are unable to understand or relate to the magnitude of the threats and its link to misogyny.

Commenting on this, Sumera Naqvi said,“I believe the weapon against misogyny is women empowerment.The media is unable to handle misogyny well because they don’t have a clear understanding of it. They think it is some women’s pastime because we still haven’t addressed the root causes well enough, especially of working women.”

She thinks the reason for women unable to get basic rights in any profession is because “there are not many women at high levels, in the higher management. They are not part of the real decision making processes which include their working hours, their pay scales, their fringe benefits etc. All HR rules and regulations, or salary packages are made with men in mind, and not women. Women should become men themselves to be part of the workforce.”

“I personally believe that journalists will themselves have to understand and reconcile with the concept of working women, with all its paraphernalia, to write about it as much as possible. I remember when I was a working journalist, we women used to struggle for our rights as an equal worker to claim a decent pay.” Sumera added.“A male boss once said: “Why do you need a raise? Your father or your brother or husband will look after your upkeep. The salary that you get here is just pocket money for you!” 

Such remarks only reveal that there is need to constantly continue the dialogue on gender inequality, sexual harassment, domestic abuse and violence, rape in the media and not wait for March 8 to do this.

Social media is a great tool to keep the conversation going by highlighting important campaigns like #MeToo and engaging people.

Echoing this, Nirasha Piyawadani – journalist, researcher and programme producer at Center for Media & Information Literacy, Sri Lanka – wrote via email,“Until World Women’s Day, the media around the world will not remember to report this. This topic may not be effective enough to meet their commercial needs. Or we may be trying to make excuses for not doing something that we should have done before.”

Once Women’s Day ends, business is back to normal on March 9. The media returns to routine work, tucking women’s issues under the ‘real news’ until the next women’s day or until the next crime against women.

Emphasising on sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, Nirasha gives a historical background of campaign.

“#MeToo and Time’s Up! are global campaigns for women who have been sexually assaulted.  The founder of #MeToo is Tarana Burke, a woman who has been sexually abused.” Nirasha elaborated, “In a 2006 post on social media called MySpace, she mentioned that if a woman has been sexually abused, she should write the words #MeToo with the hashtag “I feel like I am the owner of that experience”.

“The most important social service that took place through #MeToo was for women around the world to come together collectively through this movement to speak out more forcefully than to raise their individual voices against such sexual violence. As the rumour of #MeToo spread from women around the world on social media, there was overwhelming evidence to recognise that this issue is no longer a personal, but a global issue.  As a result, women’s empowerment organizations around the world began to focus on this movement. Through all of this, some of the perpetrators of the violence were revealed to be some of the well-known people in the world.” She added.

Speaking about the media focus on #MeToo and sexual harassment Indonesian journalist Ratna Ariyantisaid, “In general, if we see the number of media covering stories about sexual assault and harassment, we can see that the #MeToo movement has brought an impact to the significant increase of the articles on these topics. One of the reports published by the Women’s Media Centre shows that the number of articles on sexual assault is up to over 30% in August 2018 compared to the first month before the #MeToo movement spread or in May 2017.”

She added, “The study was conducted by analysing the content of headlines, bylines, and articles on 15,228 news articles in 14 newspapers in the U.S. Of course it does not represent on how the media in Asia covering this issue, a region where the subject is still being seen as taboo and also where the victim blaming is still existed.”

Ratna further added, “In the patriarchal society, the public discourse gives the priority to men. It is still a long way for everyone to act together to end this gender inequality, including when media cover stories about sexual assault and harassment against women.”

Reiterating the impact of the #MeToo movement, Ratna said “Although the #MeToo movement has also increased the number of women speaking against the sexual misconduct, in general countries in Asia have mostly remained silent. One of the reason is because the judicial system is not strong enough to give protection and to defend women who fight for their rights and report the abuse. It then leads the countries to the culture of impunity.” 

Ratna Ariyanti is a board member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Indonesia and International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) South East Asia Coordinator. She is also a doctoral student at E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University Athens, Ohio and also on the teaching staff at the Multimedia Nusantara University in Banten, Indonesia where she teaches Business Journalism, Reporting Issues of Diversity, and Global Journalism.

Social media and technology has opened other avenues for journalists that traditional media never provided. Now journalists can use technology and social media to speak about topics that areignored by mainstream media like sexual harassment.

Social media is a strong and powerful tool, if used smartly can be a great friend. However, it can also be used to cause havoc in someone’s life. Women journalists are facing serious problems online.

Overthe past year,online attacks against women journalists have increased across the world. Even in Pakistan, women journalists are constantly being attacked online. This led to a group of women journalists issuing two statements and a meeting with parliamentarians to discuss online attacks and threats. Unfortunately, except for promises the authorities did nothing concrete to resolve this serious issue. And the attacks have not only continued but increased manifold.

It is the government’s duty to ensure the safety of women journalists, not only because it is their constitutional right but also because Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1996 – a quarter of a century ago. By dragging its feet on women issues, the government is not only denying the pledge it made in 1997 but is failing half of the population of the country.

Social media is not all bad as it does have positive aspects. It is a great platform to highlight issues as we have seen in how it highlighted the #MeToo movement all over the world – exposing some very powerful people.

This media introduced the #MeToo movement in Pakistan and forced the mainstream media take notice and also speak about it – which was a first in itself for a media that is sometimes criticised for being too conservative.

“I think that ever since the #MeToo Movement started worldwide, Pakistani media has also highlighted the issue of sexual harassment more than it did in the past but yes, there is of course room for improvement and more needs to be done to highlight these issues.” Mehmal Sarfaraz – journalist, Political Analyst Geo Tv and co-founder of https://thecurrent.pk/ – said.

Mehmal’s The Current often highlights important topics like harassment and other social ills which were initially ignored by the mainstream media. She points out a reason for this and it makes sense.

“There is the issue of ratings also. We have seen that these issues are highlighted more in the print media than in the electronic media because political topics get more views than this. The good thing, though, is that social media has given voice to a lot of women and these issues are highlighted there and then picked up by mainstream media. As for more women being in the media, our media is still a male-dominated one. Some say that there are only 10 percent women in the media and not more.”

Commenting on this Indonesian journalist Ratna Ariyantisaid via an email, “As for media, we have seen that after the #MeToo movement, journalists are still not paying huge attention on the sexual assault and harassment against women. The changing of media industry where journalists need to shift from traditional media to online media, I believe, is one of the reason on why journalists and media do not place this as their priority.”

She added, “The competition of the media, especially online media, is very tight. The media tend to produce stories that attracts readers. Women in general are still underrepresented in the media. We have seen several challenges on the media bias against women in their reporting of sexual harassment, such as shifting blame from the male perpetrators to their female victims. Majority of the coverage also only relied to the police comments without giving women more space to speak.”

As Nirasha Piyawadani said, “A journalist is not a human rights activist. But they are human right defenders. So journalists and the media have a social responsibility to disseminate as much information as possible about such movements for the benefit of those in the community who could become targets of sexual abuse.”

“Advances in technology and the emergence of social media have given us more space to speak out on this issue than ever before. Women now also have the ability to record and present evidence of abuse.”

Thereare many women in the media but we still women-oriented content underreported, there are many reasons as Nirasha explains,“When a woman complains of sexual harassment in the workplace, she becomes vulnerable to injustice by being forced to remain silent and to be ignored. The film industry employs beautiful women, who are at high risk of being sexually abused by men and women in other fields, including the performing arts.”

Nirasha gives a solution, “Therefore, it is imperative that the staff in every workplace be made aware of the legal assistance available to victims of sexual abuse. If such complaints are made to the Human Resource Management Divisions, they should be facilitated to seek counselling from well-trained officers to provide appropriate solutions and strengthen the mentality of the woman. But in most institutions in Sri Lanka such a service is not functional at all.”

The media needs to focus on human rights more, predominately women rights, by frequently adding content to break the stronghold of misogyny and patriarchy in the media and society.

The change will be slow, evendifficult, but the constant pressure will help keep the process moving.

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