By: Atika Rehman
KARACHI: “My eyes are up here,” she snaps at the reporter as, mid-conversation, his attention drifts away from her face towards her chest. He giggles; she shrugs it off as just another display of myopic male mentality.
Sadly, these incidents are not uncommon; female broadcast and print journalists share that discrimination and harassment shadow work – in the newsroom, or out in the field.
Of sticks and stones
“Some reporters harass their own female colleagues. A male colleague once offered to ‘help’ me with an assignment if I agreed to meet him at night in an internet café,” says *Ayesha, a 31-year-old reporter at a leading Urdu-language newspaper. “When I refused to meet him, he revoked the offer.”
Quetta-based broadcast journalist *Nadia recalls similar early experiences.
“Back when I started, if I went to meet the police or a government secretary, they would get a bit too friendly,” she recalls. “One official told me to meet him alone in his office at a specific time, and emphasised that I should not bring my cameraman.”
The schools are full, the field is empty
For female field reporters in Pakistan, a major issue for women is that harassment often goes unreported and unpunished.
Despite the unwelcoming environment, females continue to join the field of journalism undeterred. A report of the NGO “UKS” that was published this month, titled Who’s Telling Our Story: A Situation Analysis of Women in Media in Pakistan, reveals that the number of women and men enrolled in mass communication departments at major universities all over Pakistan is more or less the same.
Paradoxically, the UKS data also brings to light that from the total number of employees at major media houses, only 1.8% are female.
Veteran journalist Afia Salam shares that “When we spoke to final year students [when collecting data for the survey] they told us their families won’t permit them to work since mahol acha nahi hai (the atmosphere is not good). Families are afraid to let their daughters work night shifts and use public transport to come home after sunset,” she explains.
Salam adds that apart from a handful of English-language daily publications, the environment and policies at magazines and newspapers is not conducive to women working.
“The perception of women is skewed also because of their portrayal in the media,” she says. “Parents think that the media is all entertainment and showbiz.”
Broadcast journalist Sana, who hails from a conservative Pashtun family, says she encountered similar setbacks. “My relatives would taunt me and ask if I wanted to model on TV. When I told them that I was going to be a reporter, they were happy.”
An ugly assault
Senior TV journalist Quatrina Hosain relates an ugly episode that took place right before the general elections. Hosain tells The Express Tribune that she was assaulted by a group of 30 men at a PTI rally in Wah Cantt, where she had driven to interview party candidate Ghulam Sarwar. Without going into the gory details, Hosain says, “I don’t know if they were told to teach me a lesson, but I do know that the nature of the assault was really horrific. There were multiple people grabbing at various parts of my body. I was scared that if I fell or any of my clothes were torn, no one would have been able to prevent a rape from taking place. I felt like a cornered animal.”
In the aftermath of the incident, Hosain “had flashbacks.” “I was rude to people who were asking to help me with my bag at the airport. I felt vulnerable and my brain was wired into flight mode. In public spaces, I would desperately search for women so I could go and stand near them,” she says.
She says she was mortified when people on social media accused her of concocting the story to “boost ratings” for her show.
Hosain explains that she did not register an FIR because she did not want the episode to become a political issue. “It happened to me because I am a woman. Men ask us ‘why were you there’. Luckily for me, I reached out to friends and family and got therapy. I am not afraid to talk about it.”
*Some names have been changed