By Zubeida Mustafa
AT the South Asian Women in Media’s (SAWM) first regional conference in Lahore (Oct 10-11) the keynote speaker Nandita Das spoke of her many-layered identities – both given and acquired – and how she had to negotiate between these.
The activist-actress-filmmaker-writer advised her audience to avoid stereotypical gender portrayals that associate particular roles or social attributes with people on the basis of gender.
Correct. In keeping with this line of thinking, a ‘woman journalist’ should think of herself first and foremost as a journalist without linking the two identities. This appeared to be a contradiction in terms at the conference where the participants were trying to balance their two hats – of being women (the given identity that cannot be changed) and of being journalists (the acquired identity that they retained as a matter of choice). With the focus on gender sensitisation, equal pay, professional training for women journalists and so on, the emphasis seemed to be heavily on the gender dimension.
I have never felt happy with this approach as I tend to agree with Nandita Das that women should not allow themselves to be pushed out of the mainstream and be segregated in a narrow area assigned to them by society. If women hold up half the sky, as the Chinese say, should not their share of the burden be equal so that they are not relegated to a subordinate role?
Rehana Hakim, the editor of Newsline and the retiring president of SAWM, displayed the sagacity that women are required to demonstrate when negotiating their way between paradoxical positions. She made it clear that SAWM was not created to win special privileges for women journalists but to facilitate the mainstreaming of women in the media by providing them with enhanced training and skills.
It is important to understand that one cannot demand equality on the one hand and insist on a special status on the other. You cannot demand induction into decision-making positions on the one hand and expect to be mollycoddled at the same time. The need is to mobilise women and provide them with equal opportunities for intensive training, thus empowering them with professional skills so that they can stand in the mainstream.
We must understand the pitfalls of an approach that seeks to make gender the touchstone in judging the role, performance, responsibility and privileges of journalists. The truth of this assertion struck me even more two days later when Uks, a research, resource and publication centre on women and media, held its national conference on ‘More women in news and views: how to make it happen’. Once again the status of women journalists came under scrutiny.
With Tasneem Ahmar at the helm, Uks has conducted useful research on content analysis of the mainstream media since 1997. According to Ahmar, over the years she has discerned an improvement in the style of coverage of women’s issues. Yet the quantum of coverage is not enough. To rectify this, Uks suggests the increased participation of women in the media and the gender sensitisation of all journalists, both men and women, vis-Ã -vis women-related issues.
Uks has been holding workshops to train media persons, and investigating the working conditions of women in newspaper offices and the electronic media. Although inclusive in its approach – Uks got some male media practitioners to participate in its Karachi conference – it has not made enough of an impact.
Uks realises that the need is to expose all media persons to gender-sensitisation, training, awareness-raising and so on. But its approach to content analysis needs to be looked into. How to write a story in which women figure and how to include them in opinion-gathering on any issue is something Uks has rightly focused on. But how does one determine the issues that are relevant to women? For instance doesn’t the transport system or the schools have a bearing on the lives of women?
It is important for the forums that provide a platform for women in media not to lose sight of the ultimate goal of mainstreaming women. This is the only way media women can go beyond a token role and make their impact felt. Hence Safma’s secretary general, Imtiaz Alam, did not offer the perfect solution when he described the basic objective of SAWM as the provision of a gender-exclusive platform for women in media across South Asia for discussion and resolution of their professional problems. He promised not to interfere with its working.
Admitting that Safma which had provided representation to women in media was preponderantly male in composition and ‘male-dominated’, Mr Alam said that SAWM was created as a separate organisation on this count. Would it not have been better if an effort had been made to work for improvement of women journalists’ working conditions from Safma’s platform?
The draft of the Memorandum of Association of SAWM circulated before the conference contained as one of its goals, ‘Plan and work for the mainstreaming of women working in the media’. But the draft read out by Sharmini Boyle of Sri Lanka, who was later elected the president, dropped this objective. One hopes that this omission was an oversight that will be corrected when the memorandum is finalised.
With the number of women in the media growing and so many of them in key positions they should refuse to be segregated. When my generation entered the profession, there were too few of us to even think of forming associations and gender-based professional bodies. We would link up with women’s organisations when the need was felt. Otherwise we negotiated (to use Nandita’s term) our way around the shoals without surrendering the mainstream.
With the impressive numbers around, there is no reason why they should not do the same. Their strength lies in focusing on better training and professional commitment opportunities which are more accessible today than before. Most of them are already committed to their work, the other element in the making of success.