Twenty years ago, when women’s empowerment was not popular in the national discourse, one woman set out to change this approach. In 1997, Tasneem Ahmar started Uks, a nongovernmental organization that focused on reclaiming women’s narrative in the print media. She continues that work today with TV news channels, and she reaches out to a greater audience via Uks radio programs that boost awareness of women’s issues.
Her career in journalism and her newspaper reading made Ahmar realize that stories covering women were stereotypical and reflected the way Pakistan’s patriarchal society perceived women.
“I got a few friends together without any donor money initially,” Ahmar says. “What I would do each day [is] read a lot of newspapers, mark, cut and paste articles depicting the kind of coverage given to women. Then I started to reach out to editors with the clippings.”
She wanted to contact as many editors as she could, but she kept away from those reputed to blackmail critics and engage in other harmful practices. So she focused only on a few editors, and when they were persuaded to adopt a more woman-friendly approach, others followed suit.
Ahmar conducted training courses for reporters and subeditors. Initially the training focused on a few basic questions: Why were negative headlines given to stories on women? For example, some headlines highlighted women’s smoking habits. Prominent women, such as the late lawyer and rights activist Asma Jahangir, were often shamed for smoking.
Attitudes in news stories also encouraged Pakistan’s rape culture. Newspapers sensationalized “honor killings,” as they reported on the murders of females by their own relatives, who felt the women—even if they had been raped—had brought dishonor to their families.
News articles blamed women for horrendous incidents as well. “When they [the Urdu press] would report on a body of a newborn found in a garbage dump, they would invariably dub it ‘the sin of an unwed mother lying in the garbage,’ and I would ask how did they know that it was an unwed mother,” Ahmar says. “Why didn’t they ask about the father? Why wasn’t the blame shared?”
The questions raised during training sessions gradually helped bring about change. “When we did a comparative analysis on what we were doing and if it had any impact, we saw that headlines in most newspapers would now read ‘a body of a newborn found,’ ” Ahmar says. “There would be no reference to an unwed mother. We considered that to be a big success. At least the level of understanding of journalists was changing.”
To be allowed to speak in male-dominated newsrooms to men who resisted such arguments was a mark of success in itself. A change in mindset was finding its way across Pakistan, as trainings were held in conservative cities such as Peshawar and Quetta. Every city brought its own challenges.
Some trainees would question Ahmar on her “agenda” and ask who was funding Uks. She would invite her critics—journalists and agencies—to check her records. “Being transparent is something not a lot of NGOs consider to be an asset,” Ahmar says. “That is why we have a bad reputation in the media, [but] they could just come and look through my office whenever they wished.”
While her credibility grew and the small team of Uks research associates and project coordinators was breaking barriers, Ahmar’s work was far from over. The launch of 24/7 channels in 2002 made her realize that she had to start from scratch again.
“By then we felt that the print media was easy to tame. But now this new monster called 24/7 news channels had emerged. There were people who had been unleashed to talk to millions of audience [members] without any training,” Ahmar says.
The insensitivity these channels promoted was doing more damage than the print could ever do, so Ahmar started monitoring news and talk shows. Uks noted the problems and shared them with PEMRA (the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) or with personnel at the channels themselves.
Uks recently launched the women’s media complaint cell, where viewers can lodge complaints of misogynistic content. Along with content monitored by Uks, complaints filed by the public are now presented to bureau chiefs or producers of channels.
Ahmad also reaches the public—especially people living in remote areas—through a series of radio programs. The goals of Uks Radio Projects are to raise women’s profile in broadcast journalism, create awareness of social issues with a gender perspective and bring about attitudinal change in men and women.
The transmissions air in Urdu, a language that a majority of Pakistanis understand. The programs advocate a pro-woman stance on issues such as honor killing, AIDS and the water crisis in rural Pakistan. For instance, the Uks team collected stories about women who travel far distances to fetch potable water for their families. These women face mental, emotional, physical and reproductive problems owing to a lack of clean water near their homes.
As she works to educate the public via radio, Ahmar is expanding her efforts with media sources. She has succeeded in entering into a discourse with the people behind the TV cameras, but she also wants to engage with anchorpersons. “I don’t think it is going to be easy because after [they] get this kind of fame and screen presence, it becomes difficult to bring them on board for any kind of sensitivity,” Ahmar says.
She is devising strategies to deal with all media platforms—for example, last year, Ahmar held a roundtable conference with members of the entertainment industry. While the response was positive, she knows she still has a long way to convince people that “a country’s media coverage is related to women’s status and development. Women are pushed back if the media doesn’t support them in a constructive manner.