By Tasneem Ahmar
Seeing what a humble individual like me can achieve with self-belief and determination gives me the most satisfaction. When I reflect on my journey, I am happy that I was able to be an agent, a catalyst for change in how the Pakistani media reports more seriously and sensitively on issues ranging from media portrayal of women to reporting disasters through the gender lens or how to talk about HIV/AIDS without going into denial.
I am Tasneem Ahmar, Director of Uks (an Urdu word for reflection), a research, resource and publication centre dedicated to gender equality and women’s development. In 1997, I founded this organisation in Islamabad (Pakistan) with a clear focus on how women were treated in the media, A concern that has remained poorly represented by organisations working on women’s rights.
When I look back, I realise there was no gender discrimination or glass ceiling that ever held me back. With my husband’s support I was able to shatter the myth that presumed that all Pakistani women are abused, and shackled into chains of ignorance and painful traditional values. Yes, there are many such unfortunate women, but there is another side to the picture. In fact, I broke quite a few myths thus challenging the social system. I got married in my early thirties, had a baby, founded an organisation almost single-handedly and made a success of it. But, I am not the only one; unusual perhaps but there are women like me who have opted for a successful career over early marriage, said no to social, cultural pressures and yet lead a happy family life. It is simply that our voices are not heard, and our faces not seen frequently enough on the media, in fiction or in the movies.
It was my personal experience that led me to rethink my career options. Even a cursory glance at the media shows that Pakistani women are invariably portrayed as abused, shackled, backward, ignorant and submissive.
I decided to tackle the matter, to do something that would be good to women like me, and the millions of others, voiceless, wrongly portrayed, or exhibited as sex symbols in the media. Thus, Uks was born; in the upstairs flat of the rented ground floor where we lived in Islamabad.
My husband, a correspondent for the BBC, was moved to Islamabad in 1992 after a militant political group attacked our flat and assaulted him. The upstairs flat became vacant, and I asked Zaffar if we could rent it for ‘Uks’. Ever-supportive he agreed. He may have thought it was a passing ‘phase’ and would soon be over so he paid the rent and I opened my office with some second hand furniture and lots of newspapers to monitor. (What started that summer 16 years ago continues to this day.)
I used to read and mark almost 12 newspapers —in English and Urdu — every day, and a young woman I had hired would cut and paste them. I would then take these press clippings to the editors to raise awareness about their coverage of women. The responses — I still recall — were amazingly naïve. Whether it was denial, ignorance or embarrassment, I cannot say, but most of the editors, all male, some also good friends and acquaintances, took quite a while to accept that it was their newspaper that had published that sensational story, with derogatory catch lines and equally offensive photographs.
The worst were stories on crime and show business in which women were treated as nothing but filthy objects. In 1998, a young woman, Nina, was murdered in Islamabad, and her headless body was found in the basement of her house where she had lived alone. I was late September and I was conducting a workshop on Gender Sensitisation of Media on portrayal of women. This news was also briefly discussed during the workshop. The days and weeks to follow saw the worst example of sensational reporting. A lovely, educated, young woman, who worked for a multi-national company and chose to live independently, was murdered and all the media could write about or discuss was her personal life. She was accused of being involved with multiple partners, drinking and everything that is considered taboo for women in our society. The media was not willing to forgive a girl who had, in their eyes, committed the crime of defying ‘values and norms’ set by the patriarchal, traditional and conservative society.
But this was not all. A week later her head was found from a nearby green belt. All newspapers except for one English language daily published the picture of her head resting on a hospital stretcher. One newspaper in a bid to sell a few more copies published a colour photograph. Nina’s father then wrote a letter addressing the media on how ruthlessly they had put his dead daughter on trial, knowing that she couldn’t defend herself. He very painfully thanked the media for the way they had reported on this tragic incident. Some newspapers printed the letter, most did not.
I was deeply distressed by the coverage and made it a mission to take up Nina’s case at every gender and media training. One of the participants at a workshop in Karachi did a story in The Herald, an English language political magazine, on the role of media in putting a dead woman on trial. To date, I recall and discuss Nina and her posthumous media trial at every media training session I conduct. By a strange coincidence, the present Uks office in Islamabad is located in the very house where Nina had lived and died. This we found out at the office warming party when someone mentioned that Nina had been murdered in this house. I had to convince our staff that nothing would happen here. A dead woman who could not defend herself from the onslaught of the media could do us no harm.
There are other factors that at times make my spirit go down and I feel my work has become even tougher. The media in Pakistan is being pushed by contradictory forces. Religious fundamentalists want to keep women between four walls and liberal civil society wants to empower them.
Our gender-based radio programmes try to reverse stereotyping women as passive victims and sufferers through oral testimonies from far flung areas that reflect women’s courage, leadership and resilience and portray women’s development in Pakistan. The journey thus far may be satisfying but it feels like everyday there is another mountain to climb. Such is the nature of Pakistani society. But the struggle has to continue. There is simply no other option.