Let your presence be known

Adeela Akmal
December 07, 2021

While media witnesses an influx of women journalists and mediapersons, their presence in institutions that represent the profession – trade unions and press clubs – remains negligible. You! takes a look…

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No, I hate the crowd there,” commented Journalist Xari Jalil, when I posted a question on a journalist’s forum about whether women like to hang out at the Press Club in their cities. Similarly, when I asked around my colleagues if they were members of the Karachi Press Club or any unions, I found that memberships for Press Club had been closed since 2018 and most just shrugged with nonchalance about unions. Though, speaking to my seniors, about the same, their response wasn’t so optimistic as well but did pique my interest.

“I am a member of the Karachi Press Club, but I don’t go to their meetings or hang out there as it is primarily dominated by men. The environment is not women-friendly,” expresses Journalist Erum Noor Muzaffar.

Every profession plays an important role in society and serves its purpose, maintaining a dynamic that allows stability. And in each profession, dignity of a worker and fair pay is an essential part. Journalism or free press is the fourth pillar of the state and if the basis of the state is in jeopardy, the whole state would be in shambles. This is where trade unions come in. But unfortunately, the presence of women in these entities seems to be scarce. You! takes a look…

What are Trade Unions?

Before we move on to the representation of women, we need to know what these bodies are and why they are important. “Pakistan has three types of unions; Collective Bargaining Agent (CBA), local unions and then a federating union. CBA is formed from an organisation which has bargaining power, can make your case and fight for it with the management. There is a charter of demands and apart from your guaranteed rights that the law provides, you can also bargain for more rights. Then, there’s local Union of Journalists (UJ) which are regional – Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ), Rawalpindi Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ), Punjab Union of Journalists (PUJ) etc. – and they all come under a federating union which is Pakistan Union of Journalists (PFUJ) that represents the country. These are supporting units and will back up the local UJs, which will act as an intervener,” tells Sheher Bano, Vice President of PFUJ.

“I have been a part of trade unions for 17-18 years in various capacities. In fact, I was the pioneering member of The News CBA in 1993,” she comments

Shazia Hasan

Sharing a little background of KUJ, Journalist and Vice President of the Karachi Press Club, Shazia Hasan shares, “Initially KUJ was so spread out that they weren’t taking any new members, so a new KUJ was formed by the name of ‘Dastoor’ and the original KUJ which was led by veteran Journalist Minhaj Barna (during Zia’s time) was simply called ‘KUJ Barna’. While KUJ has been divided further into factions, these are the main two groups in the city. Moreover, there is also an Alliance made by the two groups, where six members from Barna and six from Dastoor contest in the elections for Press Club as ‘The Democrats’.”

How is the Press Club different from Trade Unions?

A common misconception about press clubs is that they are political, when in actuality; they are just for recreation, whereas, the Union of Journalists (UJs) are political. They ensure working conditions and freedom of expression. “A journalist has a high stress job, which can have an impact on their mental health. Press clubs provide recreation for them to relax and unwind. Sure, workshops are held to help the members but people often confuse the two. It’s great to have things working in synchronisation but the Press Club has a different jurisdiction,” informs veteran journalist Fauzia Shahid. “I always tell women to come here, even if it is to play indoor games just to show that they are participating.”

What is the role of women in these entities?

Fauzia Shahid is one of the first women to become the member of PFUJ in 1976. She was the only women President at RIUJ and has served as Secretary General in PFUJ.

Fauzia Shahid

She is of the opinion that struggles for journalists are always constant. In the past 70 years, things were never easy. whether it was the working conditions or issues with freedom of expression. In 1963, there was PPO (Press, Publications Ordinance) then in Zia’s time we saw pre-censorship. When asked how the representation of women has changed since the time of Zia, Fauzia informs, “I am happy to see that women are getting more active but they aren’t as enthusiastic as they should be. But the women who are coming in are usually elected from a group, instead of open elections. I would like to see women introduce themselves and let their capabilities shine as individuals. There was a time when I was affiliated to IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) which luckily happened because of me. There was a meeting with IFJ, where they demanded the number of women in PFUJ in 2001. At the time women were very few, and there was never a female Secretary General in PFUJ before me. Seeing that, there was no female Secretary General in South Asia at the time, we got that affiliation with IFJ.”

When asked about the representation of women in the unions in Karachi, Sheher Bano said it was “next to none.” “Our CBA doesn’t have women, Jang probably had one woman and Dawn probably had a woman or two in theirs. When I first ran for my selection in KUJ in 2007, I found out that in the previous seven to eight years, no woman had ever participated. Getting votes was very difficult for me because I was alone in the midst of all men,” narrates Sheher Bano. “Women are usually taken in the organising committee, which means they just have a single vote and don’t really have a decision-making role. These entities now have international pressure to have at least 5 per cent reserved quota seats for women, just like our parliament has a 33 per cent quota for women.”

Sheher Bano

“Representation-wise the situation is pretty bad in Sindh, Balochistan and KP, whereas Punjab is relatively better. Even for Sindh, Sindh Urban is better than Sindh Rural. When I was nominated as Vice President for PFUJ, I came through reserved seats, like there are in the parliament. There is no open competition. It is up to the management of the unions to pick and choose. Here, I feel that there are biases involved, as in they pick who could favour them. I had to struggle a lot to make my position,” she elaborates.

Talking about decision making roles, Fauzia adds, “At PFUJ, I was the Senior Vice President and the President from Karachi. So, when he was not representing, I would take his place. Since a Secretary General is like a Chief Executive, I took decisions and performed well at RIUJ. Whether it’s a UJ or PFUJ, everyone is heard through a democratic process, so the gender doesn’t matter here. I cannot speak for all the UJs of the country but for PFUJ, I haven’t witnessed discrimination here. Similarly, I am the chairperson for the body of Sexual Harassment in Press Club. I have been a part of these institutions since 1975, and so far, I haven’t come across any such case in these entities.”

As far as the press club is concerned, Fauzia mentions that the National Press Club in Islamabad has kept two special seats for women – Vice President and Executive Secretary. “While women have these two seats, I don’t see the kind of role that they should be playing. Women don’t sit there often. Just today I was at the press club and I didn’t see anyone come in. A journalist’s job is to meet people, interact and socialise, (male or female) if you don’t do that, you cannot progress in your career. Unfortunately, women lag behind and, in my opinion, one shouldn’t bring gender in between and should interact,” emphasises Fauzia.

“During the early ’80s, the members of the Karachi Press Club were around 150, out of which there were five to seven women journalists. Then in ’85, the number doubled to around 10-14 women as more women started entering the profession. Then, in 1992 to 1996, our member count went up to around 500 out of which 30-35 were women,” highlights Journalist Tahir Hasan Khan, who been the Secretary and President of KPC four times. “Currently, the member count is 1400 from which there are 175 women. This is an approximate figure of voters, we also have non-journalist members who cannot vote in the elections. Ever since the electronic media came in, there is a lot of confusion about who they label as a journalist; they may even label a person handling the camera wire as a journalist. This is why we closed the memberships for 10 years so they can get their definitions right.”

While Shazia believes that women aren’t treated fairly, feels that the ratios at the workplaces are also less. “Whenever I go to the press clubs, all I see are men, only one or two women. Every year I find that there is only one female on the board, which I thought was just to save face. But then I noticed that the ratio is also similar at workplaces. For instance, in my office, there are only two women in the reporter’s room, including me, the rest are all men,” she says. “I did bring this up at the Press Club but they say that the women don’t participate here. They only come in, eat and leave. Now, women are coming in because we have started encouraging them to show that they are serious about their memberships. There is a gym you can use, we also have a small studio where you can do recordings, we want them to use our facilities. The women are coming in but the number is still small, so when the elections happen, it’s only the one or two women who are active. Even when I suggest names to the board, they just ask me if they actually give the club some time. I ask these women why do they hide in the family area rather than sit with the colleagues, they just say that they don’t feel comfortable. So, unless women come forward, we won’t see a change,” observes Shazia.

The way forward

What changes can be made to make the environment more conducive for women journalists to participate in these important activities?

“We need awareness and connections,” stresses Sheher Bano. “Young journalists need to know about these entities and this can happen when we make our units strong by having frequent meetings. People will only know about your struggles once you share with them in the meetings. Moreover, the democratic process should be in place at every level. We are union in ourselves and we should hold the people in leadership accountable and appreciate them when they do good work.”

“Working should never be slavery. PFUJ should start awareness programmes in all the organisations and UJs, have conversations with young journalists, and keep in check if they are delivering. For women, I would say that they shouldn’t confine themselves to a page or time. Mostly women separate themselves from these unions because they think it’s a waste of time. I understand that they have families, but they should also find some time for this. Sadly, for us leftists, there is no proper mission anymore. It may be a thankless job, but trade unions can make a difference and women should think about working collectively towards a goal,” suggests Fauzia Shahid.

“I also feel that it is the responsibility of the journalist members to make the environment at the press clubs favourable for their fellow journalists by discouraging outsiders. Keep the club for your fraternity. They should treat it like their home. This way more women would feel comfortable coming in here,” she concludes.

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