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August 29, 2015

The curious case of Ayyan Ali and sexism in Pakistani media


August 29, 2015

The coverage of model Ayyan Ali’s arrest and her subsequent trial perhaps is the best case study for understanding the depth — or its complete lack thereof — of the seriousness with which women are (man)handled by the media.
As Ayyan Ali’s wardrobe and her make-up were discussed at length, the coverage of her trial remained conspicuously missing from the television screens.
When it comes to women and their portrayal, the sins of commission of the mainstream Pakistani media are just as grave as the sins of omission.
Though the race for ratings remains the driving force for bad journalism in Pakistan, it could be used to reign in bad practices by deciding ratings on the basis of content and whether the reviews are positive or negative.
At a discussion organised by research and advocacy group, Uks, on Friday, owners of media houses, editors, academicians and representatives of journalists’ bodies discussed at length the contours of women-specific media coverage and its different shades.
The debate centered around the content and context of women’s issues and the way they were covered and portrayed in news, entertainment and advertising industries of the country.
The director of Uks, Tasneem Ahmed, said there were only 2.5 percent women in power positions in media houses while television dramas glorified the “chaar diwaari” and “chaadar”, and advertisements inadvertently reinforcing the already existing stereotypes.
She announced that Uks was planning to set up women media monitoring centres for registration of complaints regarding media’s behaviour towards and pertaining to women.
Azhar Abbas, the managing director at Geo News, responded that timely intimation of errors to editors or senior journalists by the media complaint cell can result in remarked improvement in the way media covers sensitive women’s issues such as rape. “Sensationalism will take time to go away but if we get to know in time

what we do wrong, 50 percent of the problems will disappear themselves.”
Opening up the discussion, Javed Jabbar, former senator and federal minister, said on one hand the number of media houses and percentage of women working there was increasing as was the coverage of their issues; problems persisted because the pioneering role of state media and radio was missing in changing the societal factors which gave rise to stereotypes in the first place.
Jabbar said state television had to take the responsibility of raising women-centric issues for awareness of the public. In this regard, he said, the role of state radio too was extremely important. “However, unfortunately in Pakistan, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority does not give licenses for community radios because the mere mention of it evokes memories of Mullah Fazlullah’s antics.
In fact, if community radios had been allowed and were doing their job, Mullah Fazlullah wouldn’t have found room to brainwash half of Swat,” Jabbar said. “Under Pemra regulations, campus radios and community radios have to take part in the bidding process which is the exact opposite of the sense of communal benefit. Indonesia has between 10,000 and 12,000 community radio, while Turkey has more than 6,000.”
Hameed Haroon, the CEO of Dawn Media Group and the president of the All Pakistan Newspaper Society, said an intelligent focus was required to circumvent a complex issue.
He emphasised that platforms which sought to reduce or remove gender bias against women also had to address larger societal issues. “There is a persistent inability or refusal to deal with salient issues of the women,” he said. “What gets printed matters as much as what is not printed in the newspapers.”
He said mere lip service to the rhetoric was just not going to cut it. “The primary perpetrators, including the media moguls and government functionaries cannot just make do with statements, unless changes were made in the laws enshrined for women which worked against them. There is commercial and legal discrimination in everyday and most important matters for women, be it divorce, inheritance or providing evidence for rape.”
On the other hand, he said, civil society needed an intelligent focus to deal with the issue and make sure it reflected in a wide sphere of activities. “A social revolution is required in terms of thinking with respect about women,” said Haroon.
“Ayyan Ali was manhandled by the media institutions. The charges places on her did not justify the humiliation she was put through when many convicted criminals are sitting in the parliament. Had it had been a man who had gone to a university after being released from jail, the response would have been quite different. The sins of omission are many times as glaring.”
Senior journalist Mazhar Abbas remarked that a media lexicon needed to be prepared for correcting the usage of words by anchors and reporters.
He said the sensitisation of media personnel was limited to reporters when television had other areas as well where the staff needed to learn the correct usage of words.
He agreed with Haroon’s analysis of Ayyan Ali and her trial, saying that the model was discussed at length as the charges she was accused of were conspicuous by their absence.
He said all the media bodies - All Pakistan Newspaper Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, Pakistan Broadcasters Association and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists - need to sit down and agree upon a strategy of using certain practices for reducing gender bias against women.
Jabbar Khattak, a member of the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, pointed out that the coverage of Sindhi media was far less biased against women. He said the Sindh papers had led a campaign about the terminologies used for Karo kari, changing the dynamics of its coverage. He pointed out that consumers’ pressure was also missing from the equation.
However, the bureau chief of Khyber TV, Hasan Khan, said the bias were not as evident in mainstream media as they were in local media houses.
He highlighted the dire need for sensitisation of journalists as well as the commercial broadcasters.
Javed Jabbar while summing up the debate said there was a dire need for a parallel rating system which graded the media and its content.

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