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An uncovered issue

Why no one talks about sexual harassment in Pakistan’s media industry?

An uncovered issue

Journalism is often seen as a dangerous profession globally, but women, numerically fewer, are disproportionately harassed both within the workplace and in public spaces. What is even more unfortunate, the issue of sexual harassment is rarely confronted and because evidence is hard to come by, perpetrators continue to enjoy a culture of impunity.

Tanzila Mazhar, 35, a news anchor in Pakistan’s state-run television channel, had recently launched a complaint of sexual harassment against the predatory behaviour of her boss and his contempt for human dignity, especially for his female colleagues. She claims she had to pay a heavy price for naming and shaming her boss.

She lost her job (she resigned in protest after the inquiry commission could not find enough evidence and reinstated her boss) and has been told it will be hard to find work in any other channel either.

Studies upon studies have inextricably linked power with sexual harassment. “The harasser usually enjoys authority, and can affect your work,” said Mazhar.

A multi media journalist for BBC Urdu and currently taking a career break, Saba Eitizaz, who has worked both in print and electronic media said sexual harassment in Pakistan “was almost institutionalized” there.

The issue is not unique to Pakistan alone. A 2013 International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) study found that globally nearly two-thirds of women journalists have experienced some form of harassment or abuse in relation to their work and a majority did not report due to job security, fear of retaliation etc.

While those may also be some of the reasons prevalent in Pakistan, according to Anila Ansari, a broadcast journalist, in Pakistan “women are told their place is in the home so if they go out they are violating the divine commandment,” she explained.

Last August, Ansari started an anti-ogling campaign on FM radio, Power 99. She used one of the most powerful communication tools to access 35 million minds (in Vehari, Islamabad and Abbottabad) and change their attitude towards women.

“If a report from a female reporter gets on-air first compared to a male colleague’s, the latter never fails to remind her it is because of her gender.”

“The response has been tremendous. Women have said they got a platform to vent their annoyance; male callers said they now understand the difference between ‘looking’ and ‘ogling’,” said Ansari.

To have the temerity to step into an almost all male-domain, Eitizaz said “you are expected to somehow tolerate misogyny, act tough, almost man-like to be able to survive in the field,” said Eitizaz.

“When a friend complained to her supervisor about inappropriate advances made towards her by a male colleague, he shrugged saying: ‘You’ll have to learn to face people like him, else how will you survive’,” recalled Aqsa Junejo, a freelance journalist.

For her part, Eitizaz has had to deal with a smear campaign and incitement to faith-related hatred. She has even been threatened with an acid attack. “I felt violated, enraged and so helpless. I even began to have misgivings that maybe I was making too much of it,” she added.

Most women feel that their work is gauged often by their looks and not the content alone. “If a report from a female reporter gets on-air first compared to a male colleague’s, the latter never fails to remind her it is because she has an edge because of her gender,” said Junejo.

Today, harassment has also spilled into the digital world. While both male and female journalists are trolled, Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) said female journalists were particularly susceptible to gendered abuse online. “Women journalists are more likely to receive sexualised threats,” she said.

But most online journalists feel a sense of powerlessness in front of their abusers.

DRF suggested media houses to come up with “institutional mechanisms” to address online harassment. At an individual level, it recommended journalists to file formal complaints with the Cyber Crime Wing of the Federal Investigation Authority (FIA). “Additionally, given the audience that journalists have, female journalists should openly talk about online harassment that they face,” she said.

But all is not bleak if you ask Maliha Hussain, executive director at Mehergarh, a non-government organisation that formed the Alliance against Sexual Harassment (AASHA). There are now laws in place in Pakistan that protect women against harassment like the Amended Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code and the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace, Act 2010, with victims (both men and women) being able to seek recourse through in-house inquiry committees or the independent provincial ombudsman’s office if not satisfied with the former.

“Hundreds have taken perpetrators to court while I know of a few thousand cases where women have asked for inquiry committee to mediate,” said Hussain who is leading the work on countrywide implementation of these laws. “The State Bank of Pakistan and Pakistan Banks Association is facilitating and monitoring compliance in all the banks in the country; government organisations like NADRA are doing an excellent job of effectively implementing and using the law; the Pakistan Business Council with over 100 biggest companies in the country as members, has 100 per cent compliance with this law.”

But the irony is that while media are quick to name, shame the misdemeanors taking place all around them, they fail to look within. This calls for some serious introspection.

And while Eitizaz conceded that despite “stringent” workplace harassment policies, “casual sexism” or “sexually suggestive comments” existed even at the BBC. She said in Pakistani media houses, there are no “clear cut rules and policies and everything is quite blurry”.

It was time, emphasised media analyst and journalists’ rights activist, Adnan Rehmat, for some “concrete” action taken by the media houses on the issue. “Being the guardian of public interest they cannot carry out the role meaningfully if the relatively low number of women in media sector are left unprotected by the absence of official anti-harassment policies.”

According to the IMWF, men make up nearly three-quarters of journalism’s top managers and nearly two-thirds of its reporters globally. In Pakistan, said Rehmat, citing All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation, both print and electronic media employed around 150,000 people. But of the 18,000 journalists there, only 750 (or about 5 per cent) are women.

And therefore, having a critical mass of women in decision-making positions would be a step in the right direction.

Sadly, however, said Eitizaz, by the time women break the glass ceiling and reach the top, they become “jaded”. “The top leadership tier needs to be trained about the issue as well,” she added.

Rehmat also recommended a “written policy” about protective mechanism for each media house, “borrowing” from the federal Protection against Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2010 and the National Commission on the Status of Women. “The Pakistan Broadcasters Association as well as the All Pakistan Newspaper Society should also come up with policy decisions regarding the issue. But, these have to be based not on what men think is best for women but on what women actually need, as articulated by them,” he emphasised.

Despite laws and policies, most victims complained that it was often their female colleagues who were the least empathetic.

Eitizaz and Mazhar experienced this isolation. “Women need to be more supportive of each other and unify on this issue,” commented Eitizaz.

“If more women spoke out, it would help others,” said Eitizaz.

But women do discuss this often among themselves, naming names in private and in whispers. “Women know those men are too powerful to be held accountable,” said Mazhar.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Zofeen T. Ebrahim
The author is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

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