Media as we pronounce it, is the fourth pillar of a state; a reflection of the prevalent social, cultural and political system of a country. The significance of mass media within Pakistan is inevitably crucial. From the day-to-day events circling the socio-political environment, to the coherent propagation of soft power, mass media has been facilitating all. Therefore, with its unrelenting, increasing popularity and strength, the role of women in Pakistani media has also become an imperative notion that needs to be paid attention to and revaluated in a number of aspects.
With the growing instances of discrimination against women and due to cultural gender taboos and constraints women are often faced with, their position in mass media, like all other sectors of society, has been hugely sabotaged. We live in a country that maybe diverse in statistics but a conservative approach still reigns supreme here. Surveys identifying the position of women in media tend to bring out facts which show that media tends to reinforce the conventional image of women; often degrading and weak. Women in our society are considered less competent or the ‘weaker’ sex, and are often exploited to by coworkers and even employers. Even in the media industry, an overwhelming majority of media houses prioritize male anchors or news broadcasters because of a general perception within our society that men are more intellectually savvy and have more to give, in the form of skill and talent. Women, therefore, are given passive roles. A striking example can be found in some political talk shows wherein a female anchor’s role seems to be constricted to only put questions before some political analysts—almost every time a group of male columnists—who analyze the questions in context and form public opinion on the issues discussed. In a less grave view, women are often seen reading news headlines or participating in a political-cum-comedy show. We hardly find women in positions where they could address public issues, form public opinion with their oratory skills and intellect.
This gender bias in our society starts right from the matter of girls’ education as being the ‘weaker’ sex, they are not encouraged to get education, the way men are. The fact of men-women disparity in education is further corroborated by the literacy rates of the two genders. Economic Survey of Pakistan 2015-16 reported that the literacy rate (10 years and above) in Pakistan was 49 percent for females while that of males was recorded at 70 percent. This huge difference in literacy rates explains why choices for women in a field as diverse as media are largely constricted.
The print media too has been perpetuating the gender stereotypes; propagating women as weak, fragile beings. A number of Pakistani newspapers and magazines publish pieces of fiction that glorify patriarchy and restrict the role of women only to housewives, mothers or those beings who are financially and socially dependent on a man who in contrast is invariably strong, physically and intellectually. Moreover, violence against women, both physical and mental, by the allegedly superior sex is portrayed as something “normal”.
Even more disparaging is their use in advertisement of products or services of a business entity. A number of beauty and health brands continue to us women as sexual objects only to increase the sales of their products. However, in doing so they completely disregard the fact that they are setting beauty standards that are virtually unachievable. Hence, these unattainable beauty standards constrict the thinking of general masses who now believe that “fair skin” and “emerald eyes” are what beauty is all about, while degrading the real dusky beauties that our women actually are. Furthermore, advertising also underpins housework as the only responsibility of women since all the ads of household paraphernalia are given to women. Hence, the stereotypes attached to women in media, be it electronic or print, seem to further spread the tentacles of the patriarchal mindset that has already brought us to a point where women are looked down upon and are considered inferior, less competitive beings which fit only in specific roles.
In addition, the characterization of women in our films and TV dramas tends to give a feeling as if women cannot stand for their rights, and are incapable of voicing their opinions. Unfortunately, media often presents the image of a girl or a woman as ‘Bechari’, as this is considered as standard image of a Pakistani woman. It is of no surprise then that even the most liked TV serial in recent years Humsafar narrates the story of a woman who is put down and repeatedly treated with contempt and mistrust by her husband, and all her fellow women in the serial are either her enemies or conspirators.
However, in the wake of the change at global level with regard to reconsideration of gender identity, which consequently has led to the rise of pop culture feminism, we see that the role of women in Pakistani media is also undergoing a big change.
In 2012, the South Asian Women in Media (SAWM) arranged a meeting of the 110 female media persons at Bhurban under the theme “Media, Gender, Obscenity and Terrorism”. The main aim of the conference was to gather an assembly of intellectual women to deliberate on the gender bias and preferences of media houses and to find ways to fend off obscenity committed against working women, especially those pertaining to the vast field of media.
Amid these withering conditions, another productive initiative to reconsider the position of women in media and especially in our society was the launch of ‘Through the Gender Lens’—a bold initiative of British-born Confused Desi (BBCD) in collaboration with United Nations Population Fund. The provided the younger generation of Pakistan with a stimulus and a platform wherefrom they were encouraged to start creating media content that displays the atrocities against women, and the prevalent gender bias that acted as an acute hindrance in the lives of Pakistani women who wanted to be a part of an industry.
Moreover, within the media industry there has been improvement in status of women. A number of prominent and promising anchors and political talk show hosts are women. Moreover, women enjoy benefits and salaries equal to their male counterparts.