The Unprotected Women Journalists of Pakistan

Home News & Politics The Unprotected Women Journalists of Pakistan

When women journalists refuse the grossly inappropriate advances from those in positions of power, it usually leads to a detrimental impact on their careers. 

This essay discusses sexual harassment, online harassment, and mentions marital r*pe

by Sumaira Ashraf Rajput 

Many challenges test the resilience of Pakistan’s small but thriving community of women journalists, including significant gender wage gaps, stifled career progress, lack of sexual harassment policies, and lack of other common facilities. When the newsrooms are designed, no one bothers with providing restrooms, washrooms, and the provision of commute between office and home for women employees. When I started my career in 2014 as an intern, my immediate boss asked me to a late-night dinner, which I refused, and it was then that my journey of resilience started and it continues to test me beyond anything else. 

In these eight years, I have even witnessed that harassment usually comes from among our own media outlets and is typically perpetrated by our immediate line managers. When women journalists refuse the grossly inappropriate advances from those in positions of power, it usually leads to a detrimental impact on their careers, and when we do speak out about these abuses, there is a near complete absence of support from our employers.

Women journalists want more support from the editors and supervisors. We want to be believed. We want our news organizations to take action and change the culture of harassment in their organizations. The bill titled The journalist safety, security, and protection act 2020 drawn up by the parliamentary committee of Pakistan, now presented by the Ministry of Human Rights (MOHR), addresses the issues involved in the safety, security, and protection of journalists through a multi-pronged effort with the shared responsibility of all stakeholders. While there are many important provisions such as the Journalist safety fund, a council representative comprising journalist bodies, media safety experts, and human rights activists, it doesn’t take into account the gendered issues that women journalists face.

Laiba Zainab, a freelance journalist, details her own experience with sexist practices within the industry and has found that the harassment begins in journalism schools. “I failed in a subject in my first semester of baccalaureate Communication Studies because I couldn’t ‘entertain’ my professor. When I went to IBA for my MS, there was a coach who would shout, gaslight, and hold grudges. He mentally pestered me due to my background in Urdu media and the way I mostly well-liked Urdu journalism,” Zainab states to Wear Your Voice

“When I started my career, I was physically harassed by a male reporter. On my complaint, he simply got a warning and continued working there. After graduation, I was again jobless because I was vocal and would report inappropriate behaviors. I ended up working for a digital media platform that was apparently quite ‘woke.’ No doubt I learned a lot there but my time there was miserable. They not only demeaned me but devalued my work to the extent that I would break down into tears every other day,” explains Zainab.

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I have encountered several disturbing realities of gross exploitation and systematic denial of basic rights, injustice, and a scarcity of individual liberty, all of which are under-reported and often intentionally ignored. Pakistani women’s voices are badly suppressed and violence against women and girls is normalized. The culture of misogyny filters through all industries, and journalism is no exception. Women in the media are often relegated to the lowest-ranking posts with minimum wages and no upward mobility. As per my experience, I have never encountered a single woman in a senior position in Pakistani television media.

Within the industry, men often abuse their positions of power in insidious ways, for example, when men recommend women for a job posting, they often expect favors in return. My own career growth has been stifled for saying no to inappropriate advances. I haven’t joined parties outside the workplace, I haven’t accepted late-night dinner offers, and as a result, my growth has stagnated. I have faced a continuous pay gap despite being more qualified and experienced than many of my male counterparts. In 2018, I joined a private news channel where the entire staff received only four of our paychecks on time. The chairman of the company asked us to stand with them in hard times so the organization would stand by us in our time of need. In 2020, after we were completely out of cash, I pushed back and asked our immediate bosses to provide the fundamental right of getting paid on time, maternity leaves, equal wage and promotions as per performance. I explained that now, many women can’t manage to work without getting paid on time. Rather than providing that, they asked me to go on unpaid leave out of a grudge for voicing the rights of female workers. This was the time when Covid-19 was hitting everyone’s pockets hard, and I was let go due to the company’s toxic environment against women journalists.

I was in extreme shock for days; however, I didn’t let this incident keep me from voicing the needs of marginalized communities and I started freelancing for various international organizations. In January 2021, I wrote an article on marital rape in Pakistan and the response I got from men showed me that online journalism isn’t a space free of harassment and threats either. I was subjected to both psychological and physical threats and the impact of the abuse continues to torment me. Gendered online violence ranges from individual misogynists, networked mobs, and State-linked disinformation agents aiming to undercut press freedom and the voices of women. According to the 2019 annual report of the Digital Rights Foundation, their cyber harassment helpline received 2023 complaints. In Pakistan, 70% of women face sexual or physical violence at least once in their lifetime, and that includes online violence. An analysis of DRF’s helpline also reveals that cyber harassment against women has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of harassment on women in the media is that they usually end up self-censoring or leaving the media altogether. Protection of journalists and media protection bill 2021 should be more comprehensive for women journalists. State, media houses, civil society, and press clubs in the country need to be more inclusive and should adopt an approach to protect women journalists when they are subjected to harassment and abuse. 

Sumaira Ashraf Rajput is a Pakistani feminist, digital journalist, and social media activist. She has an unflagging passion for news, women empowerment, digital rights, and civil supremacy with a yearning for adventure & food. She tweets at @sumaira_rajput

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