By Zubeida Mustafa
RECENTLY, Judy Woodruff, the founding co-chair of the International Women Media Foundation (IWMF), summed up the goal of the organisation’s architects thus: to “promote opportunity for women journalists around the globe” and “highlight the work that women are doing in other countries, especially in those countries where there’s not a free press, and where they are dealing with an oppressive government, or oppressive financial interests who don’t want the story told”.
The IWMF wants to “provide women this extra lift” and it has been doing this for the last 22 years since it was launched by a group of enterprising women journalists. It exemplifies perfectly the global sisterhood of women that feminist activists have talked about for years.
To me this sisterhood does not just stand for its members boosting one another professionally in a mad race with their male co-professionals. It signifies the support women provide one another on a human plane which is often missing among men. Women are not ashamed to be human first.
That is what I learnt when two top-ranking female journalists in the US, Judi Woodruff and Maria Shriver, who introduced me at the IWMF award ceremonies in New York and Los Angeles, demonstrated first their human dimension rather than their journalistic acumen. When I walked up to the rostrum to be hugged by my presenter and to give my acceptance speech, I found myself in a dilemma. There I was holding my white cane awkwardly and not knowing where to deposit it. On both the occasions each of these women promptly extended her hand to relieve me of the cane!
Earlier throughout our stay the women’s perspective I have written about all my life was always visible. In our group was Asmaa al-Ghoul, the Courage in Journalism Award winner from Gaza, who had a three-month-old baby, Zeina. She came with her daughter — and her husband, Tamer, who accompanied her to help with the baby.
All of us were taking care of one another and Zeina became the centre of attention. This was accepted as something quite natural as this support helped us function quite normally and cheerfully.
But at the heart of it all was serious journalism. Here were women doing a serious job. Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Free Europe, has reported on the corruption of the top leaders of Azerbaijan and received threats to silence her while a smear campaign was unleashed against her by the powers-that-be in her country to deter her from exposing the malpractices of the rulers. Asmaa protested through her blogs against the restrictive practices of the Hamas in Gaza but threats and arrest did not silence her because she insisted that the Hamas was not creating the homeland she and others had struggled for.
The Ethiopian journalist, Reeyot Alemu, the third winner of the 2012 courage award, could not attend the award ceremonies. She continues to languish in prison as the Ethiopian strongman could not tolerate her outspoken reporting. Pakistan had its winner for courage in journalism way back in 1994. She was the late Razia Bhatti, the editor of Newsline, who was put under so much pressure by the administration for her news magazine’s bold reporting that she could stand it no more and died suddenly of a massive stroke in 1996. She has left a worthy successor, Rehana Hakim, behind. I did miss you, Razia, at the IWMF events.
Today the media scene in Pakistan has changed. Since the late 1980s when the black Press and Publications Ordinance, a brainchild of the Ayub Khan regime, was dropped at the behest of the Federal Shariat Court, the press has emerged into a new world full of paradoxes.
Today the danger to journalists comes from political parties of the fascist brand, militant extremists and those who claim to be fighting the militants — the army — who kill or cause the disappearance of those who challenge their agendas, whether in Balochistan or in their ‘war on terror’. Exposing the corruption and political wrongdoings of the high-ups has ceased to upset them as corruption has become a way of life for many in Pakistan.
As for the empowerment of women, journalists’ advocacy of women’s rights is not taken seriously enough. The activists are the ones the militants fear most. Take the case of Malala Yousufzai, the young student who continued to attend school while she advocated the education of girls for which she came under attack. There was Farida Afridi, the social worker from Fata, who lost her life at the hands of militants for trying to improve the status of women. Earlier, Shabnam the dancing girl from Mingora, had been killed by the Taliban for asserting her cultural freedom.
The fact is that these women activists pose a threat to the established order as they become catalysts for change. Until the media becomes instrumental in changing society it will remain the defender of the status quo. Only social change can bring about political reform in Pakistan.
Can politics ever change in the country without good quality education for all, without the empowerment of women, without a healthcare system that keeps people healthy and without planned parenthood that will check the population explosion? These are the issues that need to come under the media spotlight. It is time not just women but also male journalists started taking them seriously.
The writer is the winner of the IWMF’s Lifetime Achievement Award 2012.