Women’s portrayal in the media has been a point of strong international debate, and is also a highly-sensitized topic in our country. The issue of media sociology also comes up subsequently as an important element in this scenario, rendering it difficult to determine whether it is the media that affects and shapes the trends of society or vice versa. Most would agree that it is a two-way propensity, where the media and the masses influence and modify each other in an open-ended and undetermined way. And since women constitute half the society, their own role in ascertaining how the fairer sex is projected in the media cannot be overlooked either.
At an interesting discussion recently organized on the issue by a Lahore-based NGO, there was a lot of brainstorming on the subject. Hardcore feminists present at the session insisted that our patriarchal, male-domineering set-up influences the conjuring up of women’s negative and stereotypical images in the print as well as the electronic media. A few others had a more open approach to the problem. They were honest enough to point a finger at their own selves, too, arguing that the coverage extended to women’s issues and their portrayal also stems from women’s own rather confounded and ambiguous thought process. And that they have not as yet been able to determine where their liberty, or so-called ‘independence’ lies.
“We are a confused and a confounded lot, partially borrowing ideologies and slogans from the West, without taking the trouble to adapt them to the indigenous requirements, and partially generating our own on the basis of long-held beliefs and shallow research.” After all, it is mostly women denying rights to other women in so many cases, in their various roles in our society. It is the mother who puts aside the best portion of a meaty meal for the son, and lets the daughter nibble on a cartilaginous bit. Often mothers are behind decisions regarding the education, marriage and careers of their daughters, disallowing them to gain higher education or work outside home, though more so in the urban areas.
In rural areas, a majority of the fathers mostly make such choices. “We might say that these decisions are again nurtured by a patriarchal set-up, and women having themselves gone through the system, follow it blindly with little arguments or questioning. But the same excuse can also be brought forward for men, who have also gone through the same system. Many men might be blindly following the culture, too, without challenging the normative pattern or age-old norms,” argues an open-approach participant. Whether we say that it is this normative society that is mirrored by the media, or that media is conjuring up images of women in which it wants to see them fitted — in either case women cannot be totally abdicated from holding responsibility for the mannerism in which the media projects them. Blaming the media alone for making women objects of beauty or symbols of sexual derision for the male eye might be a little unfair. Many women entering the glamorous world of films, television or advertising want to be considered as sex-symbols or queens of physical perfection themselves. Most would rather be known more for their looks than acting potentials or skills.
Another argument that is put forward at this point is that women do not mostly enjoy top positions in the print and electronic media, to enable them to check the tendency of women’s negative projection. With a female heading PTV Lahore centre, this may not hold true. But even in the absence of female leadership, women working within the media can take a stand to undertake factual roles, in which they are portrayed as conscious, useful citizens. Why do they have to be always depicted as vulnerable belles, drowned in a sea of pathos and melodrama? Feryal Ali Gauhar is one of the few television stars who takes a stand against such projection, and refuses to star in a play that would portray her as a persecuted, ignored first wife.
“Women’s real liberation lies in the realization of their individuality and independent thought process, not in stripping themselves or taking to the streets,” observes the eminent writer, Bano Qudsia. Why do our actresses allow themselves to be painted in garish, exposing dresses, with overblown anatomy, or in baffled, terrorized poses on film billboards that pollute the skyline of Lahore? There is a dearth of educated women from respectable backgrounds willing to enter the world of acting, but if those already in the media put their foot down against negative stereotypical roles, the story writers, directors and producers would be left with no choice but to grant respect to women which is their due. It is also wrong to assume that our public likes to see only dramatic or glamorous images of women. We can cite many examples of films and television plays sans all this that made it to the top.
Women employed in the print media, specially the vernacular press, should watch against the sensationalism to which news concerning women are subjected. Crime against women, in particular, is covered in a way that becomes a crime in its own right. Eye-catching headlines, accompanied by dramatic descriptions of the crime and equally appalling pictures, fail to fulfil the purpose that lies behind the media’s role in fighting infraction. But since it’s mostly the male reporters who cover crime, their training in gender sensitization and gender reporting is very important.
What kind of message does an Urdu daily give that describes the murder of a young woman by placing a headline that reads, ‘Fashionable woman murdered in train’? The subheads say, ‘Polished nails and henna on hands’. If the reporter was trying to tell the readers that the victim was probably a newlywed, he could have simply called her one, instead of creating ambiguity and suspense in the minds of the readers by resorting to this type of embellished and unnecessary description lacking in ‘objectivity and impartiality’, the essential features of good a news story.
One may therefore infer that while women’s projection in the media constitutes a major concern with the women, it’s not only men who need be gender sensitized in a positive way. Even women need to be clear about what they want to adopt as the insignia of their identity, ensuring that this conviction comes from within the women directly involved ‘in the media and with the media’, because these are the women who are eventually in a position to direct change by their firm stance. Any amount of undetermined debating and slogan-chanting from outside alone would not guarantee healthy and positive images of women in the media