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Cats, Media And Misogyny

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Behind closed doors, newsrooms remain home to the same misogyny they editorialise against, writes Miranda Husain

Dracula was my first cat. We were formally introduced by a pair of security guards as she snoozed peacefully — as only a kitten can — in front of an inadequate electric fire. In the car park of a national newspaper. This was and continues to be the plight of those tasked with safeguarding the gateways to Pakistan’s fourth estate. Neither man nor cat is protected against the elements. While the keepers of checks-and-balances habitually feel the heat.

This chance meeting sparked two important love affairs: cats and journalism. For both are inexorably linked. In my mind, at least. Yet only one has proved unfaltering.

Fresh off the boat some 16 years ago, I couldn’t believe my luck at landing my first job as a sub-editor at an English daily in Lahore. Though it wasn’t long before I encountered the un-gentlemanly agreement that mandated Pakistan’s media with presenting the country’s ‘soft’ face on the international stage; even as it continued to stagger along under military rule. And, to think, Immy likes to credit his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government with forging the false nexus between critical reporting and treason. 

The liberal papers showcased their credentials by focusing on women’s rights. Which, of course, was part and parcel of the Enlightened Moderation agenda. And nowhere was this more evident than in coverage of the fracas surrounding the second Lahore mixed gender marathon. With the religious right objecting, at times violently so, to the very idea of women participating in public sporting events. For. All. The. World. To. See. Thus the fourth estate, for the most part, stepped up and stood with civil society; documenting the struggle to reclaim the public space. And in doing so, perhaps even unwittingly, sought to protect the good general from his wayward political bedfellows: those mullahs who never could resist a man in uniform. For image was everything and everything always counts in large amounts.

Behind closed doors, however, newsrooms were home to the same misogyny that they editorialised against. At one particular paper, sexual harassment of female staff was rampant. And it went all the way to the top; with the news-editor taking swaggering pride in his predatory prowess. Leaving women staff members at a loss as to whom to complain. The editor-in-chief, perhaps? I tried that once. Only to be told in no uncertain terms my only quibble at receiving an unwelcome and explicit email was that I hadn’t fancied the said news-editor. No matter that he was my boss and therefore enjoyed structural power over myself and other women. Ultimately, I resigned. He’s still there. 

And just this month, in another newsroom in another part of the city, I bumped into a former shift-in-charge who had drunk texted me. Repeatedly. He lost his job over it. Admittedly, the newly-appointed editor-in-chief had, in his own words, been looking for an excuse to fire him. Raising important questions as to the actual course of action had this not been the case. But perhaps the most peeving of all was when one resident editor took it upon himself to mansplain to me my faux-pas in ‘misidentifying’ an incident of harassment; including being filmed in the newsroom without my knowledge. A clear case of cultural misunderstanding on my part was to blame. And to make amends, I should do the decent thing and invite the camera-happy chap out for coffee. Thereby perpetuating the notion of no meaning yes.

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Fast-forward to the present and not much has changed. To be sure, print and electronic media have more women on the unpaid payroll; including the odd resident editor here and news-editor there. But these remain exceptions rather than rules. Sadly. Men still wield institutional power. From editors-in-chief down through the chain-of-command. With some bureaus boasting not a single woman reporter.

The human rights ministry last month publicly acknowledged the challenging environment in which women journalists work in this hard country. Meeting representatives of the Pakistan Chapter of the Coalition for Women In Journalism (CFWIJ), Shireen Mazari termed unacceptable gender-based vilification. This is to be commended. As is the Centre’s pledge to ensure that cases are brought against those who threaten women journalists; both online and offline. But all this will be meaningless in the long-term. Unless and until the fourth estate tackles from within the serious issues of sexual harassment and misogyny that target its own. A good place to start would be to revisit definitions of the aforementioned and come up with comprehensive complaints and appeals mechanisms. Instead of relying on the caprice of a disconnected management that typically prioritises paper shuffling over action. Here, the Information ministry must take the lead; working alongside relevant journalist unions as well as global media watchdogs.

Furthermore, it may not be entirely amiss to introduce a quota system of sorts to counter under-representation of women. The short-term backlash will, predictably, seek to undermine achievements with taunts of mere box-ticking. Yet such tactics assume the playing field is level. Heartfelt regret accompanies news that the media’s financial woes are forcing an increasing number of (male) journalists into abandoning their chosen profession in favour of greener pastures that hopefully reap what they sow. But what of the young women whom the industry buckles at the first hurdle; for failing to practice what it preaches. Thus positive discrimination must also be extended to those managing the media. For these tend to be even more of an old boys’ club than newsrooms themselves. And are at times also complicit in harassment. 

With women suddenly becoming valued commodities — not colleagues — when it comes to, say, pleading before the Chief Justice that all pending dues are cleared. As if the violation of their labour rights is one misdemeanour too far. When everyone and their cat knows that a pick ‘n’mix approach to justice is anything but. And who knows? Maybe a female Human Resource manager will tackle head-on the matter of filthy washrooms; while doing away with the culture of substituting newspapers for hand towels that lends a whole new meaning to the idea of a daily rag.

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The cat has long been out of the bag in terms of democratic Pakistan being no place for journalists; facing the threat of external violence from both militants and the state apparatus.

Yet women confront the additional menace of sexual harassment and professional misogyny. Thus a fourth estate that takes the safety and well-being of its female staff seriously will be better equipped to fulfil its mandate. And that will benefit everyone. Man, woman and cat alike.

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