Tasneem Ahmar – Helping Pakistani Women Have Their Say

Under Ahmar’s leadership, the Islamabad-based Uks Rsearch Center has worked tirelessly to promote gender equality through radio productions on women’s issues, research and publications, advocacy and media monitoring.

Ahmar established the Pakistani Women’s Media Network, the first ever network for Pakistani women working in the media to encourage more positive portrayals of women, increase female representation at all levels, and improve conditions for women working in media.

Internews honored Tasneem Ahmar at the Internews Media Leadership Awards in Washington, DC on June 2, 2009 for her leadership in improving coverage of women’s issues and bringing women’s voices and perspectives to Pakistan’s media.

What personally inspired you to start working for more balanced and accurate coverage of women in Pakistan’s media?

The continued negative, sensational and derogatory portrayal of women in the media was the driving force behind my starting Uks, which means “reflection” in Urdu. I wanted to reach out to Pakistan’s media managers—all male—and take up the case of gender sensitivity in the media.

My basic aim was to make the media realize that what they were doing—at times unthinkingly and unintentionally—was actually harming women’s development, as the news content was creating and strengthening the existing bias against women.

What are some examples of how Pakistani media currently portray women?

It is men who decide what news, views and visuals will be heard, read and seen. This male domination of our newsrooms becomes overwhelmingly in news coverage of violence against women. 

The women in the cases of rape are the worst victims. A lot of newspapers report with a bias against these women and reinforce the existing unsupportive attitude of the society towards women. No wonder then that the official reaction to rape continues to be that of accusation towards the women.

In addition, women’s magazines focus heavily on the domestic side of women, trying to prove that every woman needs to be a perfect cook, a tailor, and housekeeper and also be beautiful. The intellectual qualities of women are mentioned nowhere. Their abilities as equal partners in development are lost.

There is lots of hypocrisy in the media in Pakistan—it has no problem highlighting women’s physical and sexual features but is reluctant to bring forward issues of HIV/AIDS, sexual harassment, the sex trade, and trafficking on the pretext that such coverage would be obscene.

What are the challenges faced by Pakistani women who want to become journalists?

Media has traditionally been a male-dominated field. Whereas a woman’s image may adorn various media outputs only as an ornament, they have no meaningful participation in the creation of media. Newsroom staff, researchers and anchors have traditionally been men. Women, who make up 48% of the population of Pakistan, only make up a tiny fraction of the newsroom staff and news subjects.

Some factors responsible for the invisibility of women in media organizations are low hiring rates, sexual harassment in the workplace, late working hours without transportation, and no provision of maternity leave. In our research, Uks has found that women students are very keen to join the media but are handicapped by parental and societal pressures that still say that media is not a profession for women. On the other hand, there has been a marked increase in the number of women journalists, anchors, and producers in the electronic media, especially television.

What kinds of radio programs does the Uks Research Center produce?

We have produced several radio series, covering topics such as honor crimes, reproductive health rights, and the particular challenges facing women and girls who survived Pakistan’s massive 2005 earthquake.

These are on issues that people usually do not talk about, but once you take up an issue, the response is great. Through listener emails, phone calls and letters, we get the feedback that our thought-provoking programs are urging people to think about real issues that are all around them.

What advice do you have for young Pakistani women looking to improve their society?

You have to keep striving for a better and a more just society by continuing to work positively. Remember that equality is only possible when there is increased awareness, a transformation in attitudes, and a removal of unequal practices that are deeply rooted in society. For this reason you will have to communicate effectively that you are here to stay.