It is generally accepted that the media plays a vital role in disseminating information and in forming public opinion. However, given that information exists within the ambit of ideas, this service is never benign– it is closely bound up with the ways in which those who finance or produce the mediatic message see or would like the consumers to see the world. –Re-Inventing Women: Representation of Women in the Media During the Zia Years, The Simorgh Collective, Lahore, 1985.
—”Re-Inventing Women: Representation of Women in the Media During the Zia Years”, The Simorgh Collective, Lahore, 1985.
This comment from a report based on a study of images of women in the media during the Zia years summarises the importance of the media in shaping ideas. The study, undertaken during General Zia-ul Haq´s so-called Islamisation programme, retains its relevance because the ideas instilled at the time have been internalised, and are propagated today. The process has had a negative impact on society and thinking, especially with regard to women, since Zia targetted the woman´s persona as a means of political control. Let´s take a look at how women are represented in the Pakistani media:
As consumers of household products, beauty and medical aids, women are the major target group of television commercials. The Simorgh study found that 75 percent of television commercials are aimed at women. However, even in the 25 percent of advertised products conceived purely for male consumption, like automobiles, shaving, and agricultural products, almost half of them depicted only women, and that too in servile, supporting roles. Mostly, they are shown as the dutiful wife and mother, the healer, the soother.
Mamta (motherhood) is stressed in various campaigns. For example, a milkpowder ad shows a mother bringing up her young son, and she is tearful as he grows up to graduate from college (her youthful face offset by streaks of grey in her hair).
The women in advertisements are beautiful, shown through soft-focus lens that makes them look unreal and ´ultra-feminine´. There is little representation of women in the work that they actually do in society, whether in the fields as unskilled labour (the rural woman in Punjab works an average of 16 hours a day), or in factories, offices, laboratories and hospitals.
In this world even further removed from reality than ads, the woman is either a vamp or a saint. The stereotypically “fast”, “Westernised” creature in tight trousers, cigarette between painted lips, with no trace of maternal feelings. The dutiful wife, sacrificing self for husband and children. The emotional mother with bloodshot eyes, who urges her son to avenge injustice. A fantastically dressed heroine breaking into a vulgar dance to attract the hero´s attention, behaviour far removed from what is considered appropriate in society. Once she has been ´owned´ by the hero, however, she settles into a demure wifely state of being.
Not only do all the heroes take the law in their own hands, films do not even bother about the laws of the land. A film about a second marriage does not even refer to the law which disallows a second marriage without the permission of the first wife. The more vulgar a film and the deeper into the world of (male) fantasy the filmmakers delve, the more chances of its popularity at the box office.
Television dramas appear to represent women more realistically, but in fact reinforce stereotypes. What is stressed in women´s characters is emotionalism (as opposed to the rationalism of the male), dependence, traditionalism and domestication. If a woman is shown as a working professional, she is not at the workplace due to ambition or ability, but out of economic necessity.
Television news tends to ignore crimes against women. Thoughtfully presented television serials or talk shows remain exceptions, and there have been some good attempts. But such programmes are presented in a vacuum, and make no significant difference.
Press: Although the English language press is generally more ´sympathetic´ to women and women´s issues (perhaps because there are more women attuned to these issues in editorial positions), here too there are deplorable lapses. The Urdu press is far more prone to sensationalise crimes against women; for example, in the rare cases of violence by women, great attention is paid to details like the woman´s “moral”character– she is denounced as “heartless”, “savage mother” and “monster”. There are no comments on the character of the man who may have driven her to the crime, for example, by extreme cruelty.
Sensationalising crimes against women shifts the emphasis from the crime/criminal to the victim and reinforces existing attitudes–rape is considered “not so bad” if the woman is married, widowed, or of a “dubious character”. The emphasis shifts from the crime/criminal to the character or marital status of the woman.
The perception that rape is a sex crime rather than a crime of violence and power was reinforced by the Hudood Ordinances of 1979, which make little distinction between zina (adultery) and zina bil jabr (rape), and which make adultery a crime against the state. Because rape is seen as a sexual act, secrecy is considered paramount to protect the family honour. Those brave enough to break the silence are viewed as a curiosity, and in some cases, newspapers go out of their way to delve into their background to ´dig up the dirt´.
The Urdu Press often solicits the opinion of religious leaders about such incidents. The view projected is a blinkered one. ´Good´ women are traditional, self-sacrificing and pure. Women who assert themselves are portrayed negatively, seen as “Westernised” and of suspicious character.
Take the case of the Indian women´s Peace Bus trip to Pakistan in April. While the event itself was reported in very superficial terms, particularly in the Urdu press, the song-and-dance element was emphasised. One newspaper even gleefully focused on an activist who had lit a cigarette, highlighting her act in the caption.
It is not only the media that creates stereotypes. School books also marginalise the contribution of women in all spheres of society. Text and illustrations feature girls almost exclusively in domestic roles. Although several studies have been carried out on gender discrimination in school texts, no government has actively tried to redress this problem. (This, despite the fact that enrolment of girls in Karachi and Lahore´s universities is almost at par with boys and their performance in the exams almost always far better than that of their male counterparts.)
The bottom line is that women are not only important to the media, and are in fact crucial to the economics of making money, but not as part of making news. They do make news, but it is largely news about sex.
SINCE THE Zia years (1977-88) the state’s active focus on women as symbols of culture and society, has reinforced existing prejudices against women in Pakistan. Zia’s restrictive media policy required female announcers on Pakistan Television (PTV) to cover their heads, and in television plays, a man and a woman could not he shown alone together on the screen—a third person had to be present in the background. When leaving the room, the actor and actress had to take different exits.
There was a brief respite during Benazir Bhutto’s first tenure. But with the next government, Nawaz Sharif’s first, we were back to the process of accelerated indoctrination and reinforcement of the dupalla policy. Although television policy under the present government is again more relaxed vis-a-vis women, it can be tightened anv day under pressure from religious extremists and political opportunists.