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    Volume 8 Issue 93 | November 6, 2009 |

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News Factor:

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Watching a Korean documentary on chronicling the history of women, I realised how, not only do women have little opportunity to do very much that is considered 'significant', but that even what they do do, is given little importance. Take the rural Korean woman who wrote eulogies for other women but who did not think it was at all significant. Or even the supposedly ordinary tasks that women perform which would have been worthy of mention if men had done them, from raising children to holding families and even whole communities together. We only need to think about our mothers and grandmothers to realise how generation after generation of women pass their lives and then disappear without as much as a mention of their accomplishments. Men go down in history, and in the way that they do, not only because of their notable achievements, but also because it is men who write history to begin with. How would things be different if history were written by women?

Similarly, would news -- news today, history tomorrow -- be different if it were written more by women than men and not within a male-dominated social structure as it is now? Apparently. In the year 2000 on the occasion of International Women's Day, following a decision by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), women in over a thousand newspapers, broadcast and internet media in 64 countries were put in charge of the newsrooms for a day. As symbolic and even patronising as it may seem to some, if this step did not make a difference in the long run, it at least showed the difference that could be made.

Women and men editors and journalists in a US city disagreed on the lead news story of the day -- the men rooting for a police story about a peeping tom, the women for a story on women fighting for their rights. For that one day, the women who were in charge, won. It is not that women only want to publish news about women. When the same symbolic step was taken the following year, women and men agreed on the obvious hard news story of the day. But in general, there were noticeable differences between when women and men were in charge of the newsrooms, with women running more stories about women and their issues.

In the Bangladeshi media, while women are the focus of various 'women's pages' in newspapers and programmes on television, most of this pertains to what is traditionally considered 'women's work' or issues -- cooking (recipes), fashion (outlet openings and fashion shows) and child-rearing. Even on the so-called 'Gender' page of a reputed English newspaper we find tips on skin care. The more serious women's pages go deeper into social problems relating to women -- crime and violence against women, their social oppression and, once in a while, their accomplishments. An odd story here and there on some development page may focus on women's achievements but it is rare. A sportswoman with a 'good body' is likely to get more coverage, especially visual.

The mainstream media, that is, front pages and television news, are a different story. Where male-dominated politics, economics and crime are the staple, women get little coverage. For those who do, it is often in relation to the men in their lives, or suspected to be in their lives anyway. Gender and media researcher and writer Margaret Gallagher's research on the portrayal of women in the news around the world conducted almost 30 years ago is still relevant today. Women hardly make the news, and when they do, it is common to include unnecessary details about their appearance, age and family status.

In Bangladesh, even news about the leaders of our two major political parties, alternating as head of government and leader of the opposition, is often trivialised as 'battles between the two queens', etc. As for regular women, those who are not victims of violence make the news for all the wrong reasons. Yes, they may be suspected of political crimes or corruption, but what relevance does their marital, or even more commonly, relationship status, have to do with anything?

The current and obvious example is Mehnaz Rashid, arrested in connection with the bomb attack on Awami League lawmaker Fazle Noor Taposh last month. While her motherhood status may be relevant at this time when her four-month-old baby is accompanying her on remand, speculations about who she is or was married to or had romantic relationships with and who the father of her child is, are uncalled for. Her personal information may or may not be relevant to the investigation, but until it is proven that it is, there is no reason for the media to sensationalise it all -- except to sell the news. For what is more sellable than the private lives of women, especially prominent ones?

Not only do the media publicise irrelevant information (or gossip) about women but they also take a moral stance on them. Flashback, to the events following our very own 1/11. Along with Tareq Rahman and friend Giasuddin Al Mamun under the media spotlight came Mamun's alleged 'girlfriend'. The media had a prolonged heyday, with reports of Mamun's relationship with her, his fights with his wife over her, his visits to her flat and so on. In terms of character assassination, women of course get the brunt of it, with the ‘girlfriend’ being referred to in the media as 'loose', 'immoral', an 'anti-social element', 'Mamun's concubine' and more.

While there are no means to regulate the press in this regard -- such as a comprehensive national policy on gender sensitivity in the media -- the media have taken it upon themselves to regulate members of society through character assassination and moral policing. The bias against women is obvious in the term 'nari-ghotito sangbad', putting the onus of responsibility for the events and their publicity on women, when they are often actually the victims of the event, be it of sex crimes, dowry-related incidents or anything else.

Where 'bad character' in women is considered newsworthy, 'good looks' only add to the sensation. Combined with Bangla words such as 'toruni' and 'ramoni' signifying their tender age, 'sundori' (beautiful) is a favourite of the press. As if illegal drugs and illicit sex was not enough, the media made sure to highlight the fact that Nikita was a Yaba 'Sundori', descriptions of whose cosmetic makeovers, jewellery and lingerie sold like hot cakes for weeks.

A common argument on the media side is that they only fulfil audience demand. If it sells, there are obviously buyers out there. But how far do we go to satisfy the displaced curiosities and perverse pleasures of those who feed on the private life details and misfortunes of others and at what cost? While men are the main target audience of saucy details of women-related news, women too often join the fun. It takes very little, however, for a woman to be able to imagine herself in the shoes of those she is criticising, and even less for her to be suddenly elevated to that status of public attention by the media, whether or not she has actually committed a crime.

It is not enough that women control the newsrooms in order to get women's perspectives into the news because it is not their duty alone. Rather, it is necessary for women and men alike to be responsible newspersons, highlighting the newsworthy accomplishments of both the sexes, sensitive to the privacy of others and strictly maintaining the bounds of public decency.


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