Aman slaughtered his wife and mother-in-law in Hyderabad in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. After six months of marriage to Khan Mohammed, Surahia had moved in with her mother after developing differences with her husband. Mohammed sneaked into the house and attacked his mother-in-law, Jameela, 45, with a sharp-edged weapon while she was asleep. He cut her throat and other parts of her body, then murdered his wife when she woke up and cried for help.
Sources claimed that Mohammed suspected that his estranged wife had developed illicit relations with an unknown local and that was why she had separated from him a year and a half before. “He slaughtered his mother-in-law because he believed that she was also a part of the crime,” one source said in a newspaper report that appeared in a major paper in Pakistan. As often happens in coverage of such stories, the media—by their use of a quote like this—provide justification for such murders.
Women activists in Pakistan believe that by reporting such incidents this way, journalists reflect—and do not challenge—the nation’s cultural traditions, and they perpetuate male domination in the society. Religious convictions also play a major part in portraying a woman (or wife) as this story did.
Traditional media in Pakistan tend to praise women who are submissive and conform their actions and words to reflect more docile virtues. When a woman demonstrates her independence, whether financial or intellectual, resentment rises against her, and this is reflected in the way such women are portrayed by the press. Says Rehana Hakeem, editor of Newsline, a leading newsmagazine in Pakistan, “Other than the religious or cultural obligations, one more reason that the plight of the women is underreported in Pakistani media is also because of the fact that—except for the English press—if you visit Urdu and regional newspaper offices which captures more than 80 percent of the newspaper market, you would hardly find women workers. It all is a male domain and they have a somewhat conformist approach towards women’s issues.” Hakeem says that many women are denied jobs in the Urdu newspapers. Those who are hired are hounded by the male staff, often to the extent that they decide to quit their jobs.
Women in Pakistan have long been treated as property. All important decision- making that pertains to a family—and even to a woman’s own rights—is done by the man. “She has no right to marry, and if she ever tries to defy it, she is killed. But once married, she is taken as a kind of a machine who only produces children and supposes to raise them. If she chooses to seek divorce, she is denied her right to keep her children, and the media in Pakistan are generally a reflection of this,” laments a women’s rights activist at the Aurat Foundation of Pakistan. Another observer at the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan says that “it is unthinkable in media to sell the idea to make husband stay at home and take care of the children and the wife may go to work if she is more qualified than her spouse. In every advertisement, you would see women taking care of the kids, while the husband is always projected as professional.”
Women’s rights campaigners believe that the media in Pakistan are hypocritical in their portrayal of women. Sakar Moloo, a women’s rights activist, explains that “when it comes to the projection of their objects or products, they would cross all the cultural or religious bindings and would not hesitate to highlight her nudity, but when it comes to her genuine problems, she is not helped.” Moloo cites as an example the exploitation of women who are denied a male partner by being “married off” to the Islamic holy book, the Koran, to prevent the division of land and deprive them of their share of their parents’ property. “But the local media have never discussed this most macabre tradition and have instead tried to hush it up. We only came to know about this barbaric tradition when BBC discovered it in a documentary,” Moloo laments.
The plight of women has a long history in the religious society of Pakistan, where a majority of people believe that a woman is weaker and less than a man because Eve was made from Adam’s rib for the latter’s pleasure. The problems of women in Pakistan have multiplied, especially during the 11-year rule of Pakistan’s model dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. He managed to get various laws enacted, such as to define women’s testimony as being worth half that of the man. Under another law, passed during the same period, the compensation for a murdered woman or a non-Muslim was set at half that of a murdered Muslim man. Yet another Zia-era statute mandated that four Muslims must witness a rape for it to be proved in the court. Women were also made to wear veils at their workplaces.
Women’s rights activists contend that because these draconian statutes still exist—including the Zina and Hudood Ordinance in which a rape victim must produce four Muslim witnesses to seek justice—many women never complain to authorities or seek justice for actions done to them. What happens to women only catches the attention of the Pakistani media when they think that it might help sell their products, so “sensational” stories about women are the only ones likely to be told.
Naziha Syed Ali, an assistant editor of Newsline, noted that the vernacular press in Pakistan devoted a lot of attention to a recent incident involving Khar, a powerful businessman, and a call girl named Fakhra. By throwing acid in Fakhra’s face, Khar mutilated her. “Most of the regional newspapers highlighted the call girl aspect—though it is irrelevant,” says Ali. “Some of the headlines in these newspapers goes like, ‘Raqaasa sai shadi ki aur usai jala diya’ (‘Married to a dancing girl and set her ablaze’) or ‘Khar aur raqaasa’ (‘Khar and the dancing girl’).” Clearly, the sordid details interest newspaper writers more than the plight of the woman. “It all is a male centric, which stems more from traditional values rather than the religious convictions,” Ali contends.
Not only do traditional media in Pakistan tend to highlight negative images of women but also they rarely draw attention to the lives of successful career women. Zulfikar Rajpar, the author of “Adhu Sach” (Half-Truth) says, “Even Akram Khatoom, who retired recently as one of the most successful bankers and set up First Women Bank in Pakistan, is hardly known because she has never been projected properly.” Even though many of the commercialized banks in Pakistan are borrowing her idea of small loans (mainly to women who want to start small businesses), very few people know she originated this idea in Pakistan. Nor do many readers learn of the accomplishments of women who do borrow money to start these businesses, since such stories are rarely reported.
Women’s rights activists in Pakistan believe it’s time that centuries-old traditions can be broken and must be broken if the country wants to achieve economic prosperity. “The idea of confining 50 percent of the population back home would further put the country in economic limbo,” says one activist. But if journalists, bound by cultural tradition, continue to portray women’s lives as they do—ignoring their accomplishments and leaving unchallenged their social and legal circumstances—then the road to reach this goal will be longer and far bumpier.
Massoud Ansari works as a senior reporter for Newsline in Karachi, Pakistan and also does freelance writing for several foreign publications, including the Women’s Feature Service, an international news organization based in India.