WHISPERS AMIDST THE MOUNTAINS: WHY AJK HAS SO FEW WOMEN JOURNALISTS
In the history of the modern world, journalism has played a vital role in shaping public discourse, disseminating information, and enabling the public to hold those in power accountable. Journalists, often referred to as the Fourth Estate, act as the guardians of democracy, ensuring transparency and upholding the freedom of expression. In this context, the inclusion of diverse voices, particularly women, in journalism is not only a matter of equality but also a necessity to ensure a comprehensive, well-rounded, and unbiased representation of news and events.
Across the globe, women in journalism have made remarkable strides, breaking barriers and challenging gender-based stereotypes. Their contributions to the field have been groundbreaking, with female journalists covering critical issues, conducting in-depth investigations, and sharing unique perspectives.
However, in the picturesque region of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, nestled amidst the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges, there exists a glaring gender disparity in the field of journalism that contrasts starkly with the rest of the world. The number of active female journalists there is nearly negligible, with only approximately five per cent of the journalists in the entire region being women.
The reasons behind this underrepresentation are multifaceted, involving a complex interplay of cultural, societal, and economic factors. This sharp contrast between the global narrative of women’s empowerment in journalism and the challenges faced by female journalists in AJK underscores the urgent need to address the systemic barriers that have prevented women from fully participating in the profession.
Barriers to entry
“The number of female journalists in Azad Jammu and Kashmir is exceedingly low, accounting for only about five per cent of the total journalist population here,” Nasreen Sheikh, a Kashmiri journalist, disclosed. She attributed this gender disparity to the inherently challenging nature of the profession, which presents numerous hurdles for women who wish to actively engage in journalism. Beyond the demanding nature of the field, the absence of adequate facilities and opportunities further dissuades women from pursuing careers in journalism.
Conversations with women in AJK revealed that historically, there was no dedicated institution providing journalism education in the region. Most educational institutions primarily offered courses in various other disciplines, with no provision for journalism education. However, a recent development has seen an educational institute initiating the establishment of a journalism department, offering a glimmer of hope for aspiring female journalists.
While AJK boasts numerous public and private higher education institutions offering various degree programmes, the absence of institutions specifically dedicated to journalism or mass communication was glaringly evident until 2019. In that year, Mirpur University of Science and Technology and Azad Jammu and Kashmir University took the initiative to establish a Mass Communication Department. Conversations with students in these programmes indicated that, in each class, there are typically 30 to 40 students, with female representation consistently hovering around five to 10 students.
Muzaffarabad, the capital city of AJK, is home to several local newspapers, including Kashmir Times, Sada-e-Chinar, Kashmir Observer, Daily Siasat, and others, as well as digital channels. Regrettably, the number of women employed in these outlets remains extremely low, with only about two or three female journalists, while the majority of journalists in these organisations are male.
Quratulain Shabbir, an information officer at the AJK Press Information Department, shared her personal journey, recounting that when she enrolled in the BS programme at Punjab University in 2004, she was the first female from AJK to enter this programme and later became the first female information officer in AJK. She highlighted the prevailing challenges, citing low wages and an insecure environment for female professionals in the media industry, especially in AJK, where media is often perceived as a male-dominated domain.
Moreover, Quratulain revealed that female journalists in AJK have endured a staggering 10-year waiting period for nomination to the Press Club, and regrettably, their male counterparts have not been accommodating towards their female peers. Even access to the common room, a designated space at the AJK Press Club, has been denied to them.
Cultural constraints & societal stigma
Faiza Gillani, a prominent journalist in Muzaffarabad, shed light on a significant reason behind women’s reluctance to pursue journalism in AJK — the region’s deeply entrenched culture and traditions. “If a girl is pursuing journalism or working with men outside her home, regardless of her exemplary conduct, she is often perceived negatively. Parents, too, refrain their daughters from entering this field primarily because they fear it might hinder their prospects of finding a suitable match for marriage in the future,” she remarked.
Gillani herself stands as the first female journalist in AJK to have worked within the region, paving the way for others. Prior to her, women aspiring to become journalists were compelled to seek opportunities outside AJK, as the prevailing culture within the region did not permit them to work alongside men in the field, a societal norm that significantly hindered women from collaborating with their male counterparts in the journalism profession. She went on to reveal the pervasive discrimination faced by women within the community, primarily at the hands of men. These discriminatory attitudes frequently deter girls from advancing in their journalism careers, underscoring the imperative need for more extensive gender equality
Political pressures & financial limitations
During the conversation with Gillani, it became evident that political parties wield considerable influence, further compounding the challenges faced by aspiring female journalists in AJK. The pressures exerted by these political entities can serve as a significant deterrent for women seeking to establish themselves in the field. Additionally, she highlighted the economic constraints that pervade the journalism landscape of AJK. The region grapples with limited financial resources and heavily depends on support and resources from Pakistani media houses, presenting a significant obstacle to the growth and sustainability of journalism within AJK.
Arifa Mehmood, an experienced journalist with around 15 years of involvement in the field, addressed the resistance encountered by women entering journalism in AJK. She pointed out that society clings to traditional beliefs, resisting the idea of women leaving their homes to collaborate with men in a workplace setting.
Furthermore, Arifa underscored the pressing concern of harassment, particularly in male-dominated environments. “Personally, I have not encountered harassment thus far, but it is regrettably a common issue faced by many women,” she said. “To tackle this, there is a pressing need for awareness campaigns and training initiatives for women in AJK.” Numerous women experience harassment in their workplaces, emphasising the need for heightened awareness and interventions to ensure a safe and inclusive work environment for female journalists.
For her own success in the field, Arifa credited her family for their unflinching support and encouragement. “My daughter is greatly motivated by observing my work, and I am fully dedicated to mentoring her for a potential career in this profession in the future,” she shared.
Hina Mahboob Awan, a recent graduate from the mass communication department at a local university, initially made an independent choice to pursue a career in journalism. She noted that she received substantial support from her family. However, with time and a deeper understanding of the field, she has come to realise that journalism work in AJK is more challenging than it initially appeared. “Working in the field in Azad Jammu and Kashmir is exceptionally challenging. Entering this profession, you often get to hear disheartening comments about women, which can be highly demotivating,” she lamented, sharing that her aim now is to embark on a journalism career in Islamabad or another city as soon as she completes her studies.
Atia Fayyaz, another mass communication graduate in Mass Communication, expressed her desire to enter the field is driven by the scarcity of women in journalism in AJK. She aspires to work for her city, with a particular focus on raising awareness about the Kashmir issue.
Ayesha, who aspires to enroll in a mass communication department in the future, faces a significant challenge. She shared that her mother is currently unwilling to permit her to pursue admission in this department. During a conversation with her mother, she expressed her concerns, explaining that she does not want her daughter to enter a profession where she might have to continually grapple with stress and encounter negative comments from people. As a result, her mother prefers Ayesha to seek admission in a different department.
I wish for my daughter to pursue her graduation in a different subject and eventually become a lecturer in a reputable institution. I am determined not to allow her to enter journalism because I believe there is limited scope for it here, and I want to shield my daughter from any potential negative perceptions,” Ayesha’s mother said.
Wahid Iqbal Butt, the President of Azad Kashmir Press Club, noted that when people choose a field, they often consider the opportunities it provides. In AJK, however, the field of journalism currently lacks distinct opportunities for both men and women, he stressed. “But, women shouldn’t step back now. They are making progress in every field, and in our society, both men and women are advancing equally. Our endeavour is to foster a conducive environment for women within the Press Club, and we wholeheartedly encourage women to step forward in this field to further their progress and well-being.”
Source: T Magazine