Women in media are ‘sex objects’
‘Blonde women are hyper sexualized idiots – Muslim women are silent idiots’
‘Women can’t be bosses’
These are only a few points young journalists from Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Germany, Bosnia, Spain and Syria mentioned during the Inclusive Media training when asked about existing stereotypes against women in the media. Together with Syrian Journalist Rula Asad from the Syrian Female Journalist Network they tried to find ways of actively working against replicating them in their own work. Having worked in the Middle East and Europe Rula herself has experienced different ways of stereotyping women.
She shared with the participants important strategies on how to challenge these stereotypes in their personal reporting context and advocated to get more women voices into the media.
Fighting victimization of Arab women
‘When I talk to other people they are often surprised that I am educated and not suppressed as an Arab woman’ Mai S., a participant from Egypt said. Living as a Syrian woman in the Netherlands Rula could relate to the participant’s feelings, especially in regards to the portrait of female refugees. She sees the same pictures repeated over and over again in the media: Powerless and suffering women. A role that she feels doesn’t fit to most of the women she knows and helps to take away their agenda.
Her main advice for journalists is to put on ‘gender spectacles’ throughout all the work. It is like putting on a sunglass with a sensor that detects unbalanced reporting.
This means you have to constantly reflect on how women are portrayed in your stories but also in your media organization.
She suggested that once journalists start critically reflecting on what images and what sources they use for stories, they should extend their contact list.
This will take an extra effort because usually there are less women in political positions and they are not that visible. But it is definitely possible to find them.
As an example she pointed out that men mostly hold central positions in political parties but women are often the head of a household. A position of power and an interesting perspective to include.
For Rula there are specific topics on which media makers should be especially aware of stereotypes.
When a woman is harassed, beaten up, raped or forced to submit to virginity tests, it is sometimes implied that she deserved it – because of the way she dressed or acted.
Why are men wounded in conflict and revolutions treated as heroes, but women who are raped or violated treated as damaged goods?
To consciously avoid perpetuating these stereotypes Rula advises to not only focus on the victim but rather investigate who is really responsible for violence against women and look for the societal reasons behind it.
- Ask what really happened. And why?
- Ask what led to the violation. Is it an individual incident or endemic in the country?
- Ask what is being done to address the issue.
- Find out where the case stands in the human rights context.
- Which international conventions have been mistreated?
Getting Female voices into the public sphere
We have all seen examples of media professionals who comment on the physical appearance of women politicians but not on the physical appearance of men politicians.
Rula suggests that another field where journalist should wear the ‘gender glasses’ is politics. This applies elections periods, elected governments and constitutions.
In the Middle East (and to some extent also in Europe) women in leading political positions or election candidate positions are still rare. Rula is convinced that journalists share a responsibility in bringing women’s issues into the public sphere and make them more visible to society. For this she suggests finding gender angles to e.g. coverage of elections or transitional governments:
- Ask how the elections affect women. What laws will help them?
- Find out if women get equal access to the polling stations.
- Ask women and men from rural and urban areas equally about their opinions.
- Avoid commenting on physical appearance or family status
- Ask about the gender balance in transitional governments. Who could have been suitable female candidates.
- Include important issues that affect women’s live after the government transition.
Rula admits that putting these theoretical points into practice might not always be easy in the beginning, since female journalists are often themselves put into certain categories and have to fight for their rights. Still, she encourages every journalist to be constantly aware of gender stereotypes – so over time they diminish and empowered women can become equal parts of their societies.
The Inclusive Media training is supported by the German Foreign Ministry, the German Institute for Foreign Affairs (ifa), the International Women Media Foundation (IWMF), the European Youth Press and the Syrian Female Journalist Network (SFJN).