Pakistan’s media ‘influencer’

Over a quarter-century, journalist Tasneem Ahmar and her organisation, Uks, have campaigned for gender equality and inclusivity among Pakistan’s male-dominated media

It was 1998 and Pakistan had just completed 50 years of existence as an independent nation. Alternating between democracy and military dictatorship, the general public, typically cynical about matters of state, became immersed in the controversies surrounding the macabre murder of a young girl — Nina Aziz — whose headless body was recovered from the basement of her house.

There was a media frenzy over the incident and reporters displayed zeal in ferreting out intimate details of her private life to feed the national obsession. Her desire for an independent life and her circle of male friends — all were repackaged and photoshopped — were  subjected  to vicious media scrutiny. Aziz was portrayed as too westernised, as she chose to live independently, separately from her parents, who also lived in the same city. A newspaper stooped so low as to find a ‘used condom’ in her apartment.

The attention-rivetting sensational headlines that tried to capitalise on the tragic death of a young girl provoked extreme distaste in a young journalist and activist, Tasneem Ahmar, who had recently launched Uks. The name, meaning reflection in Urdu, Uks was a research, resource, and publication centre dedicated to advancing gender equality in Pakistan.

Ahmar began to write and speak out against what she considered a societal wrong. In Aziz’s death, she discerned a troubling trend. Women were consistently portrayed as objects rather than human beings. And through Uks she decided to challenge this mindset.

“Three days after her murder, Aziz’s severed head was unearthed in one of Islamabad’s sprawling green belts.  Every newspaper, English and Urdu, except one, carried a picture of the severed head, treating it as an object for display as if everyone was playing some medieval sport of outdoing the other in creating shock value with their coverage,” recalled Ahmar in an interview with SIGMA. She began to engage with editors and reporters, many of whom were her acquaintances within the media industry. Her approach was both straightforward and resourceful in the initial days when she lacked funding or a team to assist her. “I would simply cut and paste news articles and take them to the media outlets. Fortunately, having worked in the media, I had friends there. Editors often denied the stories, claiming they weren’t from their newspapers. But I was persistent and showed them the marked articles with specific dates, urging them to verify and identify the individuals responsible for putting those ‘creative’ and insensitive headlines.”

She came to be known as “chapa aapa” or the elder sister who conducted impromptu raids on newsrooms. “My team and I would catch the staffers during a particular time of the day, when one shift ended and the next began, thus giving us access to the maximum number of people to sensitise the newsroom.”

Back then, the newspaper industry was overwhelmingly male-dominated, though it is so to a large extent even today. So, while she would visit the newsrooms to make her presentations on creating more gender sensitive content, she would also discover the problems the few women professionals encountered. “The concept of a separate toilet for women in the newsroom was alien. Many women also complained about sexual harassment. The seating arrangement made them uncomfortable. One of them said, I don’t like it when a man’s thighs rub against mine.” Ahmar adds: “Our workshops had a great deal of impact not only on the content being produced by these newsrooms, but also in making the workplace women-friendly.”

Her mission was clear: to sensitise the media on various gender-related concerns and convey the crucial message that women also have rights and are not objects. “The aspiration was to transform the media into an ally, rather than an adversary in the fight for gender equality.”

She also established a platform called the Pakistan Women’s Media Network, where women are encouraged to share their experiences. Further, Uks developed a code of ethics for the media, inclusive of all genders.

It’s been 25 years since Ahmar started her journey. “I can’t say I’ve reached all the goals I set out to achieve. There are still very few separate toilets for women and sometimes, even when they exist, some men lock them up or use chemicals to prevent the locks from opening. Due to this, we have to keep fighting and we can’t take a backseat,” she says steadfastly.

Denial in Pakistani media 

In essence, Ahmar says, instead of guilt, shame, or acceptance, her workshops mostly evoked denial. “The Pakistani media continues to be in denial. The media, for the most part, has been reluctant to acknowledge the detrimental consequences of their representation of women,” she says.

Ironically, ten years after Aziz’s brutal murder, Ahmar found herself setting up her studio in the same basement where the crime took place. “We only discovered on the day of the office-warming that it was Nina’s house. My staff hesitated to venture into the basement.  I reassured them, saying, ‘Don’t worry, if she couldn’t return from the afterlife to defend herself when the media was tearing her reputation apart, she won’t return now.’ I secretly hoped her spirit would visit me and reveal her murderer’s identity.”

The Aziz case lingered in Ahmar’s thoughts. It wasn’t solely due to the disheartening fact that the perpetrator had managed to evade punishment, leaving only the girl’s character to be put on a trial.

Chillingly, almost two decades later , another brutal murder of a young girl occurred again. Seeing the coverage of this murder in the media, she was starkly reminded of the fact that, in essence, nothing had genuinely changed. “The young girl in Islamabad fell victim to a long-time friend. She was raped, murdered, and beheaded, with the media coverage mirroring the past. What was once primarily print media has now expanded to encompass electronic and social media, often operating without boundaries or conscience.”

Aurat marches 

Yet, gradually, Ahmar was seeing her activism bear fruit in another form. Whether men granted women their rights or not mattered little. Women were seeking their socio-political rights in a coordinated fashion. In 2018, on International Women’s Day, the urban educated women of Pakistan hit the streets to stand up for themselves. Since then, every year the streets of big cities like Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad and some smaller ones like Peshawar, Quetta, Multan, Faisalabad, and Sukkur have found slogans  exposing the power dynamics in the domestic realm as well as talking about the pay gap in offices. Posters with slogans such as “Apna khana khud garam kar lo” (heat your own food) or  “Lo main beth gayi sahi se” or “My body, my choice” abounded.  “Women are still not a vote-bank for the politicians. Our Constitution grants us equal rights. So what these women demanded was simply their constitutional rights of equality at home and at work. Today’s women in Pakistan are highly aware of their rights.”

The backlash of these marches was severe. Many self-appointed gate-keepers of society started to target these women by threatening them with dire consequences. They were also accused of breaking up families. “The right-wing even organised a ‘haya march’ or shame march to counter the Pakistani feminist movement,” she says, exasperatedly.

In the aftermath of the backlash, NGOs like Uks stepped in to demystify the movement and the slogans raised at the marches for the conservative section of society and also to keep engaging with the activists to keep their morale high.

Ahmar explains, “Our aim is to enlighten people about the true essence of feminism, and we actively promote an alternative narrative. For instance, there has been a significant debate surrounding slogans like ‘My body, my rights’ following these marches.

“We seek to shed light on why these slogans are raised, particularly by young women. Instead of resorting to criticism, we encourage understanding. It’s all too easy for individuals to engage in trolling, create memes, unleash abusive language, or issue threats on social media platforms.”

Ahmar highlights the importance of acknowledging that such actions on digital platforms can have real-life consequences, affecting many women. “These issues don’t just stay confined to the realm of social media. They often spill over into real life, resulting in serious repercussions. Many women find themselves grappling with these challenges and, sadly, some even opt to leave these spaces. That’s precisely what we want to prevent. Our goal is to empower women to remain active in these spaces and continue their vital contributions. It’s about fostering inclusivity rather than exclusion.”

She also emphasises that it is necessary to look at patriarchy at the granular level to expose the insidious ways it functions and affects a woman’s psychological well-being and self-confidence. “We ran a campaign named #NotFunny that targeted the wife jokes, sexist jokes shared by men on WhatsApp or in general. This campaign was endorsed by many prominent artists of Pakistan. Such campaigns give a language, a tool to women to call out sexist behaviour whenever they spot it.”

However flawed a democracy Pakistan may have, Ahmar says, women will continue to push for their rights to express themselves freely within its limitations. “You can’t deny 50 percent of the population the right to freedom of expression and call yourself a democracy,” she says.

Uks’ work 

Since its inception in 1997, Uks has worked to reshape the media landscape through comprehensive research, impactful advocacy, and targeted training initiatives. It conducts capacity-building workshops. These initiatives have benefited more than 13,000 journalists and media students. Uks has also expanded its sphere of influence to include social media and entertainment media, leading to the creation of Hopscotch, which seeks to promote gender-equitable entertainment content.

Uks hosts the Pakistan Women Media Network (PWMN), a dynamic collective of over 100 female journalists advocating gender and human rights within media organisations.

With a remarkable track record of achievements, including over 700 training sessions, the production of 500 radio programmes, publication of 60 research reports, and collaborations with international partners, Uks continues to be a driving force in the pursuit of gender equality and inclusive media practices in Pakistan.

About the author: Tasneem Ahmar, a veteran journalist, founded Uks in 1997, dedicated to reshaping Pakistan’s media landscape. Over the course of 25 years, she tackled gender inequality by challenging the media’s objectification of women, confronting newsrooms, advocating for gender-sensitive content and addressing women’s workplace challenges. Through initiatives like the Pakistan Women’s Media Network, Uks has empowered over 13,000 journalists. Ahmar’s impact is evident in the Aurat Marches, which advocate for women’s socio-political rights. Uks, with its vast achievements, remains a driving force for gender equality in Pakistani media.






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