We are alarmed by reports of our colleagues being attacked during Pakistan’s Freedom March

Women In Journalism
Nov 1 · 6 min read
Photo credit: Reuters

PAKISTAN, ISLAMABAD/ RAWALPINDI, November 1 — Despite being an effort from all opposition parties, the “Azadi March” or Freedom March is the brainchild of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), whose politics is rooted in religion.

We have documented several cases of our colleagues being stopped, harassed, and abused by JUI workers because of their gender, with some threatened with violence and others barred from entering into the protest arena altogether.

Ramisha Ali, a reporter, spoke with CFWIJ about her ordeal when she was covering the commencement of JUI’s Azadi March from Karachi on Sunday, October 27.

“I went to cover the march, where the leadership of JUI and other political parties were all present. I was there to cover their speeches and the procession that was to follow from thereon. Only men could be spotted as far as I could see. The place was jam-packed by men but I was there to do my job and was not expecting what happened with me that day,” she said.

Ramisha shared that despite the presence of other media personnel in the area, she was intimidated by men from the crowd twice during her time at the spot and felt insulted. “A man came up to me from the crowd and started yelling at me. He used the word tamasha (drama) to describe what I was doing and told me to get in a DSNG van parked nearby. I was literally taken aback with the way he behaved,” she said and shared that some of the journalists offered her to sit in their DSNG van for safety purpose.

“Another instance took place when I was sitting in the van and tried to step down to make videos of the march. A man from Ansar ul Islam — the sub-organization of JUI — gestured using his hands at me to get back in the vehicle. I have never felt this insulted ever in my life and all of this happened because of my gender. It probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” Ramisha said.

Despite the challenges, Ramisha said that she completed the event’s coverage for five hours.

CFWIJ’s member in Pakistan, Gharida Farooqui, spoke to a few women journalists at the venue who shared their experiences of having covered the march in Islamabad. A reporter told Gharida that she was asked by intelligence officers to not enter the venue, as people were misbehaving with women journalists, following which she requested volunteers of the Ansar-ul-Islam to help her get inside the venue for coverage. However, she was asked to cover her head in the process.

Gharida also spoke to our mentor and member, Ayesha Tanzeem, who works for Voice of America, as their Pakistan and Afghanistan bureau chief. Ayesha said that some of JUI’s political workers stopped her from entering the venue initially, but after some uncertainty about allowing women journalists inside the premises of the march, senior management officials of the party eventually let them inside. It happened following clarity on the matter by the leadership. However, she said that there was some anger over women journalists arriving at the venue for coverage.

Journalist Shiffa Z. Yousafzai took to Twitter to talk about the harassment she faced. “What we saw today there at #Azadi_March being encircled by the mob, their reactions, the slogans they chanted against me (women) were pretty ugly,” she wrote.

“Went to the ground, only men could be seen in the ground for yards and yards. It felt very awkward and uncomfortable to be stared at some kind of alien still my team went ahead with me covering the march. So we went towards the ground.” she added.

In a video Shiffa shared on her Twitter, the camera moves to the view in front of her where an angry man can be seen trying to scare her and her team away.

Another journalist, Annie Shirazi, tweeted that she was asked to leave by JUI personnel. She wrote that she had been covering politics for a while now and had never been stopped from covering an event.

I went to cover JUI #AzaadiMarch earlier this morning. JUI security personnel asked me to leave because I was a woman,” she wrote.

“Also, I was not expecting this from JUI F since covering their events never made me uncomfortable before. “ she added.

Our member and mentor Amber Rahim Shamsi noted that although she faced no difficulty in covering the event, this was not the experience of every woman journalist on the scene. Despite this, she did keep her safety in mind. Offering tips to women journalists, she wrote on Twitter: “Tip1. Keep your elbows out and use your mic as a potential weapon: the idea is to prevent any one from getting close to your personal space 2. Ask a driver or another male colleague to keep an eye out for you and keep the crowd away. 3. Ask organizers to accompany you.”

Afia Salam, a veteran journalist and member of The Coalition, has strongly condemned the mistreatment of women journalists during the march.

“I have observed a few things throughout this issue. Initially, some journalists said that they were told not to come and later the party officially said that women journalists have not been barred to cover the procession. Some of the prominent journalists have even interviewed the leadership of JUI and have been covering the march. However, other women journalists are facing harassment, they have been catcalled and intimidated by the crowd. The behavior of the crowd should be brought to the notice of the leadership and a very stern call should be made from their platform that warns them from harassing female journalists,” she told us and added that the issue will not be solved unless the leadership warns the crowd it has gathered.

She also said that while prominent journalists may not be intimidated, the same cannot be said about young reporters who are seemingly lower down the pecking order. But there should be zero tolerance for harassment, intimidation and barring women journalists who are performing their professional duty. “Nobody has the right to tell women journalists to not do their jobs,” she told CFWIJ.

When talking about the need to make the field safe for women journalists, Afia said, “The leadership needs to restrain their people. They have not taken animals along with themselves in the march. Anyone who misbehaves should be called out. Several of our colleagues have been harassed and molested in the past during rallies and protests of other political parties. This must be dealt with, as it is not only restricted to such events; in fact, even when women journalists are delivering a PTC, crowds begin to gather around them, which is very overwhelming.”

The JUI later clarified in a statement that no woman would be stopped from reporting on the rallies, insisting that there was no ban in place. However, unless concrete action is taken against the culprits, these stand to be just empty words.

We strongly condemn the mistreatment of women journalists by the crowd gathered for the Freedom March and urge the organizers to take strict action against those who are found to have misbehaved, harassed and intimidated women journalists throughout the course of the event.

We find this to not only be a serious lapse in terms of security for women journalists, but also a deplorable act of censorship, meant to keep women’s voices silenced.

Safety of women journalists should also be a priority during such events and we urge Pakistan’s authorities to ensure no woman journalist feels unsafe when doing her job.

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The Coalition For Women In Journalism is a global organization of support for women journalists. The CFWIJ pioneered mentorship for mid-career women journalists across several countries around the world, and is the first organization to focus on the status of free press for women journalists. We thoroughly document cases of any form of abuse against women in any part of the globe. Our system of individuals and organizations brings together the experience and mentorship necessary to help female career journalists navigate the industry. Our goal is to help develop a strong mechanism where women journalists can work safely and thrive.

For more information, please visit www.womeninjournalism.org.

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