Gendered Impact for Female Journalists

When it comes to harassment of women journalists, the online world is a reflection of the physical world. Not only do these women suffer the violence that journalists in general are faced with for their profession, the violence becomes multi-dimensional as these female journalists are also targeted for their gender. Threats of rape and death, sexual harassment, misogynist slurs and bullying are commonplace for female journalists who happen to have a voice in online spaces.

According to a global survey of female journalists, 78% of US-based women journalists indicated that gender was a contributing factor to their attacks and threats while 68% women journalists working in countries other than the US indicated that gender was the main factor in their attacks — both online and off.

Interviews conducted as part of research by the Digital Rights Foundation on the impact of online harassment on female journalists found that the problems faced by female journalists in Pakistan are very identical to those of female journalists across the world. There was a similar resonance in what these female journalists want to make things better.

We reproduce below the ordeal that Laiba Zainab, a journalist from Multan in Pakistan, shared with us about the different challenges and online violence and threats in her career trajectory as a female journalist:

“Journalism and activism have not been so different for me. They are running side by side in my life. The problem is that if people like me share a story or information, people don’t perceive it as something shared by a journalist. They are obsessed with the idea that a woman is sharing this information. As a result, the comments and the bashing is extremely gendered in nature.

As far as threats are concerned, I think that threats are not issued just from outside of organisations but also from within the organisations. I started my career as a reporter in Multan in 2015. I observed how senior male colleagues always felt threatened if a woman journalist tried to do a story pertaining to their beats, especially crime and courts. They would threaten to give up their beats altogether if you did a single story pertaining to their beat.

Then, in online spaces, mental stress is a major concern as people literally swear at you. I recently hosted a panel on women journalists’ petition against the online violence they face. And even during that panel itself, a man started writing abusive comments directed at us. This shows how if we just speak about the fact that we are abused, we receive more abuse. We are not giving a political stance on anything but being a woman is enough to attract abuse. I have received rape and death threats for simply reporting on the Aurat March. They have tried to hack my accounts and threaten my family. We receive such threats from all quarters.

My Facebook profile is mostly public and I have added a lot of people from our profession. Unfortunately, our information is used against us. Our photos are forwarded and strange comments are made about them. I was one of the organisers of Aurat March in Multan this year and that was a pretext for male colleagues to say really vile stuff about me in men-only WhatsApp groups of our city. When I learned about those conversations, I was deeply hurt. But this is what we face all the time, be it in online or offline spaces. As women journalists, we are not taken as journalists but simply as sexualised bodies that are only there to be seen from a gendered lens. My personal lifestyle is also targeted. I can’t even repeat some of the comments. We are told to ignore these things but I don’t think that it’s easy to forget these things.

Besides this, our bodies are so gendered that there is this huge expectation of looking “presentable” in every Facebook live video or appearance on online forums while we don’t have the same standards for male journalists. Positive or negative, comments are made on female journalists’ appearance while no one cares about how men look. More than our work, it is our bodies that are discussed. This shows how bodies of men are neutral while those of women are always sexualised.

The overall impact of all this is that we begin to censor ourselves. I have stopped discussing many things because the more there is bashing, the bigger there is an impact on our mental well-being. People who write these mean comments do not factor in the impact their words are causing, not just on us but on our loved ones, too.”