Pens that write a new story

Pens that write a new story

Date: March 1, 2011
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What a shocker I received when I attended the World Editor’s Forum in Istanbul in June. In session after session, the panels were a dreary composition of white male after white male. Whether it was front-page design, circulation winners, or the new trend toward the qualoids – the tabloid-sized quality papers – the teams, which presented the research, were relentlessly male.

Never mind the absence of Latin American examples, of African and Indian examples…. nations where newspapers are actually growing, my concern was about gender. The biggest contingent of women was on the spousal programme – accompanying the executives.

Statistics at the same forum revealed that newspapers of the West or the North remain in terminal decline. Where they are growing, it is because of the mystical “woman reader” who has been drawn to newspapers. But it was everything about us without us.

So unable to bear it any longer – and too well-schooled in South African democracy – I complained to the organiser, a sweet Frenchman who looked incredulous. I complained about the absence of people of the South and of people of my sex. “But there is an African speaking on Thursday,” he stammered. But what about the women? He looked French-flustered.

When my dream job was offered to me, I did not hesitate and grabbed it with both hands. Women journalists can dream – can dream beyond the confines of old, beyond the confines of women’s pages and the subs-desk. Women journalists can dream about traveling and about investigating. Women journalists can dream our ways all the way into the editors chairs and perhaps one day into the owners chairs.

It saddens me though that I am still a minority – a female title editor. In South Africa, I am one of three: Caroline Southey at the Financial Mail and Alide Dasnois make up the triangle. There is also Pippa Green, possibly the most influential woman in the media, because she heads up SABC Radio News.

But what my appointment has done is make the boys sit up and take notice. Because it occurred in a political context that encourages and celebrates female leadership, it was roundly applauded. Now we wait to see how the next series of title openings will be filled.

And with the gender in the media campaigns of Gender Links, the essential changes in content are beginning to happen. Everywhere, the rates of sexual violence and others, are regarded as topics ripe for investigation and action. The campaigns by Gender Links and others, as well as the country’s political changes, have changed the shape of leadership; have altered our understandings of who exercises power and of how it is exercised.

Female miners head new consortia; women judges make new laws; new cancer treatments are painstakingly crafted under female managed-microscopes; a female foreign minister is strutting her stuff on the global stage.

And everywhere women continue what they have been doing for hundreds of years: keeping the poorest areas buoyant; picking up the slack of the HIV and AIDS pandemic; keeping most households going. Gender stories are never one-dimensional; there is no easy solidarity or mundane plot.

Until this decade, newspaper content in had mirrored power in the nation (South Africa): largely white, mostly pale, usually grey. In the rest of the (Southern African) region, it was male, largely black but still grey.

Now, it is a revolution we capture (quite haphazardly) in these times and this inaugural award (the first Gender in the Media Awards organised and sponsored by Gender Links and the Media Institute of Southern Africa) is meant to congratulate the revolutionaries doing it well. Everything from investigations, to open letters, opinions and photography that seek to challenge our journalistic borders were awarded.

Since getting this plum job, I’ve tried to get more women’s voices into the newspaper, profiling female leadership, turning stereotypes on their heads. One, which springs to mind, was by a young Muslim woman explaining why, in the 21st century, she wears a hijab. Muslim women who take the veil are often spoken about as hapless victims, but here was a woman calmly defending her decision. And the other was of a woman who provided a pain-staking guide on how she is pleasured – usually it is the women who have given pain-staking guides on how to pleasure.

We write too about new forms of masculinity – about men grappling with what it means to be fathers, husbands and themselves. The Mail & Guardian was a gender-savvy newspaper to begin with, so the work has not been difficult and there has been little resistance.

The Media Tenor, which monitors content in the media, found, among other things, that the Mail & Guardian is one of the three most negative newspapers in its coverage of government. I was cool with that and prefer to call it balanced than negative, and would have hated to be too high on that barometer.

But the one that troubles me is that on female sources, we rate quite poorly. There is a lot of work to do on changing the range of opinion in our pages. It is still men who control how we as a nation thinks – if the opinion pages of newspapers or the punditry on television screens and radios is anything to go by.

Various factors explain this: women are less confident; we do tend to opine more democratically so the argument is less pronounced; we do tend to value the collective over the individual in opinion and argument.

I must think urgently of how to fix this – a source-book of women specialists perhaps; pushing my team to beef up its contact books too. It has been hard work changing the colour of the contact book – now it’s gender must change too and that is my work for the medium-term.

I tell this story for another reason too. It is to introspect and ask what is my use if I do not pay attention to changing that which I can – if I don’t reshape our opinion pages, don’t extend our investigative arm into the many, many areas of need we need to address before equality is a reality in more than just numbers?

Those of us on gender tickets must ride the bus. Anything else and I will be a mere token. At the height of the AIDS denialist era, when women were at the coalface of the fall-out of Cabinet’s dilly-dallying, I began to ask serious questions about tokenism, impact, solidarity, quotas and the like.

What was the use of having a 40 percent female component in Cabinet, in the provincial legislatures and in Parliament if they were immune to and inured to the severe impact of the delays? If it were not for civil society, would there be post-exposure prophylaxis for women who had been raped? Would there be treatment for pregnant women and treatment now for all people living with AIDS? At the time, the Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang declared she was acting in the interests of her constituency: women. Then who were Zackie Achmat (of the Treatment Action Campaign) and his troops acting for, I wondered?

There can be no assumed solidarity or constituency. We journalists cannot naively assume that women politicians will act in the interests of other women. We can support quotas and female leaders unstintingly, but not unquestioningly. Support must be earned; the journalistic principles of independence and scrutiny cannot be suspended. And this is what these inaugural awards show.

I hope they will go on to becoming the gender Pulitzers of our time. It is a wonderful way of recognising pens that dare dip into different inkbottles to write a new story.

Ferial Haffajee is the Editor of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa. This article was adapted from her speech during the first Gender and Media Awards presented at the Gender and Media Summit in Johannesburg on September 11.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information.

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