Shut Up! Be a Lady!

Date: January 1, 1970
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Silencing women?s voices is one of the oldest methods in history of keeping women in their place. The denial of women?s right to communicate or to put in plainly, a right to voice and free speech, is one of the strongest political weapons in the armory of patriarchy.

Silencing women’s voices is one of the oldest methods in history of keeping women in their place. The denial of women’s right to communicate or to put in plainly, a right to voice and free speech, is one of the strongest political weapons in the armory of patriarchy.
When the voices of women have been silenced, there are many things they cannot do. They cannot participate effectively in democratic debates and discourses; they cannot tell policy-makers (the majority of whom are men) what they think of the economic, education, and other policy decisions they want to make which will impact greatly on the lives of women, their children and the communities of the marginalised to which they belong; they cannot tell their spouses or partners their views on major family decisions; and they cannot openly and honestly, without fear of victimisation, tell the volumes of heartache and injustices they face daily, because of the way they have been gendered.
Throughout Southern Africa, where ironically, there are champions for democracy, human rights and freedom everywhere, the voices of women and girls are silenced in both pernicious and outright violent ways. 
No institution in the region has broken free of perpetuating the dominant hegemony of patriarchy that calls for loud men and silent women. The aspect of who should have a voice and who should not, rooted in socially constructed gender roles, norms and values, is one of the most insidious ways that structural gender inequalities are reinforced.
The media, institutions based on the principle of freedom of expression and the right to free speech, are still bastions of discourse and practices that silence the voices of women. Furthermore, their claims of neutrality, non-bias, diversity, balance and fairness, fall by the wayside when a gender lens is focused on all aspects of their operations.
The 2003 Gender and Media Baseline Study (GMBS), undertaken by Gender Links (GL) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), provided the most comprehensive research to date on gender in the Southern African media. The quantitative and qualitative findings of the research (25,110 news item monitored in 12 countries), clearly provides empirical evidence of sexism in the media.
One of the major findings of the study was on who has the right to communicate, and who does not. If unknown sources were excluded, women, on average, constituted 17 percent of news sources in the 12 countries for the GMBS. Women, however, are 52 percent of Southern Africa’s population. The majority of women in the region, therefore, have no voice in and through the media.
When presented with the findings in national workshops, one South African male newspaper editor baulked saying that the media’s role is only to “mirror” what is happening. I suppose this means that the media is only reflecting the determination by men that women not be visible or speak.
This response however, is passé and illustrates the editor is lagging behind in media knowledge. According to Cater and Steiner, writing in 2004, media research and critical cultural studies clearly show through vast research that media texts do not simply mirror or reflect “reality” but rather instead construct hegemonic definitions of what should be accepted as “reality”. And what should be accepted as ‘reality’ in the patriarchal societies of Southern Africa is that ‘good women’ are ‘silent’ and especially do not venture to talk in the public space provided in and through the media.
Journalists, buying into the dominant belief that accepts as normal that women have nothing to say or should not have any desires to speak on political, economic, development, other issues, simply do not access women as sources. They silence their voices. Editors, on the other hand, checking the copy brought in to them, also take it as ‘normal’ that only men are speaking and never ask journalists for the voices of women.
In the media, it is not only through access to expression as sources that women exercise their right to speak, to communicate. This right also is exercised when women can freely take up the pen, the mike, and the equipment to report the same stories as men, and work in a non-sexist and non-threatening environment.
The media also assaults women in language and diatribes, especially those who “step out of their place”. It is so familiar. Challenge gender injustices, women’s human rights violations in the public and proclaim yourself as a “feminist”, and the opinion makers and shakers, through the media, will be sure to label you as a “divorcee”, “frustrated single woman”, “rebel rouser” and question your sexual orientation. Message: Keep quiet!
Throughout the world violence against women is used as a weapon to maintain women’s silence.  An extreme example of how this is communicated is in the book The Blackman’s Guide to the Blackwoman, by Shahrazad Ali, in which he recommends that Black men “discipline” disrespectful Black women by slapping them in the mouth – the mouth “because it is from that hole in the lower part of her face, that all her rebellion culminates into words. Her unbridled tongue is a main reason she cannot get along with the Blackman.”
While violence against women in newsrooms has not been an area researched, recent reports in Zimbabwe of the attempted rape of a female and an editor’s physical assault on another female journalist should raise alarm bells. Unsafe places for women journalists to work will further push them out of a profession where their numbers are already low, and their ability to have a voice and use the right to communicate as journalists will slowly disappear.
There is, however, a movement afoot in Southern Africa to ensure that women’s right to communicate is recognised, guaranteed and protected. Gender and media activists who have formed together in the Gender in Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) network are demonstrating the power of the media and communications as a force for change.
This movement seeks to ensure that women’s voices are heard and represented in proportion to their numbers in the populations of the countries in the region. Reclaiming their voices is one step towards women beginning to transcend their second-class citizenship. After all, one of the main channels that all citizens must have to be free and to participate in democratic societies is their voice.
Patricia Made is an independent gender and media consultant and board member of Gender Links. She is also the former director-general of Inter Press Service. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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