Women Behind The Lens
Having worked as a journalist for a weekly magazine, I often found myself covering a variety of events like book launches, press conferences, seminars, fashion shows, festivals and much more. Throughout my time on the job, I got familiar with some of the many popular photojournalists who closely, and particularly, worked within the entertainment industry in Karachi, Pakistan. But something always left me curious — I barely ever came across women photojournalists.
In Pakistan’s journalism industry, women often outnumber men in newsrooms as deputy editors and sub-editors. They also work as reporters on the field. But when it comes to photojournalism, male photojournalists can be seen thronging red carpets and taking up the best spots, especially during fashion weeks.
In the era of Instagram and popular online platforms, one may come across talented Pakistani female photojournalists. But sadly, the situation on the ground is different.
The lack of female photojournalists in Pakistan can only be guesstimated given that there is little to no data or information — official and otherwise — that could keep a count of how many women have worked and are working as photojournalists in the country.
Following cultural restraints, sexism at the workplace, discrimination and harassment both on and off the field, as well as the deep-seated misogyny and patriarchy in the society, women with cameras at the frontlines are still not a common sight in Pakistan.
So I decided to dive into the matter to find out where the women are, and speak with those who are breaking the barriers and striving to receive the same professional dignity and opportunities their male counterparts get in the industry.
In a video shot for The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) Sara Farid, a Pakistani photojournalist and CFWIJ member, shares that she was often the only woman with a camera when covering several press conferences and events in Pakistan. She calls the profession “a big boy’s club”.
“You’ll feel alone. You’ll feel like you’re being cornered and feel like there is no moral and physical support. You cannot enter the boys club because there’s a lot of sexism that exists in this industry, even in newsrooms by editors; you face character assassination and a lot of other issues,” she says, adding that one has to be strong and somehow, make it work for themselves.
Most of Sara’s work is focused on women’s rights, and religious and sexual minorities in Pakistan. Her passion for the work and success as a photojournalist is obvious.
“Growing up as a woman in Pakistan, all of us have faced some sort of bias, harassment, violence and abuse, and it makes you feel that you need to become a voice for all those people who face discrimination and violence, and you need to give them the space to talk about their issues,” says Sara, who then proceeds to share how being a woman has given her the opportunity to focus on various issues. “It’s important to talk about issues. As a woman I have access to these communities and I’m able to photograph them.”
Like Sara, Karachi based Malika Abbas Nosherwani has been working as a photojournalist since 2009. She works for White Star Photo — a photographic firm associated with the Dawn Media Group, as well as digital magazine Womanistan.
Talking about her experience as a female photojournalist for 10 years, Malika says it has been a good one, in general. “I haven’t faced discrimination; in fact, a female photojournalist is sometimes preferred over a male photojournalist when it comes to women centric assignments,” she says. However, she does agree with the lack of representation in the industry. When asked why more women don’t pick up a camera in Pakistan, she said, “Photojournalism is not a lucrative business to be in. And it involves being in places and situations where most women would not want to be and even if the women don’t mind that, their peers don’t want to be held accountable and responsible (in case of unforeseen consequences). Therefore, it takes a while to convince people that you are serious about this profession and are willing to put your 100% into it.”
During the course of my exploration, I connected with independent photojournalist Saba Rehman. Saba has been working for the past seven years and is the only female photojournalist working in an otherwise conservative province of Pakistan — Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Having worked with both, local and international publications and digital news websites including behemoths like BBC, DW, Arab News, Al Jazeera and TRT World to name a few, Saba, too, says that she is blessed to have not faced gender discrimination following the support of her editors. However, she says that the number is rather low when compared to male photojournalists.
“There are no permanent positions for female photojournalists in any international publications in Pakistan. Even though the number of men are also inadequate, but the absence of women photojournalists as permanent staff largely remains an issue.”
From stories focused on female inmates to drug addicts and women empowerment to elections in the country, Saba mainly works in tribal regions where even men have a hard time covering news stories and photography.
“There are a lot of issues for journalists and photojournalists when working in Pakistan, particularly in the tribal regions up north,” Saba says adding that safety remains a point of concern.
“People don’t know what photojournalism is, while society’s lack of acceptance for the work, as well as restrictions by law enforcement agencies, can sometimes act as hurdles.”
Another tough battle that female photojournalists encounter is growing sexism in the industry. Saiyna Bashir, an Islamabad-based photojournalist who works for several international news outlets and agencies, talks about an instance when a male colleague was preferred over her to cover an event.
“They sent him to cover the Women’s March. Even though I could’ve done a much better job at it,” she shares and adds, “There is plenty of sexism, of course. Because everybody says ‘You’re a woman how can you carry so much gear and aren’t you tired’.”
Nevertheless, Saiyna’s work speaks for itself despite the discrimination she faces when doing her job.
“Following my diverse portfolio, my editors now do not specifically assign me for a specific story. From travelling alone in remote areas to covering a bomb blast at the Chinese consulate in Karachi, I get to work on various challenging assignments,” she shared.
A budding female photojournalist in Karachi, Manal Khan, has also tackled sexism in the field.
“In 2017, I visited a mosque for an article on the importance of its architecture. As soon as I reached the gate, the security guard stopped me and refused to let me enter the mosque. I was wearing a long kurta and my head was covered when this happened,” she recalled.
“Even the media group I worked for was male-dominated. They only contacted female photojournalists for women centric projects or where men aren’t allowed to enter,” she said.
Giving women equal opportunities in the photojournalism industry is as crucial as providing them their deserving position in the newsrooms.
One may never know what the odds are for women photojournalists in Pakistan but support is never out of the question. As an organization invested towards supporting and mentoring women journalists across the globe, the subject becomes much more relevant for The Coalition For Women In Journalism. The need for women photojournalists will always remain imperative. The ideas and skills that women can bring to this profession is incomparable to what their men can manage.
Having a member like Sara Farid, who is one of the best Pakistani women photojournalists, CFWIJ looks forward to see more women challenging deep-seated norms in the country.
Both Sara Farid and her husband have been living in France after they received security threats in Pakistan. The change of place and work dynamics made it difficult for Sara to pursue her professional aspirations as a photojournalist, which is when she says the aspect of support became crucial to her life.
“Right now, the Coalition’s work is most useful for me… through CFWIJ’s platform I’m meeting new people, getting connected to journalists who work in Europe and other countries. It’s a great opportunity to be a part of the coalition and figure out my future plans,” she said.
CFWIJ upholds the importance of women’s voices in every aspect of journalism. As photojournalists, their visual creativity can be unfathomable and it’s only a matter of opportunity and consideration towards their talent.
Only 15% of news photographers around the world are women according to a study conducted by World Press Photo and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Another organization, Women Photograph, shared that less than one in five lead news photos published across eight popular news titles are photographed by women photojournalists.
This is the situation around the world. The numbers are likely worse in South Asia, especially in Pakistan, where journalism is a male-dominated field.
It is imperative to ensure that photojournalists and visual storytellers are as diverse as the subjects they choose to cover.
As far as society is concerned, Pakistan may be relatively backward with respect to an ample number of photojournalists, but the women photojournalists we spoke to have set an example for many to enter the industry and prove how representation matters.
This story was originally written for Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism