April issue 2012
Interview: Munizae Jahangir
Documentary filmmaker, journalist and now a host of her own show on Express Television, the multi-faceted media personality, Munizae Jahangir, has certainly managed to make a name for herself. She has reported on Pakistan’s political affairs and has often risked her life to tell the story. Co-founder of South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), Jahangir shares the struggles faced by her as a woman working in the male-dominated world of the electronic media.
Q: Does the electronic media offer women a level playing field?
A: I think that the electronic media does not exist in isolation. It is part of Pakistan and Pakistan certainly does not allow women a level playing field.
Q: Talk shows have generally been regarded as a male domain. How did you manage to achieve a breakthrough?
A: Women before me had achieved breakthroughs, but yes, I was part of the first crop that made that breakthrough. There’s a general perception that women tackle social issues, while men do the hardcore political stuff. Therefore, there was that initial reluctance to allow women to enter prime time television. Additionally, there is less confidence in women.
Moreover, the guests we call on our shows are male chauvinists — and I’m sorry to point out that among them are several politicians — and they speak to you much more rudely than they would to a man. They are curt with you, they look down on you and if they feel that you don’t understand issues, they become cheeky on television and I find that difficult, especially if the programme is being aired live. On prime time television, you have to handle all kinds of people.
I distinctly remember my first encounter with Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman. He would not look me in the eye. I was working as a correspondent for New Delhi Television (NDTV) at the time. I would ask him a question and he would look at some other reporter while answering it. At first I found it a bit comical, but then it became irritating as I could not get him to face my camera — which was essential.
Years later, I interviewed him again and I made sure it was a very tough interview. I think with time, as things evolve, people also realise that they have to change their attitudes, which is exactly what happened with Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman. So I believe, along with us women, they are also learning.
Q: How did your stint as correspondent for NDTV come about?
A: I was living in New York at the time and all of my friends in New School University — which is where I was studying as well — were working for NDTV. It was essentially a young person’s channel and 80 percent of the workforce comprised women; the managing editors were women as well. It is an internationally recognised channel, therefore I was very glad that I got accepted. They sent me to areas that a Pakistani television network would never have. I went to conflict areas such as FATA and Balochistan, and reported from the Pak-Afghan border. In fact, NDTV gave me the opportunity to go to Balochistan when Nawab Akbar Bugti was hiding in the mountains. It was dangerous and we were even fired upon.
Q: You were one of the last people to interview Nawab Akbar Bugti. Any recollections of that last meeting?
A: I have very vivid memories of that meeting. We went to his house, and that was the time that the Frontier Corps (FC) and the Bugti tribesman were eyeball-to-eyeball with each other. There was this ceasefire just for us as we went in. We were shown the Russian ammunition, for example a kind of missile, which had been aimed at his house. Then we were taken into a car that was completely camouflaged with mud. We drove at 100km per hour — not on the road but on the mountain — and the Frontier Corps was watching all the time. There was the possibility of the FC following us and we could end up leading them to Bugti. Also, there was a really high chance of them mistaking the vehicle for a Bugti tribesman’s car and shooting us down — we could have ended up as collateral damage.
These were all very real concerns but we continued with our journey to see Bugti and walked another hour in the mountains to reach his abode. I remember him sitting there, quite calm and collected and, in the interview I did with him, he predicted his own death. He said, “they are going to kill me and they are going to kill Balach Marri as well.” He knew he was going to be hunted down. He knew he had very little time to live and he had made up his mind about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to be remembered in Balochistan. He was very clear on that score.
I asked him, whether the accusation that he was being assisted by foreign powers was true, and he said, “We are not being helped by foreign powers. Formerly Ghaffar Khan and many others, who defied the state, were also accused of that.” But he also said, “I will even accept help from the devil because of the way that we have been treated.” I felt that there was a lot of resentment in him and that feeling still resonates with the young people in Balochistan today. I think the ghost of Bugti continues to haunt us. In a lot of ways, he is much larger in death than he was in life.
Q: It seems that in a lot of ways your job can be quite dangerous. Has that ever discouraged you?
A: I think there is a rush that journalists look for, I’m not saying that they look for danger, but I think it comes with the territory.
I had a very near miss when Benazir returned to Karachi from Dubai on October 18. I was actually climbing that truck to do an interview with her when the first bomb went off and I was very lucky because my cameraman pulled me away in time. We had blood and pieces of flesh in our hair and, as disgusting as that was, we still continued reporting throughout the night.
I think that the story becomes much more important than what is happening to you. And, I think, that in both the Bugti and BB cases, the story was bigger than us. I feel that is always the case with journalists who are operating in conflict areas. When a story is important, the stakes are higher, so you end up forgetting that your own life is in danger.
Q: Has being a woman helped or hindered you when reporting in sensitive or restricted areas?
A: It’s a double-edged sword, because you stand out like a sore thumb over there. They have probably never seen another woman. I remember, when I went to Balochistan, I barely saw another woman — maybe one or two old women who came out to tell their stories, but that was about it. Wherever I went, I felt that people would come out and talk to me because, more than anything else, they were simply curious about seeing a woman.
However, like I said, my gender is a double-edged sword. I remember, in FATA, there was a Taliban commander from Swat, Muslim Khan, who would give interviews to everybody except me. He would not mind speaking to me over the phone for half an hour; but he would refuse to give me a face-to-face interview because he would say, ‘you are a Muslim woman and I will not let you interview me.’ He would let female foreign correspondents interview him but he would not speak to me. So, in that respect, there is discrimination and it prevents me from accessing information.
There was a time when I used to cover some extremely sensitive areas. Now, if you are a woman reporter, and are seen in those places without a burqa, you are basically going out there to get kidnapped.
Q: Are you taken seriously by your male colleagues? How supportive are they?
A: Most men don’t accept authority unless they are younger than you, and that always poses a problem. They will always take a man more seriously, no matter what you do. Hence, all you can do is work harder. Also, I feel that you cannot afford to slip up while a man’s mistakes will be forgotten. Your mistakes will be remembered and you will be reminded of them over and over again.
You also have to look a certain way. Sometimes, I have observed that if you are too dressed up and you have too much make-up on, people tend to take you lightly.
Q: You have interviewed several national and international figures. Has anyone been particularly intimidating or particularly patronising because of your gender?
A: It is not just the men but women, too, who treat you differently because of your gender. You might have seen how our information minister (Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan) behaves with other women on television — I have had a brush with her as well. Women in our country can also be very chauvinistic towards other women. This is something you generally expect of men, but when a woman does it, it throws you off completely.
Q: There is a general perception that women anchors, in order to be taken seriously or considered as ‘one of the boys,’ have only gone for political stories and have refrained from tackling issues related to women. Is that true?
A: Certainly. We try not to but there have been times when I wanted to do a show on something but as a woman, and especially as an unmarried woman, I would have been called vulgar or behaiya so I did not touch those subjects. However, that does not mean that I do not think they are important and that they should not be looked at. I just approach it in a different way.
For example, recently I did a show on Valentine’s Day. The topic was ‘Mohabbat Ki Ijazzat Hai?’ and I know that if I was a man, I would have been much more aggressive on this issue, but because I am a woman I was not and I kept sitting on the fence.
In this culture, when you say things and you say them boldly, there are repercussions — not just for you but for the for the programme and perhaps, even the channel. Hence, you have to be a little careful.
However, having said that, I still feel that you should push the envelope and go as far as you can, and I think that we have managed to achieve that with my show. We have slowly started approaching issues that we would not have touched a few months ago.
For example, we did a show on incest and we drew a lot of flak and were told that that we should not even have brought up the issue. However, my argument is, if you don’t even talk about it, how are you going to solve it?
Another issue that takes us into uncomfortable territory is a debate on sex outside of marriage. Therefore, you cannot talk about it.
Abortion is another issue that is taboo. It is a complete no-no on an Urdu channel. But I think there should be a debate in this country about abortion, because a lot of women are frequenting quack doctors to get abortions. However, the problem is that once the religious aspect enters the debate and a maulvi comes and airs his views, and is very inflexible about it, you lose the argument and then people back off.
Q: There are complaints of sexism and sexual harassment in the electronic media. How does one circumvent such problems?
A: We have an organisation called South Asian Women in Media (SAWM). It was created because a lot of women felt sexually harassed by their bosses, by politicians and, most of all, by their seniors.
Personally, I have been very lucky to work with organisations that have been very supportive. Also, I think people are scared of me, so they probably don’t want to take that chance, but I have also learned that there is a very thin line between being friendly and being aggressive or flirtatious. You have to be able to distinguish whether a person is being friendly or flirtatious. Sometimes they are not necessarily being flirtatious. In our society, we are made to believe that every time a guy smiles at you, you should not smile back but, instead, slap him. I have always gone everywhere along with my producer and my team, but the problem arises when you go alone out on the streets because then you are seen as somebody just out there to be grabbed, which happens a lot — especially during elections and at rallies. There have been umpteen times when I have gone to a rally and been pushed and shoved by people.
Once during Pervez Musharraf’s rally, I felt as if half the rally was staring at me and was not even listening to Musharraf. This problem exists because unlike male reporters, people do not see women reporters often enough on the field. They see them mostly in the studios.
I remember this one time in Peshawar when some men started to surround my cameraman and I had to actually physically run all the way back to our car as they were chasing us.
However, such incidents have actually made me bolder and more determined.
Q: Who among the male and female anchors in Pakistan would you rate highly?
A: Among the men I would say Hamid Mir, and among the women I feel that Sana Bucha is really good and so is Asma Shirazi.
Q: TV talk shows have received a lot of flak for the manner in which they are conducted. Do you feel all this criticism is justified?
A: Absolutely. I think we’ve become a prisoner of the talk show. We are doing shows that are almost repetitive. There is no creativity — there is nothing new or innovative. There is a lot of talk but very little reportage unlike the rest of the world. Look how Mehreen Anwar Raja has been featured on ten different talk shows in one night — I don’t know how far we can go with that.
The FATA areas are practically no-go areas for us. The whole world is watching us because of FATA, but the news that we get [from out there] is from foreign newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Guardian. Why are our local reporters not reporting enough on this?
Also, the problem with conflict reporting is that though people say they are sick of talk shows, it’s talk shows that, at the end of the day, get the ratings. So if you want to be in mainstream television, you also have to be mainstream.
Q: Have you ever been accused of playing partisan politics as an anchor?
A: We are accused of being partisan all the time, but you know you are doing something right when all parties accuse you of being partisan.
This interview was originally published in the April issue as part of a larger cover story on women in electronic media.