Cooperation to Promote Women’s Media Content, and Content That Is Not Exclusionary Towards Women

There remains a need to improve Syrian media content aimed at women, and make it more representative of the diversity of Syrian women’s expertise and respectful of their experiences and roles in society. In order to achieve this end, the Syrian Female Journalists Network held a dialogue session entitled Cooperation Between Media Organizations and Civil Society Organizations to Promote Women’s Content at its annual conference in Istanbul, Turkey, in June 2019. The session aimed to find new means of cooperation and enhance coordination between media organizations on the one hand, and civil society organizations with a feminist and women’s orientation on the other.

The session attracted a variety of experiences from the speakers. Ru’aa Al Taweel (Director of the Gender Radar program) moderated the discussion, in which Dima Mousa (a member of the Syrian Political Feminist Movement and the Vice President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces), Wadha Othman (Director of Rifqan and Chairperson of the General Assembly of Syrian Women in Hama and its countryside), Vyan Mohammed (independent journalist and member of the Gender Radar team in Qamishli) and Suha Al Rawi (director of gender-based violence programs at Start Point) all contributed from Gaziantep through remote interventions.

The session initially focused on the introduction of Gender Radar, the aim of critical analysis of media discourse and the different contexts affecting its production. The session also discussed mechanisms for developing structures and policies within institutions to make them gender-sensitive and promote gender equality.

The session was marked by many participants sharing their experiences. For example, Vyan Mohammed spoke of her experience in the Gender Radar program, which was implemented by the SFJN in 2018 and focused on covering women’s issues in the media discourse. Vyan confirmed that, “The critical gender analysis of discourse is a useful and fun tool to adopt as a permanent lens to critique everyday practices,” adding that, “It is important to strengthen cooperation between civil society organizations and political movements, especially feminist ones, because we lack this cooperation. For example, in my city of Qamishli, there are no workshops to empower women towards political leadership, and it is important to work to provide such opportunities and pressure political movements to involve women and have their voices represented.”

Women’s Disinclination from Media Work: Causes and Solutions

Attendees representing civil society and media organizations discussed the reasons that may lead women to refrain from participating as media sources in various fields, especially in politics. Many noted that women’s limited media exposure may be due to fear of being abused or criticism of them as women. Blame was also assigned to media organizations that often do not seek gender balance in media sources. For example, media outlets often host men, especially when the subject matter relates to political and military issues, and women experts are rarely hosted. Ru’aa Al Taweel believes that the reason for women’s discomfort with appearing in the media or in the public sphere may be due to social upbringing and living in a patriarchal society, which leads many women to avoid engagement in the political arena.

As a solution to address the media’s exclusion of women, Dima Moussa suggested that media organizations ought to learn from the experience of the Syrian feminist political movement, which is trying “through its members to reach an inclusive discourse on the basis of equal citizenship.” Dima confirmed that, “The movement has more than 100 women in all political, economic, medical and humanitarian fields,” and that members of the movement “are ready to interact with media organizations.”

Among the solution suggested by the audience was to provide training for women interacting with media outlets, and to raise awareness of the importance of sharing their views in the media. The participants noted that training should be provided to politically empower both women and men, and to increase gender awareness. Suha Al Rawi stressed that it is important not only to work on women’s political empowerment but also to develop their political awareness, making them an influential and effective force in Syria. Suha summed up her opinion by saying, “There is a general trend for women’s participation only in order to fulfill quotas or achieve women’s representation in meetings or workshops because the donor is pressing in this direction, but on the ground where women are not really present but only as a front. We wish for pressure and demands that more women seize their opportunities for actual participation.”

Combating Media Stereotyping of Women

Most attendees agreed that stereotypical portrayals of women as victims pervades media discourse, especially when covering cases of gender-based violence, while avoiding stories that positively depict women as active members in society.

Suha Al Rawi reaffirmed that the media ought to support the efforts of civil society organizations such as Start Point in providing psychosocial support for women survivors of violence, and targeting men as partners in stopping gender-based violence.

Suha stressed the importance of strengthening cooperation and partnership between civil society and media organizations, such as the successful cooperation between the Syrian Female Journalists Network and Women Now in 2018 in implementing activities for the 16 Days Campaign combating violence against women.

Wadha Othman pointed to another example of successful cooperation between the Syrian Female Journalists Network and Rifqan Association in which a group of young women were trained on gender-sensitive writing. However, Wadha noed the challenges of the media work facing many female and male writers. Media organizations typically seek articles that achieve more readership or views, and also impose on writers not to tackle issues that do not conform with the outlet’s affiliation. As a practical example, she spoke about her experience when she wrote an article on a website about the Syrians’ views on Hajj, as not only a religious rite but also a meeting point for them in exile. In the article, she told the story of a lady who escaped from areas controlled by rebel factions. However, the website published the article under the headline “Pilgrimage a Means of Escaping Daesh” which distorted the substance of her article and posed a threat to her.

Wadha stressed that many women today do not prefer to work in civil society and decision-making, due to their fear of attacks they may be subjected to because they are women. She cited the example of the media’s handling of female political prisoners, whose political struggle and activism – the cause of their arrest, is often ignored and discouraged, instead evoking sympathy towards them, which can cause compounded harm and lead women to withdraw from the public sphere. Wadha concluded by saying, “Women are part of the solution. There are women inside Syria who are not aware of the existence of Resolution 1325 while they implement it in their daily lives, and our role is to relay their voices to the media and promote their culture of success.”

Recommendations to Improve Media Coverage of Women’s Issues

The session concluded with a set of recommendations for optimal collaboration between media institutions and civil society organizations in order to improve the status of women in media. The main recommendations of the session can be summarized as follows: First, to highlight the history of struggle by women in media. Second, to create awareness among media organizations of the importance of women’s participation, by sharing lists of women working in the public sphere who have no issue with media appearances in these outlets, and by demanding a media quota similar in principle to political quotas. Third, to provide training for women from various fields related to the method and form of media appearances in various media organizations. Fourth, to elevate the discourse on social media platforms, especially by media organizations. For example, many women may be encouraged towards media visibility by further focus on their roles as community leaders and actors rather than as victims. Fifthly, to promote solidarity and cooperation of civil society organizations and feminist movements, to implement empowerment workshops for women increases their political awareness.