Choman Hardi, AUIS professor, poet, and researcher in gender and violence studies, was invited to facilitate a series of workshops on gender and the media at Nalia News Television (NRT) headquarters. As part of NRT’s career development, over 200 staff members and journalists were encouraged to take crash-courses to develop their professional skills. Dr Hardi’s workshop addressed the social construction of gender and media’s role in enhancing gender inequality.The workshop began with analyzing gender differences in different societies. Masculinity is usually associated with strength, aggression, and dominance, while femininity is associated with passivity, nurturance, and subordination. These characteristics are typically based not on inherent or biological differences, but on norms and standards that are created by society. Hardi added, “Societies impose these norms and expect men and women to behave accordingly. Many mechanisms are utilized to create and enforce these differences between men and women including socialization, culture and tradition, education, religion and the media.”
To show that gender roles and characteristics are socially learned, not natural, Hardi showed images of the Albanian sworn virgins "Burneshas", an unusual cultural tradition, young Albanian women, with limited options in life took oath to remain virgins and to dress, behave, and work like men for the rest of their lives. They were thus entitled to men’s privileges in society. Motivations behind this phenomenon go back to gender discrimination, where women have little freedom, while men are granted absolute freedom. For these women, becoming a sworn virgin was the only way to obtain freedom, and to avoid unwanted arranged marriages. This phenomenon shows a great deal of gender inequality and discrimination. It also questions the naturalness of manhood and womanhood, showing that biologically born females can behave, work and live like men. Dr. Hardi explained that although stereotypical gender roles are mainly harmful to women, depriving them of power and freedom, they also harm men in different ways. Drawing on her experiences as a researcher in Kurdistan, she recalled a particular interview with a male survivor of Anfal, who had lost nineteen members of his family; when asked to talk about them, he wouldn’t respond in fear of expressing his emotion. Crying and “losing control” are stigmatized behavior for men. This stigma prevents men from expressing their sense of loss at critical moments in their lives. At the same time, women are expected to cry and wail in funerals, because expressing emotions and grieving are considered feminine traits.
Media’s contribution to the construction and maintenance of gender inequality was then addressed. Dr. Hardi explained that the media, through the use of sexist language and images and through unequal and stereotypical representations of men and women, plays an essential role in marginalizing and oppressing women. Drawing on feminist literature, Hardi stressed that the use of male-centered language in the media is an indicator of a system in which men are more privileged than women. Furthermore, language plays an essential role in the way human beings behave and think, therefore anchoring the word “man” into our daily language and associating this word with positive, active and superior characteristics, can reinforce a reality where men dominate women. Participants were then asked to draw together a list of sexist words, expressions, proverbs and poems in Kurdish (Sorani and Bahdini) and Arabic. They were encouraged to paraphrase these words and expressions to make them gender inclusive.
Drawing on examples from the Kurdish media, Hardi showed that web-based news exploit women’s image to attract traffic, either by using inappropriate images of women, or by explicit sexual contents. “The exploitation of women in the media is becoming so mainstream that many news agencies and marketing agencies are no longer taking any discretion in what they are displaying,” Hardi said, “It has become normal to view women as sexual objects and nothing else.” Dr. Hardi also addressed media’s role in constructing what Naomi Wolf has named “the beauty myth.” According to this myth beauty is an objective quality which every woman should embody. The widespread portrayal of a specific standard of beauty, embodied in models, has grave consequences for women. It makes them feel insecure and turns them into keen consumers of beauty products and cosmetic surgery. This is when the beauty standards which are presented to the public are not even real. Hardi showed a short video of a model who explains that the images we see of her are not really her, they are products designed by fashion-designers, makeup artists, hairdressers and photographers. Women are touched up in these photo shoots. They are made to look thinner, taller, pore-less, sexy, and “perfect”. These images set a high standard for modern women, making them self-conscious and self-obsessed.
Hardi, concluded the workshop by appealing to the journalists and presenters who attended the course to be more cautious when writing, publishing or presenting a news piece. Hardi argued that, in order to overcome gender bias it is important for media agencies to use inclusive and non-sexist language, avoid stereotypical representation of men and women, prevent the exploitation of women as sex objects, include women reporters and journalists, and to include women’s marginalized experiences. In an attempt to encourage gender justice in the Kurdish media Dr. Hardi is planning to deliver a similar workshop for other media agencies in the region. We hope that raising awareness about these important issues will promote more professional and less patriarchal media practices in Kurdistan.