Developing journalistic skills in gender awareness, another step in line [Archives:2003/648/Reportage]

July 7 2003
Mr. Yasser lecturing the journalists
Mr. Yasser lecturing the journalists
Nadia Al-Saqqaf
It is said that the most important change agents in any society are media people. And this is quite true because their authority stands above anyone – or so should be the case – and their job is to monitor, investigate, comment and bring to attention. Probably they don't have any execution power as such, but they surely have a pressuring power that could embarrass or even expose anyone or any issue they put in mind.
However, the case could be completely reversed if the very change agents had the wrong ideas or conceptions in mind. This way their sense of wrong and right may not be the required ones and hence instead of leading the society forward, because of the disorientation they might lead it unfortunately, backward. This very point was understood by many NGOs and hence they continuously make it a point to connect with the journalists so as to try as much a possible through workshops, seminars and training courses, give them something to build on and make them more aware. And since gender is one of the critical issues our country is going through, and a conflicting issue that is, it has become more than urgent to try and educate journalists with the basic information and give them something to present forward to the people.
The Women's Forum for Researchers and Training funded by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and in cooperation with the Arab Office for Law in Egypt represented by Lawyer Yasser Abd El-Gawad organized a journalists awareness workshop. The workshop lasted for five days between the 29th of June to the 3rd of July and it included more than 30 candidates from various newspapers on gender and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This is not a report regarding the workshop activities as much as it is fulfilling of the actual purpose of the workshop even if partially. Because I have been there, I saw, heard and this is what I understood:

Concept of Gender
The term gender refers to culturally based expectations of the roles and behaviors of males and females. The term distinguishes the socially constructed from the biologically determined aspects of being male and female. Unlike the biology of sex, gender roles and behaviors can change historically but because the religious or cultural traditions define and justify the expected behaviors change in the gender system is rather difficult and takes a long time.
Hence, the basics that gender study depends on could be summarized as following:
– study and analysis of the different relations between males and females
– analysis of the reasons causing the unbalance in relations
– treating those reasons in a strategic and efficient way in order to establish equity between the two sexes in the light of natural needs

Gender Roles
The traditional way of seeing things in regards to men and women's duties and responsibilities is that man is responsible for the outside domain and women for the inside domain. This is an inherited concept that has become so deep- rooted in the culture of most societies. Yes there are basic jobs that are imposed by the sex of the person such as pregnancy and conception because those are naturally divided abilities. But it so happens that through cultural concepts a more narrow classification is imposed by the society and culture that determines what a man can do and what a women can do, although the ability to do is a very personal thing that depends on the person in the first place and on the available opportunities second. For example if a woman is to work as a driver there is no biological or natural obstacle that stops her from doing so, yet there maybe in some societies cultural difficulties because it is predefined as a gender role that a women does not drive. And so goes for a man who wants to work as a baby sitter or a cook for example.
Broadly there are four types of roles in life; Production role, reproductive role, community management role and political role. The production role is determined by the production that takes place in the society through paid work, such as manufacturing and industrial work; even agricultural tasks are included in this field. The reproductive role relates to having children starting from the conception and pregnancy and going through the family raising and maintaining of family stability and continuity. The social or community role regards the social responsibilities towards the larger community through voluntarily work and the like. The political role is the political participation through the parliament, and other policy making authorities.
From the above definition it so happens that the social norms have decided that women's participation is limited to the reproductive role and very less in the reproductive role through limited fields such as education and medicine. Although the natural way of defining this and which is also very much supported by the Holy Quran and the Islamic teachings as well as by the Yemeni Constitution and the relevant International agreements is that both men and women should share responsibilities in all roles.
In the workshop, a very nice exercise was made; participants took four cases of different family types in Yemen, an urban nucleus family, an urban extended family, a rural nucleus family and an extended rural family. Then the number of working hours for the main man and woman in each family were determined keeping in mind that domestic work is counted. It was found out that in all cases invariably the number of hours women work is much more than that of men, sometimes reaching double. And yet, in spite of this it so happens that very less credit is given to them. Something that made most participants in the workshop reconsider their thoughts and try to think how roles in the society are so unfair for women.

Social Change and Gender Needs
Since culture is something that is very difficult to change, it is obvious that trying to change the gender concepts in the Yemeni culture is a very tedious and difficult task. So the gender needs were divided into two parts; practical gender needs and strategic gender needs. The first type concerns the immediate actions taken in order to solve an urgent problem in a way that does not clash with the concepts or needs of the society. And this type of needs is generally related with the natural needs such as need for food, education transport and so on. The second type of needs is what is concerned with the mental education of the people because it aims at improving the status of people on the long term. This obviously requires time and persistence because it generally goes against inherited believes and deep rooted cultural beliefs.
It was understood that any kind of change requires both types of needs together, for example if we are to take girls education in the suburbs as a problem, we find out that one of the main issues is that the families do not want to send their girls to co-ed schools firstly because they don't believe in the importance of educating girls and secondly because of the cultural issue of separating boys from girls. So the practical need could be to build girls schools near in accessible areas and the strategic need is to work on the concept that girls should not be educated and that the girls' participation in life through education and working with men is not a shameful thing as long as practical respectable environments are provided.
Women in the Law
Of the most important and interesting sessions in the workshop was studying women's status in the Yemeni law and studying the CEDAW convention. I was appalled to say the least with some of the laws in our legislation that are not in terms of the Islamic ruling let away with the international conventions that our country had ratified and consequently is responsible in implementing. Discrimination against women was clearly screaming in our faces while we studied some examples such as the penalty law, the personal status and nationality laws.

What next?
Next is to work on the information we received and try as much as possible to make a change in the society, all in their place and with his or her abilities. But in any case a change must be done in order to make life better for both Yemeni man and Yemeni women. If we to ignore half of the society and turn a deaf ear to the needs of our women under the excuses of culture and traditions not only will we not improve but we would even retard. Gender equality is an issue of development that is basic in our religion and not an exported concept from the west as many perceive. Evidence is seen that when enhancing women's status strategically the well-being of men, women and children is ensured. Let us work together for our own sake, and let us work wisely.