Women invisibleLet's have more women on televised discussions, in newspaper interviews and on debate panels.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the last century witnessed an expansion of civil rights on a scale that seemed, for the course of human history, almost impossible. Communities of historically oppressed people now have legal protections and access to resources through decades of protests and advocacy. While this progress must be lauded and fiercely guarded, true equality or equity still aren't guaranteed.
In the past decade, Nepali women have made remarkable progress, and we’ve reached significant landmarks. The 33 percent quota ensures a significant female presence in our Parliament. Nepal boasts a female president, and we've already had a female chief justice on the Supreme Court. Numerous women lead departments, agencies and organisations across the country. However, we only need to switch on the television to see that this representation is merely superficial. Legal protections, after all, don't ensure equity. Optics are vital; when members of historically oppressed communities actively partake in discussions on public platforms, it lends validity to those legal protections. This issue is best encapsulated by how visible our female experts are on televised panel debates and interviews.
Since 2008, there's been a significant uptick in the number of news channels in operation in Nepal. While we could write an entire piece critiquing their work, we can’t deny that many of these news networks broadcast critical interviews with influential people and commentators, and host discussion panels on relevant issues. However, a vital question lingers: Are they providing a well-rounded argument? A casual recon of major networks would be enough to know that almost all interview guests and panellists, with a few exceptions, are male—including the hosts. Ideally, these televised discussions are supposed to help frame the issues and concerns facing the nation so that citizens can be better informed. Experts and intellectuals help contextualise the political, social and economic developments reported by journalists to aid in the creation of a more informed electorate. How can we trust these discussions to reflect, understand and address our problems when 50 percent of the population is effectively not participating in the conversation?
When observing the trend of news media in Nepal, women are almost exclusively invited to speak on issues that directly relate to their sex. Female experts and panellists are primarily encouraged to discuss women's issues like health, safety, citizenship rights—all essential matters but they can limit women’s opportunities. In other cases, women are invited to speak on supposedly women-centred festivals and cultural events—most notably Teej—or perhaps literature. During discussions and interviews, women are missing from almost all conversations centred on Nepal's politics, economy, foreign relations, health, disaster management, food security, climate change adaptation, a culture of corruption and other factors affecting the nation. The vexing question lingers: Where are our women experts?
Nepal has countless accomplished and insightful women, of course. Many have battled the glass ceiling and have furthered the cause of women for decades, having garnered a perspective that is informed by their experience and academic background. However, these scholars and intellectuals are seldom invited to discuss Nepal's political landscape, income disparity or environmental challenges under the threat of the climate crisis. It seems the media doesn’t view these women as experts and intellectuals—they regard them only as women.
Women aren't being silenced—not by a long shot—but when they have a platform, it is through the narrowed lens of gender. For instance, in 2015, an acclaimed author wrote about the citizenship clause and how the constitution had effectively limited the civil rights of women. The piece focused, not on the nature and extent of civil rights, but on gender and civil rights. Conversations about gender are undoubtedly crucial; they foster understanding, a way to change the status quo, and allow for the voicing of grievances which result from a staunchly patriarchal system and tradition. However, limiting female experts to gender-related matters is a grave disservice to the citizens of Nepal.
When women are only invited to the table to discuss one facet of society, it nullifies their stance when talking about other aspects of the country. Why aren't Nepali women invited to speak on matters relating to our foreign relations, especially with our closest regional allies, India and China? Why aren't women discussing the nuances of our economy concerning migration, our reliance on remittance and the labour market? Where are the women advocating for the protection of press freedom and the obligations of a representative government?
These observations force us to look elsewhere to gauge our reality. Even within our subcontinent, organic diversity on panels seems to exist. India’s news media, for instance, is far from perfect. Their newscasts seem mired in sensationalism, blatant partisanship, and a ratings-centred approach to journalism; our neighbours’ frustration is palpable. Despite these realities, Indian television journalism has achieved a sort of gender neutrality on its discussion panels. Women debate subjects ranging from the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Registry of Citizens, election results and economic growth to the contentious issue of Article 370 and its implications for regional and international diplomacy.
Their discussions, often led by female journalists, include women who are doctors, engineers, lawyers, political analysts, economists, journalists, philosophers, directors, businesswomen, artists, scientists, writers, legal scholars, former ambassadors and activists, among others. These experts—because that's what they are, experts—are invited to frame the issues facing India, locally, regionally and internationally.
When our media unwittingly ignores half the population and, consequently, half our experts, they set themselves up for failure—a failure to understand and explain the gravity of the challenges facing our country. This failure stagnates any progress which otherwise would've been more accessible. If more women had the opportunity, we wouldn't just be working with symbolic and superficial appointments. Instead, we'd be making genuine strides in attaining gender equity. The matter isn’t merely about who gets the chance to speak, when, and where. Young girls and women need to see more female experts in a myriad of fields to know that their aspirations are not pipedreams. Mobilising an entirely new generation of women to contribute will further our understanding of Nepal’s realities.
With the recent cabinet reshuffle, which left only two female ministers in the current administration, this issue is thrown into even sharper contrast. A kernel of hope persists: Maybe this isn’t an insidious, misogynist plot; maybe, a more cognisant—and diverse—team of news producers and broadcasters can fix these shortcomings. Unfortunately, this hope threatens to falter. Until we can get more women on televised discussions, in newspaper interviews and on debate panels, this fight for equity rages on.
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