Women Writers & Journalists in Southeast Asia 1 WOMEN WRITERS & JOURNALISTS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

The Struggle for Existence of Women Writers & Journalists in Southeast Asia within the Last Decade

Okky Ardyawarassanthy New College, University of Toronto 2009

Women Writers & Journalists in Southeast Asia 2

The Struggle for Existence of Women Writers & Journalists in Southeast Asia within the Last Decade

“Gender equality does not mean that women and men have to become the same, but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female” (ABC of Women Workers' Rights and Gender Equality, International Labour Organization, 2007). Being a writer or a journalist is a profound responsibility and carries considerable intellectual prestige. It is a gift and an incredible talent to be able to write novels, short stories, poems - and even news stories. Being a writer or a journalist is about being a good listener, able to maximize everyone's talents, to play with the imagination, to hear another person's thought. It is about being eager to find truth and justice, and moreover to represent people's worlds from a different angle. The word “writer” or “journalist” has a positive connotation. Yet when we add the word “woman” in front of the word “writer” or “journalist,” it will definitely have a different meaning and represent a paradox. The terms “women writers” and “women journalists” represent a complicated layer of problems, and these women are still considered oddities, labelled on account of their status difference as an “other” (Wells, 2003). At present, women writers and journalists in several countries are still struggling for their equality as professionals, particularly women writers and journalists in Southeast Asia. Because of the culture of Asian countries, gender issues, and the policies of publishing companies, women writers and women journalists within the last decade have had to deal with both professional and personal issues in order to pursue their career. In the first place, according to The East-West Center Research Program (2002), the reluctance to give women writers and women journalists equal opportunities is based on Asian tradition and culture. Culturally, a patriarchal tradition is strongly belief in the Asian family structure. Asian women are expected to be loyal and give greater priority to their family and home than to their career. The role of women as working wives and mothers is one of the several

Women Writers & Journalists in Southeast Asia 3 problems of Asian women writers and journalists. It has created intense conflict and personal dilemmas for them. They are not able to work long hours and lack mobility in reference to family obligation and society's attitude. For instance, Filipino women journalists are an example of how Asian women are facing this problem when they get married. “Being married means spending more time with their husband and family” (Bernal, 1989, p. 4). According to Bernal (1989), this will raise a conflict when women journalist have to work office hours. In Philipines, 9 AM to 5 PM is not normally hours for journalist to interview news sources. The news sources usually set the availability for interview at the most convenient time, which is after office hours. This therefore adversely affect efficiency and effectiveness of the married women journalists. Married women journalists lack the resources being a wife and also journalist (Bernal, 1989, p. 4). Freelance women writers are might be luckier than women journalists who work in media. They have more flexible time to manage their own schedule. Unfortunately, only a few women writers have been able to abandon themselves to writing with no thought for the world around them. Few freelance women writers are free from the distractions of family life, such as taking care of the kids, cooking, thinking about dinner, feeding pets, gardening, or driving the kids to school. The tradition and culture of Asian countries create a lot of conflict, especially for women. Married women writers or journalists are expected to do a juggling feat in relation to their family commitments and their career resposibilities. There is personal conflict when they have to choose whether being a mother or working woman. As a result, sometimes they even can not reach the balance among these two roles and end-up to choose one choice at a time, partly because it is difficult to do all at once. Another example relating to tradition and culture in Asia is the issue of education for women. Some parents in Indonesia and Malaysia still maintain the traditional belief that education is more important for their son than their daughter. After all, the parents have an idea that their daughter can marry a man who can financially support her. As a result, society in Southeast Asia particularly has not yet begun to accept the idea of a woman as a person with equal skills, abilities, and potential. More specific to this case, Melan (1989) states that Malaysian women journalists generally lack confidence. “Malaysian women journalists generally lack confidence and are sometimes too shy and sometimes frustrated in their efforts to enhance their role in media because of unequal education between males and females” (Melan, 1989, p. 5). Discussing a similar situation in Malaysia and Indonesia, Bernal (1989) also states that in

Women Writers & Journalists in Southeast Asia 4 the early 90s, parents in the Philippines were still giving priority to their son to gain an education. This means that women are in second place when it comes to gaining appropriate education. According to this case, perhaps this is one of a reason that there are more male journalists than females journalist in Philippines in early 90s (Amigo E.A, 1987) In addition, over the years, Asian women have been expected to be conservative, modest, prim, face-saving, and proper. The Asian society forbade women to go out with men to whom they were not attached. “It is socially acceptable for women in Western countries to go out with men with or without attached relationships, in Asia is not. Thus, it won’t look too good if female reporter will be seen dining with a male source, more so, if he is married” (Bernal, 1989, p. 4). On the whole, being a woman writer or journalist is less about how to pursue a career and be successful at writing or covering a news story. It is about a struggle for their professional existence based on their tradition and cultural background as Asian women. In the second place, journalism as a man's job has been a perennial issue in the media in many countries, including Southeast Asian countries. Chambers et al.’s (2004) has been summarized that one of the greatest challenges facing women journalists is to resist the stereotypes and gender problems reflected in the media. “The institution and profession of journalism has been structured by gender” (p. 231). In many Southeast Asian countries, media and journalism are still very male-dominated (extremely so in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines). Women in media are marginalized in the news, both in the content of the jobs they do and also in the opportunities they have to make in their profession. Sadly, women are even marginalized in the unions that represent them. They are still severely hampered by discrimination, lack of opportunities, and limited access to decision making by gender-based violence (UNESCO & International Federation of Journalist, 2009). In most Asian countries, the stereotypes and gender problems are not a new problem. These problems successfully affect public opinion’s belief that women are weak, fragile, less-independent, not smart enough than man. Man are more powerful than women. Presently, women journalists are usually given soft “beats” like feature, lifestyle, and entertainment compared to men journalists who are usually given the so-called hard beats like police, sports, military, politics, and business. This is simply because some editors believe the stereotype that women journalists simply do not have the stamina and guts to be good journalists (Bernal, 1989, p.3). Further, some newspapers still prefer to send male journalists to cover news at the international level, to visit other countries, and to attend courses (Melan, 1989). The stereotype and gender problem in journalism also appears when women journalists

Women Writers & Journalists in Southeast Asia 5 interview news sources - especially politicians, bankerss, or finance executives. Usually, these news sources will note that when they are talking with women journalists, these executives speak of general topics of interest such as weather, hobbies, or political trends. Yet when they are talking with male journalists, they are less guarded and generally tend to answer directly questions about their business plans, strategies, operations, revenue, etc. These kinds of news sources sometimes have the opinion that it is not “masculine” to reveal business details to women (Roy, 1989). Indonesia is another example of how women writers feel the worst impact of gender inequality in their profession. Until the fall of the former president (the late General Soeharto) in 1998, Indonesian literature had been strongly dominated by male writers. Since then, however, young female writers between the ages of 20 and 35 have been writing new trends by openly addressing issues like female desire, gender, and equality. These young female writers grasped their opportunity to openly discuss women's problems and thoughts, trying to make the public more aware of the difficulties of being a woman in Indonesian society. The male journalists and Indonesian society labelled their characteristic writing as “Sastra Wangi” or “Fragrant Literature,” which connotes low literary quality. This is simply because of the stereotype that male writers are cleverer than female writers. Consequently, women journalists have had to struggle to deal with several other problems arising from those stereotypes. Repetitive gender stereotyping, such as showing that women only care for the family or portraying them as sexual objects, affects the public's perception of reality. In the third place, last but not least, there are certain policies of publishing companies and the media in Southeast Asia which affect the ability of women writers and journalists to pursue their careers. In Malaysia, there are several publishing companies or news organizations that have a policy that women are not allowed to work night shifts (Melan, 1989). A number of editors in Malaysia prefer to hire male journalists for this reason. Also in light of this particular policy, publishing companies and media organizations are choosing to promoting male journalists rather than women journalists because of the responsibility a journalist has to stay behind the desk until the news is published. In Indonesia, some publishing companies and newspaper firms have a certain policy for married women journalists or married women writers. When one of their kids gets sick and the woman has to be absent from work, the company charges the woman and deducts her absence from the furlough. Attempting to circumvent this policy, women often pay for a sick note from the doctor. This way leaves women simply incurring a salary deduction due to their absence. Further, there are newspaper firms that pay women journalists less than male journalists. On

Women Writers & Journalists in Southeast Asia 6 average, women journalists are only paid 74% of a male journalist's salary. Statistically, this ratio varies depending on the region or province of Indonesia. In remote areas this ratio is even worse: women journalists receive 62% of a male journalists's salary (Priyono, May 2007). In conclusion, women writers and journalists are capable and educated with journalistic skill equal to that of male journalists or writers. Yet, during the last decade, they are still struggling for equality of opportunity and against public opinion about gender stereotypes in Southeast Asia. Women journalists and writers have a difficult task in taking a chance to pursue their career without ignoring their status and dignity as Asian women.

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References Amigo, E. A. (1987). A comparative study on Filipino male and female journalists. (Thesis at Institute of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines). Bernal, E.S. (1989). Philippine women journalists in the late 80s and towards the early 90s. Catalog No. 070.4:3-055.2 AMIC. Singapore: Asian Media Information & Communication Centre. Chambers, D., Steiner, L., Fleming, C. (2004). Women and journalism. New York: Routledge. East-West Center Research Program, Population and Health Studies. (2002). Tradition and change in marriage and family life. Retrieved August 9, 2009, from http://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications. Melan, R. (1989). Challenges facing Malaysian women journalists and the difficulties and frustration encountered. (Catalog No. 070.4:3-055.2 AMIC). Singapore: Asian Media Information & Communication Centre. Priyono, E. (May, 2007). Diskriminasi Upah Buruh Perempuan di Indonesia (Discrimination of women's salary in indonesia). Retrieved August 12, 2009 from http://www.mail-archive.com/cikeas@yahoogroups.com/msg01545.html. Roy, Z.E. (1989). How Filipina journalists fare in the Philippines. Catalog No. 070.4:3-055.2 AMIC. Singapore: Asian Media Information & Communication Centre. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) & International Federation of Journalists. (2009). Getting the balance right. Gender Equality in Journalism [Booklet]. Brussels, Belgium: Author. Wells, K. (2003, October). Thoughts on women writers. (speech, originally delivered at the Association of Professional Women Writers in Western New York State, Buffalo, NY, 2003). Buffalo, NY: Author.

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