Ms Allia Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and an Erasmus Mundus scholar currently pursuing a Master's at Aarhus University, Denmark. With considerable experience at various Pakistani newsrooms — from The Express Tribune to The News — she has written several articles for national and international publications.
Pakistan is predominantly a patriarchal society and patriarchal practices have been endorsed and internalized in norms through socialization (Habiba et al., 2016) that have given room to male dominance. In the last few years, however, in opposition to this institutionalized patriarchy, discourse over feminism and women’s rights movements has gained momentum (Shaheed, 2019).
The relationship between Islam, feminism, and women in the context of Pakistan has become of immense interest to media practitioners and scholars. Feminist scholars have written on feminism’s applicability and challenges in a society like Pakistan. The country’s conservative social norms have been supposedly challenged and the women’s rights movement is perceived as “anti-Islam” and “foreign-funded” from different elements in society.
The yearly women’s march — better known as the Aurat March — is the most significant event in this regard which is met with resistance from religious quarters and conservative citizens. The march was first organized in 2018 and since then has become the largest mobilization of women and marginalized communities, including trans and LGBTQ people.
It is during this annual event that the feminism debate surfaces in the country; and hence for women’s rights campaigners it is indeed a day of immense importance, when they essentially put forward their demands —that include, women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, end to domestic violence, and equal pay in the workplaces, maternity leave, and end to sexual harassment (Baig et al., 2020). Several citizens, however, criticise the way these demands are conveyed and don’t see them as addressing the issues of women or marginalised at all.
These demands and the march’s conduct face opposition and differing views can be seen in the media where opposing narratives come to light. Some journalists and reporters from media publications even maligned the Aurat March campaign and just this year, a few of them took part in a disinformation campaign against the march (Bukhari, 2021).
Based on these developments, this paper explores this year’s coverage of the Aurat March in Pakistan’s print and digital media, including both Urdu and English. The march polarises opinions in society and in the media and, therefore, warrants more research, particularly on the media’s role—that is considered the fourth pillar of the state—in framing and covering it. This study aims to find how the Aurat March is framed in the Pakistani print and digital media.
Theoretical Framework and Literature Review
The theoretical framework for this study, in light of which the media’s coverage of the Aurat March is interpreted and analyzed, is agenda-setting. First introduced in 1972 and applied to North Carolina voters during the 1968 US presidential election, it was found that the most important issues perceived by the people were “what the mass media reported as the most critical.”
The study found out that the media had an influence on public opinion by the way it gave attention to certain issues, making the public believe they were more salient and important. This study looks at whether the media’s coverage of the Aurat March and the aspects it focuses on about the march are motivated by the agenda-setting. Following questions acquire the center stage:
- R1: How is the annual Aurat March framed in the Pakistani print and digital media?
- R2: Does the coverage differ in English and Urdu news publications in Pakistan?
- R3: What does this coverage tell about the role of the media in the perception of feminism?
- R4: Is the coverage influenced by the newspapers/news outlets’ agenda-setting?
Agenda-setting in the Media
Coleman et al. (2009) define agenda setting as a process in which mass media presents certain issues extensively and frequently, as a result of which the public perceives those issues as more important compared to others.
Underlying the theory’s importance in the news media, they say that agenda-setting plays an important part in focusing people’s attention on the problems that government and public institutions can work to resolve, thereby helping societies to accomplish public good with agreement on what is important.
McCombs (2011) contends there is no pejorative implication that a news organization “has an agenda” that it relentlessly pursues as a premeditated goal, rather the media agenda presented to the public results from “countless day-to-day decisions by many different journalists and their supervisors about the news of the moment.”
Teter (2018) identifies major challenges for the agenda-setting at a time of new media development, referring to social media and the use of online communication channels for news delivery. Teter (2018) adds that “it may be expected that the role of the media in the setting of public agenda will either diminish due to an increased number of channels, varied content and blurred distinction between the recipients and the senders, or that the role of the media will increase if an increased number of channels broadcasts news on the same topics.”
Teter’s analysis is theoretically most relevant for this study as it focuses on the emerging challenges concerning new forms of communication in the media. Several factors prompt news outlets to determine their choice of stories and their angles on digital media, such as the ones that are of more interest to the audience and can gain more traffic, hence influencing the agenda-setting.
In Pakistan, slogans and placards of the Aurat March are particularly more popular among the readers and social media users and are seen to be more discussed in news stories on digital news websites. Calling this phenomenon ‘‘reverse agenda setting,’’ Teter claims that this approach is fostered by the new media environment where published journalistic content’s reach is also dependent on the user feedback and interest and hence it’s the users influencing media’s framing and selection of stories.
He further adds that the media organizations — in this study’s case, these are newspapers and digital news websites — “monitor internet portals, social networks, search engines and other internet areas of user activity in search of new ideas for news and other publications.” In this way, the hierarchy of issues popular among the public affects the subject of interest and hierarchy of issues in the media agenda (Teter, 2018).
The prior research on the traditional role of agenda setting predominantly highlighted ‘‘what the public focus was’’ due to the media influence and agenda-setting. From 1995 and onwards, further advancement in public opinion research dealt with “how’’ people perceived the topics and issues conveyed in the news.
This led to a “second-level” agenda-setting theory which was tested by McCombs and others on Spain’s regional and municipal elections, focusing on the tones and elements incorporated in the coverage of events by the news media. Also known as the attribute agenda-setting, this theory looks at “how’’ the media discuss issues or other objects of attention, such as public figures, with the focus being on the attributes or characteristics that describe issues, people, or other topics in the news (Coleman et al., 2009).
McCombs and Evatt (1995) contend that this form of agenda-setting, in turn, sees how the attributes affect public opinion. Just as the objects vary in salience, so do the attributes of each object. Both the selection of objects for attention and the selection of attributes for thinking about these objects and the way they are defined are powerful agenda-setting roles (McCombs, 1997).
Media’s Agenda-setting Role in Socio-cultural Ideologies
The media has a crucial role to play in shaping the public’s thoughts through the way it communicates information (Baig et al., 2020). In this regard, the media’s portrayal of social and cultural ideologies is of significance. Hassan (2018) analyses the ideological constructions in Pakistani news headlines and their impact on the viewers, providing scholarship on varying ideologies that exist.
A qualitative analysis of 608 headlines of the 9 p.m. slot of the mainstream broadcast news channels was carried out. This study found out that “Pakistani news channels create a different world for their viewers by propagating different ideologies, keeping their vested interests intact.”
Taking inspiration from Hassan’s work that explored broadcast media, this particular study will focus on the print and digital media’s coverage of Aurat March and thereby understand its outlook towards feminism as an ideology behind the yearly Aurat March.
Aurat March in Previous Studies
Few studies have explored the media’s role in covering the Aurat March over the last few years or the march’s slogans and “controversial” placards. Lakhani (2020) analyzed and compared the coverage on online news platforms with the mainstream broadcast media and found out that the latter “nullified all the efforts of the organizers and the participants of the march into turning it into a ‘women gone crazy by the west’ ideal.”
Lakhani concluded that the mainstream broadcast media and several talk shows in Pakistan used agenda-setting to promote hatred towards the West by linking the feminism movement to a “demonic western influence”. Asfand (2020) analyzed the main slogan of Aurat March “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” which translates to “My Body My Choice” and why it faces outrage.
He contends that the slogan is interpreted differently in Pakistani society and has been formulated based on the western concept of feminism. Khushbakht et al., (2020) examine the relationship between Aurat March activism and Western feminism from the perspectives of social, cultural, and religious affiliations of the Pakistani society, finding that the march wasn’t readily accepted among the elderly population but had been influencing the younger generation.
Method and Data Collection
This section of the paper identifies the objectives and methods used to conduct this research. The aim behind the study is to see how the annual Aurat March is framed in Pakistani print and digital news publications. At least 40 news articles from all major news publications for the year 2021, months February and March, were analyzed through a qualitative content analysis, to see how they frame and cover the Aurat March.
Overall, 20 articles in English — from Pakistani English newspapers and digital news websites — and 20 articles in Urdu were analyzed for the study and coded and analyzed in light of five major themes: women’s rights, feminism, women’s healthcare, violence and harassment against women, and patriarchy.
Women’s healthcare was found to be an important theme in most of the English articles as it was one of the main focuses of this year’s march because of the Covid-19 pandemic. An interpretive approach was used to judge the overall narrative of the article, which was analyzed based on the choice of words used, the angle of the piece, and the points — negative or positive — highlighted about the march in those articles.
The articles assessed also include opinion pieces that were published on these English and Urdu news publications. Aurat March was the keyword used on Google to search these articles from the News section of the search. Articles were selected on the basis of purposive sampling.
Aim of the Study
The women’s rights campaign in Pakistan has reached a crucial stage where debates over feminism and women empowerment are taking place more than ever. The event polarises opinions and shows the two strikingly different viewpoints prevailing in society. In this regard, the media’s role is crucial concerning how it portrays the event and if it depicts the true face and facts about the march or resorts to propaganda and imposes thoughts on the public by manipulating their minds.
- H1: Overall, Aurat March coverage is positive in Pakistani print/digital media
- H2: Aurat March is more positively framed in English news compared to Urdu
- H3: The coverage is not influenced by the agenda of the organization/news outlet
- H4: Aurat March coverage tells that Pakistani media is skeptical of feminism in the country
According to Saunders et al., (2012), a research design is a strategy comprising data collection techniques to gather desired responses. Moreover, researchers regard qualitative content analysis as a “flexible way” of analyzing data in a textual format, involving multiple approaches, from interpretational to strict textual analysis.
The systematic reduction of content, analyzed with special attention to the context in which it was created, to identify themes and extract meaningful interpretations of the data (Roller and Lavrakas, 2015). Similarly, a prerequisite for successful content analysis is that data can be reduced to concepts that describe the research phenomenon (Cavanagh, 1997).
According to Bengtsson (2016), a researcher must choose whether the analysis should be of a broad surface structure (a manifest analysis) or of a deep structure (a latent analysis), identifying four main stages in the process, decontextualization, recontextualization, categorization, and compilation.
Following Bengtsson’s criteria, this research design adopts both the manifest analysis — “where the researcher describes what is actually stated, stays very close to the text, uses the words themselves, and describes the visible and obvious in the text” (Bengtsson, 2016) — and latent analysis approach — “in which the researcher seeks to find the underlying meaning of the text” — depending on the nature of the articles and how coherent the subject has been described in them. The findings are interpreted based on words and themes used and the overall narrative of the news articles.
Primary and Secondary Data
According to Ajayi (2017), primary data is the original, distinctive data collected by the researcher through his original sources, that is, interviews, case studies, questionnaires, and surveys. Determining the target audience and time period are prerequisites of primary data. In this study, primary data is the content in the analyzed news articles.
The data is coded on Excel software and categorized based on five aforementioned themes: women’s rights, feminism, women’s healthcare, violence and harassment against women, and patriarchy. Secondary data, on the other hand, is the data collected from other indirect sources and previous works.
Secondary data in this study was obtained from a literature review of relevant researches, articles, and previous studies. An in-depth study of the secondary data was important for overall understanding and getting an insight into the aspects—such as the role of agenda-setting on broadcast media —already covered.
Data Collection and Classification
Google has been the major source in searching articles on this year’s Aurat March. Keywords like Aurat March 2021, feminism march, and women’s march in Pakistan were used to come to the news pieces that have been analyzed in the study. Major news publications, both English and Urdu, have been incorporated.
All 40 articles were assessed based on the five aforementioned themes — women’s rights, feminism, women’s healthcare, violence and harassment against women, and patriarchy -— and were assigned a value of 1 when a certain theme was present and a value of 0 when a theme was missing from the article.
This was done to try to assess the focus point of the coverage by those news publications’ articles. Keywords within the articles in the Control F bar — that consisted of the following words: violence, rights, feminism, healthcare, patriarchy, harassment — were also used to search for relevant themes both in English and Urdu besides reading the entire work to see if those themes were explicitly used or were discussed and referred to subtly. Urdu keywords of similar meanings were also used to search for these elements in those articles and assess the overall narrative.
Findings and Analysis
This section deals with a thorough analysis and interpretation of the collected data and findings. The results have been derived through a qualitative methodology based on content analysis. The findings seek to understand and analyze the coverage of this year’s Aurat March in major Pakistani print and digital publications in the backdrop of five themes that are central to the demands placed by the march organizers and women’s rights activists in Pakistan.
These themes are also prominent issues faced by Pakistani women and have been incorporated to determine if the media gives them importance. The findings also seek to compare and see the difference in coverage of the event between English and Urdu news publications in Pakistan. An equal number of articles in both languages were analyzed.
Women’s Rights in Media’s Aurat March Coverage
The Aurat March is organized with the intention of speaking up and securing women’s rights as a whole in a conservative setup that is Pakistan, according to its organizers and feminist activists in the country. Keeping the campaign’s portfolio in mind, one of the themes that included assessing the published articles was ‘‘women’s rights’’.
The theme of women’s rights was added to see if it’s the focus of the articles with the women’s march event. It remained the most dominant theme among others included and discussed in the news articles with the coverage of the Aurat March. These included the right to education, public space, justice among others.
A total of 28 articles out of 40 mentioned or discussed women’s rights in the context of Aurat March. At least 14 Urdu articles and 14 English articles included the subject, elaborating on it either in detail or briefly but definitely mentioning it.
Feminism in Media’s Aurat March Coverage
Despite women’s rights being the focus of the articles’ coverage and the Aurat March, less or no mention of feminism as an ideology was seen in the context of the march. A total of only 5 articles mentioned feminism, which included just 1 Urdu and 4 English news articles. “Feminist resistance” was the most explicit mention of feminism in Pakistani news for 2021 Aurat March.
Healthcare in Media’s Aurat March Coverage
The topic of healthcare facilities for women and the marginalized communities was one of the themes of the study, mainly because it was the main focus of this year’s march owing to the pandemic and in accordance it was mentioned and emphasized in the coverage of the event. A total of 11 articles discussed the provision of healthcare to Pakistani women and health facilities to them in the context of the march. These included 8 English articles and 3 Urdu ones.
Violence and Harassment Against Women
Violence and harassment against women are widespread in Pakistani society (Bilal and Yousaf, 2019) and have been coming under discussion of feminist activists fairly often, including in the Aurat March manifesto. For the past four years since its first conduct, end to violence and harassment of women has been one of the prime demands of the Aurat March.
In the media’s coverage of this year’s women’s day demonstrations, the theme has been fairly mentioned and discussed too. Out of the 40 articles analyzed, 24 articles talked about violence and sexual harassment of women either individually or together; these included 9 Urdu articles and 15 English news articles.
Patriarchy in Media’s Aurat March Coverage
According to Hooks (2000), patriarchy is the “single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation” and in all patriarchal and traditional societies, gender inequality is deeply rooted and a result of it (Yahia, 2005). In the context of Pakistan and women’s rights campaigns, most issues discussed have been blamed on the deeply ingrained patriarchal values.
The Aurat March has been at the forefront in taking a stand against it, through its demands and posters presented in its demonstrations. The media’s coverage of this year’s Aurat March presented some of the demands put forward, with patriarchy being one of them, albeit not as extensively. Out of the 40 analyzed articles, only 17 discussed or mentioned the issue to be one of the main themes behind this year’s march; these included 13 English and only 4 Urdu articles.
R1: How Is the Annual Aurat March Framed in the Pakistani Print and Digital Media?
Based on the results, it turns out that several aspects of Aurat March are emphasized by articles in different ways. Some publications and predominantly English newspapers, like Dawn News and The News, have framed the march rather positively and objectively, while most of the Urdu newspapers have covered it in a critical and negative way.
This is judged and interpreted through the overall tone used for the march, and how its objectives, slogans, and manifestos are seen and what aspects about it — such as its goals or challenges or controversies — are emphasized. For instance, a Dawn article states: “Every year come March, people begin wondering why women choose to take to the streets on March 8. And every year, there are readily available manifestos up for anyone who wants to read them.”
This article begins with the theme of why women march; linking the Aurat March directly with the women’s cause and rights campaign, in a way accepting its role as a voice and a platform for the women in the country and then advocating its readers to go through the march’s manifestos.
It then states, “This year’s theme will look at how existing harmful structures are perpetuated by the State and institutions as well as our social fabric itself,” and can be seen as endorsing and promoting its demands rather than criticizing it. Similarly, an article from The News incorporates a young activist’s interview and encourages readers to “go through demands instead of getting upset over posters”.
The other extreme side to coverage can be witnessed in the Urdu newspaper Ummat, that in its opposition went to the extent of calling the Aurat March female activists a slang, that translates to “whores” in English and is equally offensive and sexist in Urdu. Citing a study on harassment against women in 14 other countries, the paper in its article’s excerpt said “Aurat March’s ‘whores’ are oblivious to these facts from non-Muslim states.”
Furthermore, a total of 12 Urdu articles had negative connotations and critical coverage of the march that also lacked focus on the five aforementioned themes. It is observed that their emphasis was mostly on social values, Islam, and “immoral” slogans and placards from the march.
For instance, an article from the Urdu newspaper NawaiWaqt accepts that women in Pakistan have many problems ranging from “injustice, to lack of education for girls and many atrocities” but states that women involved in the Aurat March are “sabotaging Islamic, cultural and democratic values” and are not necessarily doing any good work for women in the country.
Another Urdu article from Dunya newspaper is seen to be critical of the march and covered it with a critical lens. It stated that the march provoked offensive sentiments in society, and had become a flag bearer of Western values in an Islamic society.
R2: Does the Coverage Differ in English and Urdu News Publications in Pakistan?
Based on the 40 news samples, it is understood that the coverage differs in English and Urdu news publications. March’s agendas and manifestos were more prominently discussed in English news articles compared to Urdu ones. The latter also discussed the march more in the context of society’s currently established religious values.
At least 8 Urdu articles discussed the march in the context of the religious social set-up in the country compared to only 1 English article that also discussed only blasphemy and didn’t make religious or social norms its focus. 18 English articles had a positive or neutral coverage towards the march and only 2 had negative connotations about it.
Meanwhile, 12 Urdu articles were negative and critical (or had negative connotations about the march) and 8 were neutral or positive about it. In light of these findings, where 26 articles were neutral or positive towards the march, hypothesis no. 1 — overall, Aurat March coverage is positive in Pakistani print/digital media — is accepted.
More English articles, approximately 18, were positive or neutral in their coverage of the march compared to only 8 Urdu articles. Hence hypothesis no. 2 — Aurat March is more positively framed in English news compared to Urdu — is accepted.
R3: What Does This Coverage Tell about the Role of the Media in the Perception of Feminism?
Feminism in Pakistan is mainly projected and discussed by rights activists and parties like Women Democratic Front, Women’s Action Forum, and Aurat Foundation. These parties constitute a major part of the Aurat March and have been at the forefront in mobilizing people for it. Despite their emphasis, feminism as an ideology, among the analyzed articles, remains the least discussed subject.
Women’s rights are mentioned and talked about, but whether feminism as an ideology plays a role in addressing issues or is applicable in the context of Pakistan, in the backdrop of Aurat March, remains largely missing from the discourse. A total of only 5 articles out of 40 mentioned or talked about feminism and these included only 1 Urdu and 4 English articles.
Based on the findings, hypothesis no. 4 — Aurat March coverage tells that Pakistani media is skeptical of feminism in the country — remains inconclusive as the subject hasn’t been given enough attention. The hypothesis could, however, also be accepted if the media’s lack of attention towards the topic is because of its skepticism towards feminism.
R4: Is the Coverage Influenced by Agenda-setting, Views of the Organisation?
From the analyzed articles, it is observed that English news media is fairly progressive compared to those of Urdu in Pakistan with regards to women’s rights. The political leanings of news publications in this scenario also have a role to play. Dawn News, which is centered towards the left, was seen to be positive in the coverage of Aurat March on both English and Urdu platforms, and so was Geo News and The News.
Meanwhile, other conservative Urdu papers and news outlets like Ummat, Daily Pakistan, and NawaiWaqt had framed the women’s march coverage negatively, with Ummat going to the extent of maligning it, showing that the political leanings have a role and influence in the content published.
In this context, conservative news outlets either focused on the bold and controversial slogans and placards of the march or its incompatibility and criticism with society’s values. They ignored the manifesto and demands placed forward by the march. In light of this, hypothesis no. 3 — the coverage is not influenced by the agenda/views of the organization — is rejected.
The overall study analyzed the coverage of the 2021 Aurat March in the Pakistani print and digital media on both Urdu and English mediums. It turns out that the event has been given significant coverage and importance; the main event has been covered and also the follow-up news and developments on it.
The aspects covered about the march, however, differ from publication to publication depending on the outlet’s political leanings and agenda-setting. Overall, English news media in Pakistan (newspapers and digital) were more positive towards Aurat March and emphasized its manifesto comparatively more than the Urdu counterparts.
The five themes that were made the focus of the study’s methodology — women’s rights, feminism, healthcare, violence and harassment against women, and patriarchy — were also more prominent in the English news media compared to Urdu. The Urdu news media, including newspapers and digital news websites, on the other hand, discussed the march from the perspective of society’s socio-cultural ideologies and religion more, being slightly critical of the march’s posters and slogans.
The aforementioned five themes were also less discussed in the Urdu articles which were mainly included in this study to see whether the major issues concerning Pakistani women are given importance and salience. Likewise, some English news media outlets restored to clickbait journalism, to gain traffic and attract more readership over Aurat March stories by discussing controversies around it more than the actual problems of women or the march’s role in advocating for their solutions.
Different ‘‘agendas’’ were evident in the coverage. For example, some left-wing English media companies were vouching in favour of the march and its organizers compared to the right-wing Urdu media that even went to the extent of lambasting it. Based on the outlet’s views, similar opinion pieces with like-minded inclinations towards the march were published.
The study shows the polarised view existing in the Pakistani media over women’s rights, which in a way is also a reflection of the Pakistani society’s contrasting opinion of the feminist women’s rights campaign, of which the Aurat March constitutes a significant part.
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