By Layla Ahmad
In Iraqi Kurdish media institutions, there is almost a complete lack of gender balance. Most organisations are run by men and the percentage of women working in local media ranges from just 1 percent up to around 25 percent, according to the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, which is based in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous northern region.
And the numbers keep falling. “In the past female participation was better,” confirms Karwan Anwar, who heads the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate in the city of Sulaymaniyah.
Questioned about this, managers at 14 different local media organizations came up with a number of reasons for the lack of female staff or senior female management.
Of the 21 people working at Payam TV, based in the city of Sulaymaniyah and funded by Islamic political parties in the region, station director Farouk Aziz explained that only one was a woman, a news anchor.
“The channel is very specific about female participation,” he explained. “Women need to be veiled to get a job here. And anyway,” he added, “women have less capacity than men, they can’t really assume the responsibility of actually running a channel. Kurdish families don’t often allow their daughters to work in the media,” he noted.
The situation is somewhat better at more liberal or secular media outlets in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kirkuk Satellite Channel is funded by one of the region’s ruling political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The party’s platform includes the promotion of women’s rights and there are 40 women working for the channel, which has a workforce of 400 in total.
“The channel doesn’t have a written policy on gender but women here work in news and production as well as being correspondents and presenters,” Shwan Daoudi, the channel’s director said. “I believe that it is the lack of a stable security situation here in Kirkuk that has led to lower participation by women,” he continued. “Female journalists have the qualities they need to be successful when there are no such circumstantial obstacles preventing their progress.”
“The security situation means that women can’t do night shifts and salaries are also often very low,” adds Hanan Mahdi, a local presenter for the Iraqi Media Network, based in Baghdad and funded by the Iraqi government.
But there are other reasons too, Mahdi admits: “The directors of the media institutions – mostly men – are also obstacles to the advancement of women,” she suggests. “Key decisions are taken by male managers and this means women are often marginalized.”
Anwar, of the Journalists Syndicate, agrees. “The men are the ones who established all these institutions and run them alone,” he notes. “There is also this mentality about male dominance. Those are the real reasons [why it’s so hard for women].” Anwar concedes that groups like his need to put more effort into reforms in this area.
Around a quarter of the staff at the Erbil-based newspaper, Khabat, are women, says Dilshad Mustafa, editor-in-chief there; Khabat is affiliated with Iraqi Kurdistan’s other ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Five women work in the Khabat newsroom and the others work as correspondents, Mustafa reports.
“The reason there are so few women in the media is that it’s just not their preferred role,” he argues. “They often cannot continue working in the media after they marry and for this reason they prefer not to take on bigger responsibilities,” he suggests, referring to the societal pressure on local women to stay at home once they have a husband.
Of the 14 media institutions spoken with, only one had a written policy on gender balance and equal opportunities.
Website Kirkuk Now has a policy that states that its staff support gender equality and that the outlet aims at always ensuring that a quarter of its staff are female. At Kirkuk Now, women occupy more senior roles, including social media director, finance director, projects coordinator and director of accounting.
Rahman Gharib, the coordinator of the Sulaymaniyah-based Metro Centre for Defending the Rights of Journalists, believes that more of these kinds of policies are needed in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Here at the Metro Centre, we do have such a policy and we have repeatedly tried to help other media outlets draft their own version – but they have never done it,” Gharib says. “I would say that if local media cooperate with international organisations, one way of getting more gender policies written would be for the international organisation to require them of the local partner.”
Another option, particularly for locally-funded outlets that are only affiliated with political parties or other organisations, might be to involve the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate more, Gharib suggests. “They should oblige them [the new media outlet] to draft such a policy before they register with the Syndicate. They shouldn’t renew registrations of existing organisations until they too have such a document,” he concludes.