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Reporter's Notebook from Pakistan

Why Words Matter

A lack of sensitivity and gender inequality in media prompted a Pakistani journalist to start the nonprofit, Uks Research Centre.

Uks radio producer Nida Naeem and director Tasneem Ahmar.
Stacy Threatt
Uks radio producer Nida Naeem and director Tasneem Ahmar.

Nearly 20 years ago, journalist Tasneem Ahmar started clipping all the articles about women that she could find in more than a dozen papers in Pakistan.

She found headlines like "Neighbor Plasters Wife" used to describe a man who raped a woman, who lived next door and was married to a mason. Ahmar would take her pile of press clippings to editors and try to explain why headlines like these – that joke about sexual assault – were problematic.

The lack of sensitivity and gender inequality prompted her to start the nonprofit, Uks Research Centre. In Urdu, the name “Uks” means "reflection." Since 1997, Uks has grown into a team of journalists and research staff. They train newsrooms in gender-sensitive reporting and created a code of ethics for that. They regularly research how women are working in the media and how women are portrayed in stories. They also produce and distribute radio programs focused on themes like honor killings and acid attacks, disaster recovery led by women, women in business and much more.

Ahmar says they've advocated for Pakistani media to consider their words carefully. With rape, they encourage journalists to use the English word “rape” even in Urdu-language press – to fully communicate what happened and to strip any connotation of honor. Traditionally in Urdu, media will describe the sexual crime only in those terms, for example a woman "lost her honor," as if she's lost everything, as if she's worthless, according to Ahmar.

She spoke to the group of U.S. journalists about Uks’ work and why she’s so passionate about it.

"In our language, like in other languages, all the abuses start with women. And that is something that we are working on. Why should women be the subject of all the abuses?" Ahmar says. "People normally don't think about these things and they just say it. Even the educated ones. They use it as if it doesn't really matter. But it matters. It matters to women who are suffering because of not getting the respect that they deserve, because men still think they are not worth the respect."