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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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