Interview with Aishah Ali, editor, Sunday Mail, on women in the Malaysian media

Women in the Malaysian media: a perspective by Aishah Ali

By Soumi Das

aishah aliAishah Ali, editor, Sunday Mail, a sister paper of the New Straits Times, a leading English daily in Malaysia, is a seasoned pro with 25 years in the print media.

Recalling her early days in journalism, Aishah says she was recruited by her teacher, Samad Ismail, the then editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times and a respected figure in Malaysian journalism. She started her career on the entertainment desk at the NST, later moving as editor to the women’s desk.”In the `70s, the issues being covered in the women’s pages weren’t strong enough for any serious discussion or debate” she claims”it was routine stuff on beauty and fashion.”

But gradually, as she started attending gender workshops and researching the media, Aishah realized that women were constantly put on the”softer” side. In 1989 she met Urvashi Butalia (co-founder of the New Delhi-based Indian publishing house Kali for Women) at a workshop and was so taken by her commitment to the cause of presenting a balanced and positive image of women that it changed her perceptions.”She not only converted me;”claims Aishah,”I became an advocate on the subject.”

Aishah started giving talks on the media in the region —in Indonesia, Thailand and Korea. In February 1995, she attended an international symposium —Women and Media: Access to Expression and Decision-making in Toronto, held prior to Beijing to draft the J-section of the Platform for Action that looked at the media. She also attended the Beijing Conference, which discussed among other issues, the role of women and gender.”We agreed that since not much impact was made in previous conferences on women, the media had to be mobilised. Since the media was also seen as an obstacle to women’s progress because of the negative images it portrayed at times, it was selected as one of the ten crucial issues. Apart from putting the picture right, there was a need to have more women at decision-making levels.”

At NST Aishah had already contributed to a change. In the early 1990’s for instance she narrates :”We received information that the president’s daughter, Marina Mahathir, chairman of the Malaysian AIDS foundation, was visiting a rubber estate where five women had died.”A male colleague dismissed the news as routine. Aishah, however, decided to send a reporter and found that the women had died of AIDS, which they had contracted from their plantation worker-husbands because of their inability to say,”no”. As a protest, their friends had tied five yellow ribbons at the plantation.

Over the years, Aishah claims, the character of the NST’s women’s pages has changed. NGOs and bodies like the Women’s Aid Organisation and Women’s Crisis Centre have shown an interest. And the response from readers has generated debate. Though there are sexist portrayals every now and then due to ignorance and conditioning, she believes the Malaysian media’s approach has improved a little in that women’s magazines are carrying issues and not merely pretty faces.

However, she feels that more needs to be done to sensitise the media on gender issues. Her suggestions are to”change editorial policy to increase gender sensitivity, and second, to feminise the industry.” She also lays stress on training young journalists to build a critical mass. In fact, Aishah has included a gender component for all trainees and college students who attend journalism workshops at the NST.”The response from youths has been very encouraging, as I pick examples from their lives. At the end of the workshop, when the groups are asked to perform role plays, at least two or three would take up gender issues,” she says.”We (also) have three women ministers in the Cabinet, lots of top-ranking women in the government and corporate sector. The governor of Central Bank, the head of the National Library and the National Archives are women. There are many women CEOs now,”she adds.


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