Teaching gender safety in Bangladesh
One of the dangers of teaching safety to women journalists is to paint them as vulnerable and unintentionally undermine them, allowing for the environment in which women are kept away from reporting big stories on safety grounds.
I still remember vividly a burly security advisor’s safety pronouncement years ago in Egypt: ‘no girlies’. Actual quote.
‘Girlies’. That was easy enough, of course: he was let go never to come back again, and the ‘girlies’ stayed; but so did the issue of how to address and deal with dangers that women face as journalists. Bangladesh was possibly the last place I expected to solve this problem to me.
Fojo’s Bangladesh Project Director, Sofia Hultqvist, promptly pointed out the issue in my presentation, saying I’m singling out women as facing extra dangers. Well, yes, me and the rest of the world. ‘But couldn’t you just cover dangers for men and dangers for women?’
It was a simple request, almost too easy to dismiss. Could I? Are there gender-specific threats I could address?
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense: while men of course are not immune to rape, we teach it as a threat to women because it’s far more probable for women than men in crowds. Beatings on the other hand, while possible for women, are far more probable for men in similar situations. Enter gender specific training for behaving in the crowd.
No police colors, no sunglasses. Men.
No buttoned shirts, no pony tails. Women.
Comfortable shoes so you can run if needed – all around. And so on and on.
To (over)simplify: make yourself appear less threatening if you’re a man, more threatening if you’re a woman.
The response was fascinating. OK, it may have had something to do with my contortions when demonstrating how to curl up properly when beaten, and how someone can pull you to the ground if your hair is tied in the back. Nothing like a momentary loss of dignity on the instructor’s part to produce interest. But still. There were follow-up questions from both sides. Engagement on both sides. A changing mindset, if you will.
And a ‘why didn’t I think of it?’ from my side.
It’s not like I haven’t singled out groups by threats they face before: camera people (most likely to unknowingly push anyone, including, say, a policeman out of the way of the prefect shot), correspondents (most likely to get too close to action with their backs turned to the source of danger)…
The idea there is to teach crews to take care of each other, to be aware of the dangers they’re facing, but also the dangers that those around them might encounter. It forges a bond, rather than resentment. The same is applicable to gender specific threats: we’re out there to protect each other, and we face different dangers.
Like any good idea, once you hear it for the first time, it seems like it’s always been there. I just wish I thought of it.