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Women’s seminar addresses the fate of female athletes and vows to fair treatment

From record attendances to improved media coverage, the year 2019 marked an unforgettable milestone in the development of women’s sports, with Megan Rapinoe’s famous post-goal pose at the FIFA Women’s World Cup symbolizing the never-say-die attitude of a group that has been undervalued, neglected and ignored for way too long.

The world took notice, calls for gender equity grew louder as women’s sports made significant strides on and off the field. But that growing momentum of last year has been overshadowed by a bleak picture of 2020, painted by the global COVID-19 crisis that brought sports to a halt and wreaked economic havoc in its industry. And the ceaseless chatter about the return of sports focused mainly on the men’s, with little or no concern about the women’s. 

While the men’s football leagues in England, Spain and Italy resumed, the women’s leagues and players, though already in a disadvantaged position prior to the pandemic, were left behind. Left behind in salaries, sponsorships and media visibility. How can women’s sports generate income without competitions?

“The Forgotten” was the focus of the panelists in the second session of the AIPS Seminar entitled “The Cost of Reporting while Female”, which highlighted the plights of women athletes and journalists in this period of the pandemic. When it comes to downsizing, they risk being the first for the chopping board, unfortunately.

Emanuela Audisio, a special correspondent of Italian newspaper La Repubblica explained the situation in her country Italy, where the women’s league was stopped with only six games left to play, which, in her opinion, would not have been too expensive to organise. “What is the message?” she asked rhetorically.

Very few articles were written about the decision to end the women’s league, so when a shocked Emanuela was invited to a television programme, she was eager to speak about women’s football, but the first question thrown at her was about the men’s game instead. “Let us talk about women at the end,” she was told.

This lack of visibility of women in sports was also echoed by Zsuzsa Csisztu, AIPS EC Member and the first Vice President of the the Hungarian Sport Journalists’ Association. A journalist, TV presenter and lawyer specified in sports law. She backed it up with a data from UNESCO which states that women get only four percent of sports media coverage with focus on their physical appearance, family life and love life more than their athletic ability.

The former Hungarian gymnast.underlined that: “Sexist headlines can really ruin what should be a perfect moment for a woman athlete. We can and we should fight for fair coverage and for that I believe we need to have more competent, credible and professional women in sports journalism.

“Unfortunately, when stadiums and sports fields closed their doors and the sports media pushed out of events, the first so-called real victims of the transition are the female colleagues. They are usually the first to get cut when companies need to downsize,” she lamented. 

Csisztu however believes that the media has to make a conscious effort in promoting inclusiveness. “If gender sensitivity is not made a priority, the media tends to replicate and reinforce deeply-rooted biases that can have a long-lasting and devastating effects on the society’s response to crisis and ultimately, gender equality.”

Hiba Al Sabbagh is currently the secretary editor at Al-Rai newspaper Jordan, alongside being a reporter for Gear one TV and Sport Saudi TV. She had to overcome social and cultural barriers in Jordan en route to becoming a journalist, but she is proud that today, she belongs to a Whatsapp group of over 150 Arab women sports journalists. And her message is this: “Nothing is impossible. You have to work hard and challenge yourself.”

Regarding the challenges women’s sports is facing amidst the pandemic, Al Sabbagh, who mentioned that the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics was a “huge strike”, urged “sports institutions and associations to take responsibility towards women’s activities because they are exposed to danger and backwardness after COVID.”

Sabina Karki, the sub-editor in the sports department of Kantipur Television in Nepal, pointed out “a new tune on priority” in the sports industry with men having the edge. And in addition to the earlier mentioned instances of the men’s league resuming in some countries in Europe, while the women’s leagues were ended, Karki recalled  the African case, where the Africa Cup of Nations for the men was postponed and that of the women cancelled. “Stakeholders should please give some space to women athletes too,” she concluded.

OPEN DISCUSSION During the open discussion, Balsam Alayoub, an international fencer, who represented her home country of Kuwait at numerous international events, spoke about how since her first competition in 1996, she learned how to do her own media coverage because “men in the media couldn’t understand”.

 “If we want to empower women in sports we have to know exactly how to report about them,” she said. “We cannot promote their image in an inappropriate or sexual way just to promote the idea of being feminine. I don’t want to be feminine in sports, I want to be an athlete,” the women’s rights activist and co-founder of Balsam International, added.

Commenting on a suggestion made about having quotas for women journalists in international competitions, Csisztu believes it is a good idea that could open more spaces for women in the sports media.

Audisio underlined some of the limiting factors for women when it comes to covering events, including the societal pressure of having to take care of the home and the fact that sometimes these competitions end so late. However, she believes the quota system could be implemented from the national level. Audisio shared her story of how she was arrested three times early on in her career when she was covering boxing matches because she is a woman. “Things have changed,” she confirmed. “So we must have faith and we must stay together. Each of us have to fight for ourselves and our colleague,” She urged.

NEXT SESSION – PAY GAP The next session of the ongoing AIPS digital seminar series would focus on “Pay Gap” which has already been mentioned in passing in the last two meetings. This third appointment, which will feature another engaging set of panelists, would be held on Tuesday July 28 and as has been the case since the start of the seminar, simultaneous interpretation would be made available in English, Arabic, French and Spanish.

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