Voices of reason

BBC's 100 Women list for 2014 includes two with strong Hong Kong connections: a Pakistani blogger and an 18-year-old citizen journalist

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 November, 2014, 5:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 4:40pm

The media plays a vital role in promoting gender equality, particularly in how women and men are depicted. That is the drive behind the BBC's 100 Women project - a series of features, an annual conference and activities looking at issues that women face today and what they have achieved.

The annual project was launched last year, partly because of the horrific gang rape and torture of a student on a New Delhi bus in 2012.

The idea is to identify women from around the world and give them a meeting place to discuss issues that affect them, says Liliane Landor, the BBC World Service's controller of languages who looks after the project.

"This year the criteria focus on the power of women - those who have changed the world around them and inspired others to do the same," she says.

The 2014 list announced a couple of weeks ago includes more scientists and women working in the arts, more than a fifth of whom were under the age of 25.

Some made headlines, such as Obiageli Ezekwesili, a leader of the Bring Back Our Girls group, which is campaigning for the release of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists, and Conchita Wurst, the cross-dressing Austrian singer who won the Eurovision Song Contest in May.

Of the 100 women named this year, two have a connection with the city. Sana Saleem is a Pakistani activist whose work now focuses on Hong Kong, and Irene Li is a student who has been documenting the pro-democracy umbrella movement in recent weeks.

SANA SALEEM WAS on track to becoming a doctor (she holds a medical degree from Baqai University in Karachi), but a keen sense of social justice changed the course of her life. She began blogging and writing about the issues of the day in Pakistan, contributing to domestic news outlets such as Dawn and international forums such as Global Voices Online.

Together with a group of professionals promoting free expression, Saleem, 26, went on to help found Bolo Bhi, a non-profit working on areas ranging from government transparency to gender rights and internet access.

So when the Pakistani government introduced restrictions on internet activity in 2010, Saleem joined forces with other activists to battle online censorship.

Such campaigning, along with her writing and social media base (she has more than 25,000 Twitter followers), often puts her in the line of fire from conservative forces. Attacks from online trolls are inevitable, and she has even received death threats. But she refuses to be intimidated. "I ignore them and don't let the cowardly comments deter me from what I'm doing," she says.

At the same time, Saleem is keen to shatter stereotypes about her country, especially those perpetuated by foreign media. "When the media goes into Pakistan, it often already has a story and an angle in mind. Of course, there is conflict, and there are parts of the country where women are not allowed to study. Yes, there are forced marriages and gender issues, but there are also teenagers and young adults having parties and shopping and living. The country's also had a female leader [Benazir Bhutto, who served as prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996], and we have a female member of the national assembly.

Many people don't realise that in Pakistan a lot of the political movements were fuelled by women
Sana Saleem

"I'm not saying everything's hunky dory … There's been a lot of damage inflicted by years of dictatorship, and as always in conflict, it's the women and children who are marginalised. … It's time to reverse this, but it doesn't help when the country is under the global microscope," she says.

"Many people don't realise that in Pakistan a lot of the political movements were fuelled by women. Women have always been at the forefront … In the 1970s and '80s, there was a rough transition to dictatorship. Newscasters were told to cover their heads, and all this led to a huge show of solidarity of women at the time. Women took to the street in huge protests."

Having turned her focus on Hong Kong, she continues to apply her finely tuned antenna for social justice to delve into the lives of ordinary people who often slip under the radar of mainstream media in a project called Stories Beyond Borders storiesbeyondborders.com

The crowd-sourced platform, for which she has released an app, is a unique outlet for people to share personal stories that go deep into the warp and weft of the city's multicultural fabric.

There's Yuli, a domestic helper who volunteers at the Indonesian Migrant Workers' Union, manning a helpline for victims of abuse. Sabir, who fled his home in Pakistan after receiving death threats from Islamist groups who accused him of blasphemy, shares his story about the struggles of seeking asylum in the city. Hong Kong-born activist Anthony talks candidly about his role in the ongoing umbrella movement.

"It's about giving a voice to people who need it most," Saleem says.

"Of course, identities are protected if requested - these are deeply personal stories - but people are very willing to share their stories. For many, it's a cathartic experience, and it has a positive knock-on effect: one person speaks and others follow.

"People want to share their stories because they don't know what else to do."

The psychology of conflict also interests Saleem.

"Look at the protests in Hong Kong. It's not like everyone is taking to the streets. While people were being tear-gassed in Admiralty, others were swimming in Shek O or eating in Tsim Sha Tsui," she says. "Life goes on while conflict exists around them."

However, Saleem's heart lies in Pakistan, and her future projects include efforts to rectify some of the "errors" in her country's history books.

"I'm working with schoolchildren on this," she says. "There's a distorted version of the history taught in schools in Pakistan … Stories Beyond Borders helps share the true stories about the country's past. It helps to correct history."

 

Irene Li Jia-ying is the only Hongkonger on the BBC's 100 Women list this year. The 18-year-old is identified as a "citizen journalist who took part in and documented protests in Hong Kong".

Li had just completed her International Baccalareate programme at the United World College campus in Wales when she returned home to a city increasingly polarised over the pace of democratic development.

After two years in Britain, Li admits to feeling a sense of disconnect as she saw the Occupy Central protests unfold.

"I wasn't going to throw myself blindly in favour of a movement that I'm not entirely sure had an end game," she says. "But because this is such a big thing in Hong Kong, I felt a moral obligation to participate one way or another."

Like many people, she patrolled the protest areas, documenting life at the street barricades with her camera. But Li began to attract attention after she started a group called Translating the Umbrella Movement with some friends in early October, a few days after the police fired tear gas to try to disperse protesters amassed near the government offices in Admiralty.

My role is to be sincere and say what it means to be a young adult in this generation in this city
Irene Li

"Providing translation for foreign media outlets is important because most local newspapers are incomprehensible to them," Li says. "Foreign reporters flew in to cover the protests, and their knowledge was based on very general [information]. So they made this generalisation even worse. But they couldn't help it because they don't understand [our language]."

Li and her group posted social media requests for people to translate Cantonese into English, and then paired volunteers with foreign news outlets. In the first few weeks of the movement her group fielded 100 volunteer translators, most of them students.

Li describes herself as "very sympathetic but detached" about the umbrella movement.

When not helping out with translation work, she enjoys talking to protesters about what drives them into the streets, regularly sharing her observations of the latest developments on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

With a network of international schoolmates, Li feels a responsibility to tell Hong Kong's story to the world.

"There was a reliance on me to provide more insight into what's going on here for a lot of my friends overseas and, as a result, to spread it further.

"[Goodwill Ambassador] Emma Watson recently said at the UN: 'If not me, then who? If not now, then when?' Similarly, there's no other time for us to make a change in Hong Kong than now," she says.

As one of the women on the BBC list, she was asked to share her views about the situation in Hong Kong and the interviews were transmitted live at an accompanying London conference.

"My role is to be sincere and say what it means to be a young adult in this generation in this city," she said. "You can leave Hong Kong, but Hong Kong will never leave you."

That's one reason she is studying law part-time and coordinating translation in her hometown. "I came back because I want to understand what's going on - the sociopolitical landscape."