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What's in a Name?

Don't silence women's voices

· Women's Empowerment

A person’s name has power. It is the most important word we, as individuals, have in the world. It is our greatest connection to our identity and individuality. Our name is what defines us. It is therefore a sign of courtesy and respect to use someone’s name as a way of recognizing them.

Through their writing and photographs, journalists reveal their moral conviction about the ideas and values that must be nurtured and cared for. It is sad to see how all too often, women in press articles and photographs are not named. With such an omission, women’s voices are effectively silenced, and as a result so are their lives and qualities.

Unnamed women is a tragedy and drama in our mainstream press

When women are unnamed and simply referred to as “a woman”, or worse yet in relation to their religion or ethnic group, their voice is at once effectively silenced and curtailed, as are their lives and individual qualities. Such is the case of the October 20, 2019 photo-journal article in “The World” section of The Washington Post.

Through her photographs, Alice Martins shared what she saw on the frontlines, in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn, as Turkey launched its assault on Kurdish areas. There are six photographs.

Three of them include a woman, two of them are of children, and one depicts a family. The latter includes the man’s name, Shiar Becker Awni, while the women have no names Apparently they were stolen by motherhood.


Naming the only man in the set of photographs while ignoring the names of the women photographed is gendered discrimination and inexcusable. The fact that the photographer is a woman herself makes it doubly so. It not only compounds the generalized assumption that women’s lives are less important and valuable than men’s.


Depicting nameless women also emphasizes that their quest for self and voice plays a secondary role in transforming our ways of knowing and seeing the world. In addition, it unwittingly underlines the photographer’s belief that women have limited awareness of their own intellectual capabilities, that silent, unnamed women are selfless and voiceless and live at the behest of those around them.


All knowledge is constructed


Not naming women, while naming men, communicates an overriding message: women are supposed to remain in a position of silence and servitude. Unnamed women are essentially trapped by the journalist and photographer to a silent world of brutal and belittling external authority.


Taking the time to find out a man’s name and not taking the time to ask a woman for her name, especially when depicted in a photograph, reflects women as “deaf and dumb”. It’s as if the experiences and knowledge of women in a war zone are negligible because it is assumed that men are the knowers and women are the followers and caretakers.


By not taking the time to ascertain the names of the women photographed, while identifying by name the only man photographed, with his family, the woman photographer is acknowledging first, that the family is the man’s “property” and second, her inclination to see women as conformist and subordinate in status and therefore must look to others even for self-knowledge.


The MeToo movement is for everyone


The original purpose of the MeToo movement, as used by Tarana Burke in 2006, was to empower women victims of sexual violence through empathy, especially young and vulnerable women. It has since become a message about creating systemic change in relation to gender and power.


Journalists and photographers owe it to the women they report on or photograph to acknowledge the value of their voices, whether in war or peace. Taking the time to find out women’s names before publishing a story is a way of acknowledging that women exist as individuals. It is also a way to support their efforts to move away from silence and an externally oriented and absolutist, male-dominated perspective on knowledge and truth to one that accepts that women, whatever their situation in life, have personal authority and ways of knowing that contribute to shaping and directing a new world.


The knower is always an intimate part of the known


Inequality is not inherent to any society nor is it a permanent condition. Change does not come easily, but reporters need to reflect on how their judgements, attitudes and behavior can contribute to the empowerment and improvement of the lives of others.


Our society still overwhelmingly values the words of male authority while women are unheard and unheeded. Not naming women basically kowtows to a male-dominant status quo that expects women to accommodate the needs and ground rules of men. So in the process of reporting or photographing, it is the responsibility of the reporter to sort out the pieces of the self, one’s self and the self of others, and ensure women’s unique and authentic voices are heard, or at least acknowledged as existing as individuals with their own self-worth.


Women are not limited to a single voice, whether in times of peace or war. Nor are they only mothers. As individuals, we not only have a name. We also have separate ways of knowing and being that is as valuable and important as men’s.


Don’t relegate women to the backseat


Let’s not raze the landscape of women’s identity by always depicting women as mothers or in relation to motherhood. Let’s make sure women are not relegated to the back seat. Reporting should not be grounded on What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It should be grounded on Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot.


In what Jill Filipovic calls a world of unfinished feminism, all reporters, women and men, need to recognize that social expectations, unconscious biases and a system that is still built around the outdated model of a male-headed family constrain women’s voices and identity. It is imperative that the press ensures that, at all times, women’s sense of personal identity and uniqueness are recognized. How? By naming them.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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