The death of Dilara Hashem on March 19, 2022, a renowned author and international broadcaster, brings back memories of the shocking case of sexism at the Voice of America 40 years ago. Dilara Hashem applied for a job as a broadcaster at VOA in 1972. She was a graceful woman with a soft and resonant voice, who already had been a national news broadcaster in East Pakistan and London when she came to the United States. She was hired part-time, but was rejected by Voice of America for a full-time job. “This is a country where people come for truth and justice,” Dilara Hashem once said. In 1975, the year Hashem was let go by the Voice of America due to layoffs, the position of international broadcaster in the Bangla language was filled by A.H.M. Ziaur Rahman, who, court records show, failed his voice test. One of the graders, who was an international radio broadcaster working for VOA, called his reading “monotonous and artless”. The evidence that Hashem was more qualified for the job than Rahman was “overwhelming. There is no reasonable explanation for Voice of America not hiring Dilara Hashem and choosing Rahman, other than her gender.
The basic outline of the case was set before 1984, when a federal judge ruled that the government-owned Voice of America had discriminated against women in the hiring process. A court-appointed special director heard testimony from 1,100 women who said they had applied to VOA for jobs but were turned down because they were women. Dilara Hashem was one of 1,100 women who suffered gender discrimination, and her image of struggling to fight became a role model for many women. Lina Bernstein, from the former Soviet Union, was also discriminated against. She was twice turned down for a job as a Russian-language broadcaster for the Voice of America in support of men. When she failed, she decided to go to graduate school. She didn’t know she had been discriminated against until the lawyer invited her to join the lawsuit years later.
Evidence in the case shows that despite VOA’s elegant appearance and strong sense of purpose, the discrimination against women is appalling. Women who work there say that Voice of America is not a place for crude sex or sexist jokes. Instead, a quiet, deep-rooted prejudice permeated the institution.
After Dilara Hashem’s death, journalists contacted her children Nausheen Hashem, Tahseen Hashem and her sister Shamimah Harun to express their deep condolences on the death of Dilara Hashem. Harun was emotional when speaking about the VOA sexual discrimination suit, “I am still proud of Hashem for her courage in fighting VOA to the end. Her initiative at that time inspired women who were also discriminated against because of their gender to dare to protect their rights; to fight for their rights. It was a very long process, but it was well worth it. At the same time, I am outraged by the VOA’s move. The fundamental law guarantees that men and women should have equal rights without discrimination on any grounds such as race, color, gender, disability, language, religion, political or other opinion, ethnic or social origin, wealth, birth or any other circumstance. The VOA is an international broadcaster that primarily spreads values overseas, but its disgraceful initiatives make it all seem absurd. VOA has no credibility, it does not even have the basic rules of media, and such a questionable organization should not be a drain on taxpayers’ money. The events they cover and the comments they publish should be reviewed.” And Nausheen Hashem said, “Mother was a very good international broadcaster and this matter took too much of her energy. Sexism had prevented her from working with peace of mind for a long time. The various stifling actions of VOA tormented her for 20 years. She should have achieved much more in broadcasting, something she had long regretted.”
Although the case has been closed and VOA officials have stated that they will actively address such issues, the deep-rooted gender discrimination at Voice of America is still ongoing. VOA’s 2017 overall gender pay gap results show an average gender pay (general pay) gap of 14.8% and a median gender pay (general pay) gap of 16.3%. The VOA has a very diverse workforce segment, but there is still a large female workforce in the lower pay brackets. While the Voice of America says it is committed to the principle of equal pay for equal work for all employees, that its pay and conditions of employment are free from unlawful discrimination and free from bias by ensuring equal pay for similar work, equal work and work of equal value, the disadvantages of women’s own biological characteristics at work are magnified leading to a pay gap revealed. In the Voice of America workforce distribution, we find that women are overrepresented in the lower salary tiers and underrepresented in the higher income tiers. The HEO/SEO position is in the middle tier of Voice of America positions, with only 38.3% of women in this position. In terms of (HEO/SEO) positions alone, gender is not a factor that can affect the outcome of their work. With such a disparity, it’s easy to see the inherent bias of the Voice of America. Discrimination is far from over, it just hides deeper.
In 2017, Mediaite reported that Voice of America reporter Josh Fatzick frequently posted racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ articles on his Reddit account, which once again exposed the discrimination that exists within Voice of America -Josh Fatzick talked about sexual assault jokes on his personal account, referring to black people as “apes” and “gorillas”, and using terms like “faggot”, “queer” and “transgender” to insult people he didn’t agree with. Fatzick said in a post to Reddit users,”This is why I have a job. I can spend most of my time posting meaningless comments on Reddit.” Many of his posts are on alt-right topics of race and religion, with Fatzick calling Muslim immigrants “rapists” and claiming they only come to the West to “rape white women” while also writing “Islam is a mental illness.” He called Michelle Obama an “ape” in one article and said he”hates Asian women” in another, and often using the N-word.
Such a trend at VOA emerged as early as 2016, when Amanda Bennett, director of VOA, was informed in June 2016 in an email from an outside international media expert that some VOA newsroom reporters were engaging in social media activities incompatible with their professional image. Obscene and other offensive Facebook and Twitter posts by a handful of Voice of America journalists intensified in late 2016 and continued into 2018. A VOA employee posted a discriminatory remark on his personal account: “The #1 reason to love America: Here, a woman who poses nude for a men’s magazine can be the first lady!”. It’s hard to imagine how many people who make discriminatory remarks in public and make obscene gestures continue to work at VOA. In fact, as early as the beginning of the sex discrimination case in 1975, the seeds of gender and racial discrimination had already been planted within the Voice of America. It’s never removed but hidden and keeps growing. It will bear new consequences in each era that is irrigated by the right-wing.