"We dedicated the women’s page to rape"

BY Pamela Bhagat| IN Media Practice | 15/07/2004
Colleagues and subordinate staff view blue films and porn sites on their computers, which are left to embarrass them on start up.



Extracted from  Status of Women Journalists in India, produced  by the Press Institute of India, under the aegis of the National Commission for Women  

Pamela Bhagat 



Data collection for the study was amazingly revealing, interesting but also exasperating when response rates to the formatted questionnaires were not exactly gratifying.


I travelled to Chandigarh, Jullundur, Amritsar and Jammu where I met some interesting women journalists. But most revealing was the meeting with Mr Hari Jaisingh, former editor of Tribune, who more than underlined the attitude to women not only in media organisations but also in Indian society.


"We don’t discriminate here - work conditions for women are more than fair. We provide transport at night and even have an all women team in the magazine section. I sent Ruchika (a young reporter) to cover the Gujarat earthquake for 12 days and Aditi (another young reporter) for 17 days to cover elections and this despite both being better looking than Barkha Dutt!


"Maternity leave in my view, upsets the balance of work schedules and creates the practical problem of leave. Do you know this is the only Chandigarh paper with a weekly women’s page? You can understand my commitment to women’s issues by the fact that last week we dedicated that page to rape.


"As a policy we do not publish revealing pictures or offensive language. In fact we even edit Khushwant Singh."


Looking for broad-based inputs, interviews were conducted with Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and English writers of different seniority. In Jullundur, Vandana Walia Bali of Punjab Kesri spoke about being denied seniority after maternity leave and about the moral dilemma of leaving a new-born child to pursue her career - "that was the toughest period of my life when I was filled with self-doubt, guilt, hate and cried all the time."


Three young journalists from Hindustan Times, Indian Express and Dainik Jagran spoke about the sexual harassment by seniors within their organisations and their extreme vulnerability since "no one wants women as colleagues in the first place". All complaints are countered by, "we told you so. This is no place for women". All of them had followed a sister, brother, father or husband into the profession. 


In Amritsar the small Indian Express office was very basic and even lacked a separate washroom. The group I met were from Indian Express and Hindustan Times with a well thought out list of requirements which were similar to those demanded by most, irrespective of small town papers or of metros. They believed that training is required not only for value addition but also for self-esteem; that contract system plays havoc with ability to hold organisations accountable for work conditions and facilities.


They faced various vexing problems at their workplace. Colleagues and subordinate staff view blue films and porn sites on their computers, which are left to embarrass them on start up. Another irritating ploy was to carry on loud embarrassing personal and private conversations on the telephone. Male bosses indulged in blatant professional cheating (plagarising stories) for projecting themselves at the cost of the careers of the young journalists.


What they wanted to know was how to address such problems and whom to approach for advocacy and redressal.


In Chandigarh, senior columnist Rita Sharma made some very revealing observations. According to her, when she joined the profession 20 years ago, sexual harassment was not an issue since the feudal mindset of men here made them protective but at the same time they did not acknowledge women as professionals. They insisted that her husband was her ghostwriter. But now with increasing numbers and growing visibility of women, things are different. Women journalists are almost like trophies to be displayed - "my daughter-in-law is a journalist" - so it puts greater pressure on young journalists who despite adverse conditions, cannot quit.


At the level of sources, from personal experience she noticed that after the Shivani Bhatnagar episode,  people  were scared to  meet a woman  journalist  alone. Rita has been instrumental in highlighting women’s concerns in her capacity as Chairperson of  the Women Journalists Committee of the Chandigarh Press Club. "Our young women too need to be more aware", she says, while narrating an incident where she told a group of young women journalists that they could benefit from becoming members of the Press Club. They retorted - "But we don’t believe in clubbing!"  


Echoing her observations is Donna Suri. "Here you cannot appeal to what is the law or what is ethically right. It is the grand patriarchal view that is more easily acceptable." Her reference is to an episode that took place while she was with the Tribune. The editor announced withdrawal of transport facilities for her. She confronted him with, "how would you feel if your daughter had to travel alone at odd hours?" Transport was restored. 


Donna Suri moved to India from USA after she married her "brown man in a funny hat". Since then, for the last 22 years, she has been part of the journalism scene in Chandigarh. "Back then this place was full of kakas and beebas and the environment was very stuffy". In 1982 she was the first woman to join the Tribune where she was allocated a small, isolated room, "almost as if I was in purdah". She quickly removed all illusions by wandering into newsrooms and shaking hands with everyone. The response was - "Foreigners are like this. Very nice! She has adjusted well."


Donna has lived through some trying times. She spoke about a certain editor who would often extract money and sexual favours for approving bylines. Prem Bhatia’s (the boss) attitude to such people was - "every good journalist is a bit of a crook". Donna did not consider reporting against the sexual-favours seeker since she was quite sure that she would be victimised.


In another instance, on joining a new organisation, her remuneration commiserate to her experience, happened to be more than that of several male assistant editors. They were up in arms because she was a woman. The editor requested her to voluntarily take a pay cut. Donna refused and also walked out because, "I didn’t want to work in an environment where the editor couldn’t stand up to his staff."


Though very confident about the abilities of young women journalists who she says are clued to opportunities, constantly seeking stimulation, committed to themselves and do push for more professionally; she warns against continued desk work where "zombification is rapid".


She insists that in her experience, the best strategy for women is to believe in themselves and that the best line of defence is always your own.


Ironically, in Jammu, while the Daily Excelsior, an English daily, has a policy against employing women journalists, an Urdu daily has been headed by Begum Imrana Samnani for the last 30 years. "Initially I was a rarity and the attitude to my presence in press-conferences and other media happenings was negative. But my attitude was - I’m here to stay so you have got to accept me."


Data collection was particularly frustrating in the nation’s capital. Journalists were contacted on email, by personal interaction, individually, collectively at the Indian Women’s Press Corps and also through friends of friends. But the response was very poor - indifferent and apathetic.


It was also poignant that a PII (Press Institute of India) peon on an errand to deliver 35 sets of responses in hard copy was mugged. The incident resulted in the loss of data, his precious Rs 75/- and a lot of legwork for PII staff who lodged an FIR, but to no avail.


In all the dialogue and discussions with women journalists, one common strain was the concern about the threat to stability in their private lives that the profession seemingly poses. In almost all cases, conversation veered to domestic life and wherever there was no problem, women didn’t see it as a normal situation but one for which they had to be grateful to the spouse/mother-in-law/parents..


Having it all, according to most, is fiction. Women can either have successful, satisfying careers with either broken relationships or guilt-ridden motherhood or dysfunctional families. But most of the time they opt for satisfying family lives and compromise on their careers.



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