Maligning women with impunity

A libellous and judgemental Tamil press repeatedly crosses the line in reporting on women in the dock.

Krithika Ramalingam

That Tamil Newspapers and periodicals are steeped in patriarchy is an understatement. If the current spate and tone of reporting on women who find themselves in the dock were to be indices, the gender problem of vernacular press is an urgent problem. Be it Serena (touted Ganja azhagi ┬┐beauty┬┐), or Jeeva Jothi (the widow of Prince Santhakumar who was murdered to clear the way for a much-married hotel chain magnate) or the handful of assorted starlets whose husbands are contesting DIVorce, the women have  become the target of poison pen.

Often pronounced guilty before the court could itself come to a decision, the women are portrayed as ``prostitutes`` (azhagi being the accepted journalese for prostitutes) and home wreckers. It is of little concern that the courts have ruled in favour of the women. The latest to catch such unflattering attention is  Sivakasi Jayalakshmi, a 30-something mother of two, who has not completed her primary schooling. Jayalakshmi found herself catapulted to media attention after her father sent a telegram to home secretary seeking help from government in finding her.

On receiving the petition, the Madras High Court admitted it as an habeas corpus petition and directed the Madurai police to find her. A manhunt led to her arrest in a Vellore lodge with police announcing that she has cases of fraud and prostitution pending  against her. A routine appearance in court to find out if she was  being illegally detained or otherwise, turned into a media circus of whirring cameras and blinding flashbulbs not leaving her alone even in court rooms. Speculation dogged her. Reports with intimate detailsof her dalliances with the police started appearing in a cross-section of newspapers: obviously sourced from  the police and sprinkled with a liberal dose of``alleged``. Sample this Aug 9 report in Dina Thanthi (when she was  produced before the Madurai bench):  ``Avar thanathu azhagana Thotrathai Sadagamakkikondu police athigarigalai ematrinar`` (She took advantage of her beautiful looks to cheat the policemen.) As if the police were little children led astray with a chocolate bar?

Over the next week screaming headlines from Thanthi  and Dina Malar said Jayalakshmi had seduced over 20 policemen. On Aug 14 Dina Malar carried an article headlined ``Jayalakshmi Vallaiyil Bank Athigarigal`` (Bank officials in Jayalakshmi`s net), suggesting there could be more than just police officials that she had a sexual relationship with. But the article was just speculation and there was no proof.  The text of the story went like this: ``Thanathu Azhagirkku ethanaiyo rajakumarargal queuevil nirpargal  ena mana kottai kattinar. Avar ninaithathu pola yaarum varavillai.`` (She daydreamed that many a prince will queue up falling for her beauty. But that was not to be.) This verbiage, when her all-too homely face was splashed across all channels. In subsequent weeks, the police started feeding information on her ``criminal background`` including a stay at a sub-jail for prostitution. Little did it matter that case was also sub-judice! In a fortnight, vernacular papers came out with speculative reports about how as many as one score police officials - ranging from the rank of head   constables to Superintendent of Police - could have  been involved with her, including a marriage to a Deputy Superintendent?

And in Dina Thanthi three versions of her introduction to the police followed in as many reports between Aug 13 and 20. The first one suggested she had an extra-marital affair with a policeman that led to a DIVorce. Forced to make a living of her own, she turned to those officials with whom she had a passing acquaintance through her paramour. In version two, it was her husband who had forced her into it in order to collect an outstanding loan from a business partner. The final account was that after her DIVorce from an alcoholic husband, she entered into employment that  took her across the state and introduced her to many men including Deputy Superintendent of Police, whom she married.

Proof enough that the newspaper was trying to titillate its readers with a sensational story. And interestingly, in all their reports covering the court appearance, Thanthi reporters (it has an exclusive   all-male reporting team) described her  clothes in detail.   Dina Malar, in its Aug 15 report went as far as   stating that her illegal detention (which led her estranged father to knock on the doors of the Home Secretary) was an elaborate drama enacted by her to  get off her back those policemen who wanted the money  they had lent to her returned (Panam kettu miratiyavargalai paniya vaipatharkagave thalaimaraivu, kadathal nadagam adinar jayalakshmi).

Apparently quoting the leaked affidavit that she was to present in the court the next day - which a popular  biweekly Nakkeeran claimed it had printed first even before it was presented in the court - the papers  broadly sketched the various dalliances she had had with the policemen. It was only in the affidavit itself it became known that she was often coerced, raped or abused into silence over their illegal activities.

(According to Jayalakshmi`s 17-page affidavit, which  was reproduced verbatim in all leading newspapers, the  police had indulged in illegal detention, taking  bribes and laundering money to finance what appears to  be legit business in first light, usury, and trafficking. Other than consternation from senior  officials and reported attempts to conduct secret inquiries, nothing has been written about reforming  the system.

Nakkeeran, in its Aug 25 issue, interviewed one of the  police officials, Kannan, suspended on charges of   illegal detention and rape. (The exclusive duty of Kannan, a head constable with Thideer Nagar station in Madurai, had been to chauffeur her around for six  months.) He is quoted as terming her ``a prostitute who targeted police officials``. So much for the libel  laws of the country.

Tamil Newspapers, which don`t have a tradition of   editorial pieces, failed to call for a look into the comportment of the law keepers themselves. One of the policemen that Jayalakshmi was involved with was suspended after his second wife _ his first one is still living with him - had died of burns under mysterious circumstances. But the establishment supporting media seem to take this as fait accompli and the rather bemused commentary that ``the police are running for cover`` (after L`affaire Jayalakshmi surfaced, seems to imply that moral corruption among the police is par for the course.This misogyny in newspapers, media watchers say, has been mainly due to the fact that it is the largely male audience that the news is gathered for, going by the headlines, photographs of semi-naked women, and the purple prose even in some of the broadsheets. (Readership surveys would perhaps validate this theory.)

Whether this has give rise to the sexism and misogyny or is the end product is moot. But when articles appear with 48-point headlines like ``Mundanai Mohini  (best translated as Seductress in Saree)`` (Aug 15, Dina Malar), it is distressing. The article goes on to say: ``Kachithamana Azhagiya Udalvagutan, Konji Pesum  style irunthal pothum entha pennukkum iyalbagave periya manithargalin natpu kidaithuvidum enbathirkku eduthukattu intha Jayalakshmithan.`` (Jayalakshmi is example for the fact that a good body and honey-tongue are the only requisite for any woman to befriend bigwigs.) Heaven help any woman who answers these  descriptions! If this would not lead to distrust and violence against women, what else would? This rising crime against women, which the very same  newspapers report with glee but little sensitivity, is an urgent issue.

The Aug 6 issue of Dina Malar reported the murder of Akila, a 20-year-old student, by her neighbour Bharadwaj. She was stabbed with a penknife on her jugular vein because her friendship with another man made Bharadwaj mad with jealousy. In his confession to the police, the Bharadwaj says he repeatedly warned his girlfriend not to talk to a particular male acquaintance of hers and she had continued to ``disobey`` him. Therefore, he had no other option but kill her. The report went on to paint  Akila as a libertine, who had ``many male friends``. What message was the Dina Malar sending: Every man who has a gregarious friendly soul for a girlfriend, go grab a penknife and go for the jugular?

Is it the duty of newspapers to play moral police to the society? Constant attempts by women`s  organisations, including a directive from the Madras High Court, to prevent papers from printing photographs of women charged - not convicted - of prostitution notwithstanding, three-column displays are becoming common. In their defence the journalists from Tamil newspapers say that they are trying to expose the women indulging in ``amoral activities`` so that their public could be forewarned. It is debatable if the photographs of cowering women serve that purpose. 

Contact: Krithika Ramalingam, krithi74@yahoo.com

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