Dragging them below the glass ceiling

The Hindu, Aug 27

The call for police escort to women reporters is a denigration of their professionalism and shows a poor understanding of media freedom

In the wake of the gang rape of a woman photojournalist in Mumbai, Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil said his government had always advocated that women journalists who have to visit secluded places or undertake difficult assignments at late hours, should apply for police escort.

It was not surprising that Mumbai’s women journalists declined Mr. Patil’s paternalistic offer with anger, saying that while they want a secure environment in which to function as professionals, just like everybody else, it is absurd to imagine that they would want to discuss their work with police personnel or settle for a gender-centric set of rules designed ostensibly for their safety.

Aside from what it means for media freedom, how does such a statement play out in the real world, quite removed from the ersatz universe of political expediency? Most journalism, by its very nature, entails visiting “secluded places” and “undertaking difficult assignments.” Going by a back-of-the-envelope calculation, if all the women journalists working in the State’s 11,229 publications (2011 figures from the Registrar of Newspapers for India) — not including the innumerable news channels and webzines located in the State — ask for police escorts, think of the number of policepersons “on media duty” that Mr. Patil would have to mobilise for this onerous task.

The fact is that women journalists are a significant presence in India today. While they may not be in the top echelons of decision making, and may be poorly represented in the districts, the last two decades have seen what some have termed as the “feminisation” of the media. Women journalists have proved that they are as competent as their male counterparts, whether in conducting investigations, breaking news, or critically analysing political and social developments.

It wasn’t always like this. Several hurdles had to be crossed over generations for media women to get recognised as professionals in their own right. After family disapproval, there were bosses who patronisingly assumed that their young women underlings were only whiling away time before getting down to the serious business of marriage and were therefore not worth even training. Newspaper establishments long resisted creating infrastructure to accommodate women employees, including providing basics like separate toilets, forget night transportation facilities and the rest.

Breaking through

Change, even in the larger media establishments, took decades to come about. Razia Ismail, who joined the Indian Express in 1967, once described the metamorphosis: “It was in the course of the late 1960s and the 1970s that the ‘lady’ frame finally broke…The day finally came when we did not find only ‘flower show’ …or ‘find out what Mrs Gandhi is wearing’ against our names on the assignment sheet. The day came when ‘ladies’ covered hard news and even got to be special correspondents with ministry beats…” Women broke many invisible cordons in the process: they did night duty, cultivated sources, interacted with unfamiliar people, entered theatres of conflict.

It is this important process of emergence, self-actualisation, and professionalism — which incidentally has contributed immensely to the democratisation of the Indian media and its content — that could be compromised if the patriarchal responses to the recent Mumbai gang rape get actualised. There are many, in would appear, who would like women journalists to go back to covering flower shows.

In fact, the reason why women media professionals often court danger and take personal risks is precisely because they still fear not being taken seriously as professionals. In 2011, a few months after a woman television correspondent was sexually assaulted during the tumultuous events at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists spoke to four dozen journalists who have undergone varying degrees of sexual violence. They were either gang raped or subjected to aggressive groping, in retaliation for their work or during the course of their reporting. What was striking about their testimonies was a common thread: they chose not to speak about their assaults, not just because they feared stigma or had no faith that justice would be done, but significantly because talking about it could have put their careers at risk, since they would then be perceived as unfit for challenging assignments and bypassed in future.

Cost cutting measures that managements now routinely adopt is, of course, not helping matters. A 2004 Press Institute of India study, ‘Status of Women Journalists In India,’ revealed how there was no such thing as permanent employment for most women professionals and even long-term contracts were elusive, with journalists often employed like daily wage labour.

It seems that the security of women journalists is linked with their conditions of work. Media freedom demands that journalists, both women and men, are allowed to do their job safely and effectively, and this can only happen when the risks that are present are taken into account and addressed.

But there is also the larger issue of the general security of all professional women in a milieu where sexual assaults have become so normalised that ‘rape’ has become just another four-letter word of abuse. The only way to respond to this ubiquitous and inchoate threat is to refuse to get intimidated by it. The photojournalist survivor of Mumbai has already displayed evidence of such exemplary courage when she made two significant statements: that she wants to get back to work as soon as possible and that rape is not the end of life.

(Pamela Philipose is director and editor-in-chief, Women’s Feature Service.)



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