By Ila Ananya, the ladies finger

Photo courtesy Shirin Dalvi

Shirin Dalvi, former editor at the Urdu newspaper Avadhnama, is all set to launch her own Urdu e-newspaper, Urdu News Express in September. When we called her, she had just spoken to web designers. The website is expected to be up and running very soon, just after they finish a trial run.

You might remember Dalvi, 47, from a little more than a year ago, when she was firedfrom her job atAvadhnama in Mumbai, for publishing a cover of Charlie Hebdo in an article on the attacks. Avadhnamawas also shut down. Reports said she faced six FIRs and was forced to go into hiding; Urdu newspapers refused to hire her, and since then, she has found it hard to make ends meet and pay for her children’s education. We didn’t see this backlash happening to those who published Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the English media, but Dalvi is now trying to move on, with Urdu News Express.

According to Dalvi, the Urdu news market that already exists in countries like Pakistan, the United States of America and the United Kingdom is fairly large. She remembers a time when she was at Avadhnama,and people from the Netherlands and Canada would comment on Facebook whenever she hadn’t written her column on politics. Her more recent column, In Dino (These Days), in the Hindustan Urdu Daily, which covered political ups and downs and big breaking news, was aimed at this international audience. In Urdu News Express, there will be stories on politics of course, — “Khabrein toh inhi se milti hai (this is where we get all our stories from)”, she said — along with international news, big national news, sports, health, and literature.

Dalvi seems less concerned about competing in the existing market than she is of producing content that is very different from the kind that is already being written by Urdu newspapers. Dalvi suggests that the Urdu news industry, which produces a very small portion of news, doesn’t always put in “mehanat” (effort) and doesn’t pay attention to important issues such as medical research, which gets covered by other mainstream news outlets. Some argue that Urdu journalism has become community journalism after Independence. Mrinal Chatterjee, who heads the campus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Orissa and has written about the history of Urdu journalism in India, thinks  that since Urdu journalism is in many places restricted to local newspapers, the content is also more local, rather than from a national level (unless it’s a larger Urdu newspaper).

When asked how Urdu News Express would bring in a new kind of writing into Urdu newspapers,  Dalvi laughed and said her new site would write about everything. “Take literature, for example,” she said. “All the existing Urdu e-newspapers want to only publish work by Iqbal and Manto. Of course their work is important, but we must also give younger and newer writers a space, and give them some response. We need writing about how people today are living.”

Dalvi says that Urdu News Express will be informed by the experience she has garnered from being a journalist over the decades — “There is always a background to the things that we see in the news, and this background needs to be uncovered and looked at carefully and presented critically,” she said. Dalvi says that when she worked atAvadhnama, she would write many opinion columns as a reaction to things on the news. “Logon ko hum kis nazar se dekhte hai, uske pichhe kya hai, readers yeh jaanna chahte hai (how we see people, and what is behind them, this is what readers want to know)”, she said earnestly. This is what she hopes to do more seriously at Urdu News Express.

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Dalvi has faced specific professional challenges by working in an industry with relatively less readership, particularly as a woman editor who was perceived as taking a defiant political position in a debate that has polarised global media. But as one of the handful of women journalists and editors at Urdu newspapers, her experiences are familiar to women in the business everywhere.

When Dalvi was fired from Avadhnama, many reports argued that she faced a much more vehement backlash because she was a woman editor and was resented. She has often been the only woman journalist in a room full of male journalists where she constantly had to reiterate that she was there to do her job (one man told her to go and sit in his room so that she could interview him later, and others would keep asking her which man she was with). Dalvi has a startling story about her early years. When she first got her job at an Urdu newspaper, she found that none of the stories she wrote would be published. “When I finally asked them why, they said that it seemed like I was getting my stories written by somebody else. So I started writing my stories in the office in front of them, and they had to start publishing my writing,” she said.

It’s not surprising that Dalvi is particularly interested in publishing women’s stories. “I want to publish many stories of women who have come forward in their respective fields, whatever they are, despite all the opposing factors and odds that they have had to face,” she said.

Not many Urdu newspapers have thought of doing this, according to Dalvi, because their focus remains on local or national news. Dalvi does, however, remember a column she used to write at Sahafat, an Urdu daily newspaper at which she was the associate editor, called Saara Jahan Hamara, which would have a photograph of a woman who had worked extensively in a field, along with a short piece about them. It shone a light on unusual stories that were uplifting because they were about women who had been able to thrive despite challenges. For instance, Dalvi remembers writing about a woman in Nagpur who started working at a petrol pump after her parents passed away. “We need to collect stories where women have raised their voices,” she said. Is there an audience for such stories? Dalvi thinks there is. Her readers, over the years, have convinced her that these are the kinds of stories they want. She still remembers people who wrote to her when she was doing the column Saara Jahan Hamara, to tell her about women working in different fields.

Dalvi’s experience has so far been only in print journalism with Avadhnama, where the PDFs of stories were uploaded online. This time round, Dalvi says she will use Unicode and make sure that anyone who wants to republish stories from Urdu News Express can do so, by just giving a line of credit. She’s excited about going digital — “Before we started using the internet, our focus was always on stories only from India, but now, with the internet, international news must be included. Hum bade canvas pe baat karenge,” she said, insisting that this is important for any kind of conversation and circulation of ideas between people. The challenge, for Dalvi, would be to produce content that isn’t exclusive to a certain section of society, but is for anyone “jo naye soch rakhte hain” (anyone who is open to new ideas).

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Dalvi seems reconciled to the kind of difficulties and responses that she expects to encounter once Urdu News Express is launched, which may include the backlash she had received when she was editor at Avadhnama. The people now working with her on the website have been very supportive of her decision to start her own news site; she has been campaigning for funds on Milaap. But there’s also a hint of resignation in her voice. “There will be people who say bad things about the website and its content, and aren’t on our side in the same way that I hope there might be a few people who do like the work we are doing.”

Still, as Dalvi said at another point in the conversation, “A journalist never retires, never keeps quiet.”