Media is the sensitive litmus test that represents the dichotomy of tradition and transformation in society. The coming of media institutions in India announced a culture of revolutionary inclusiveness and its further ballooning caused the collapse of conventional pecking orders. Having said that, the media never disregarded the policy of reproduction and reaffirmation of social inequalities that suited the popular culture. Perhaps, the internalisation of gender discrimination in media flows and media effects was classically convenient to the model of media capitalism given that women have always been sanctioned as the second sex in society. Sonia Bathla, the author of Women, Democracy and the Media, writes on this phenomena, “The silence of the media on women’s issues and the movement hints at the insignificance attached to women as citizens and to their participation in the public sphere.”
Praise the lord for the bravery of men who never came to the rescue of women in media. Only when the men in the journalism tribe in their infinite wisdom decided to misreport and marginalise women, women were stimulated to stake claim in the media machinery. In a field peopled by men in 1942, the relentless activist Vidya Munshi became the first mainstream woman journalist in India. The acute awareness of being a woman is what made her overwhelmingly responsible to her community and the profession. Then in 1965, Pratima Puri charmed the audiences to become the ‘First Lady of Indian Television’. In times when women on celluloid were deemed infamous, she overcame the binary of vamp-virgin representations to be recognised as a professional newsreader on Doordarshan.
“I travelled across Delhi on a bicycle, wearing a saree, with two huge sling bags across my shoulders that held cameras and equipments. I would get strange looks from people on the street,” discussing her sepia memories with India Today, the first woman photojournalist of India, Homai Vyarawalla had consuming anecdotes of covering the World War II for the Indian station of British Information Service. She evolved into an uncompromising personality in the mediascape because of the enduring realisation that she was working in a man’s profession in a man’s world. Regardless of the Vyarawalla example, the Indian media could not receive women war journalists because apparently valour and vulnerability could not coexist in society. Hence, Prabha Dutt had to secretly cover the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War since she was not permitted to undertake the assignment by her paper. Barkha Dutt in her interview to the Firstpost recalled her mother’s contribution to the protestation, that women sought no preferential protection on the frontlines. Prabha Dutt was reserved to report a local flower show in town when she demanded to be assigned to cover the border conflict. The response from the editor was a categorical ‘No’, so she made her own way to Khem Karan and started sending back dispatches that her newspaper eventually published. Alas, licensing deprivation of equal opportunities to people of equivalent skills is still a norm in the media houses. This tendency is quite noticeable in the unprofessional and unethical practice of gender based stereotyping of news beats.
Reading the gender representation in newsrooms, Ammu Joseph from the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) observes, “Many female journalists still experience slow and limited progress, if not stagnation, in their careers.” In the fall of 2017 Newslaundry conducted a noteworthy research, reviewing the bylines and articles of prominent newspapers, to understand the gender ratio in the state of reportage. The papers examined were – The Times of India, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, The Telegraph and The Indian Express, the most widely circulated newspapers in India according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The numbers revealed that of the 7,372 articles screened in the study only 32 per cent were written by women, which means twice the number of bylines were attributed to men in the workforce. The inference drawn from the research appropriately said, “Together the five papers set the agenda for national discourse and even as they dissect other establishments on issues of gender equality, our research shows that they don’t quite pass the test themselves.” Correspondingly this statistic discrimination conserves momentum through the process of mediamorphosis and is tangible in the livewares of cinema, broadcast and new media. This tends to further escalate in media organisations where women are denied power positions confirming to the glass ceiling theory that keeps women from ascending the editorial hierarchy. This elephant in the Indian newsrooms significantly influences the construction of feminine images and information.
The absence of women in policy and production stages is painfully, and sometimes embarrassingly, realised in all media cultures – films, television and advertisements that seem to be in a stereotype consolidation race. Filmmaker Bishakha Dutt describes how the narrative in cinema has travelled from femme fatale to women being dangerously punished for moral transgression in the negotiations of the so-called heroine centric films. Shoma Munshi in her book – Remote Control, explores the eccentric sexist imaging on small screen. The soap operas on Indian television do not sell the embodiment of women’s sexuality but rather romanticises an obsessive fidelity to family, irrespective of reciprocity or exploitation. The advertising industry in India has manufactured its own cult of patriarchy, a world where women are doomed with the traditional roles of washing clothes and serving food. The contemporary bargain to represent a working woman in the advertisement comes with her prepossession to the power of fair and lovely skin. The media ecosystem shows no sign of role reversal or egalitarian power relations, and this gender bias media output is primarily driven by the gender bias media input. The home truth in the matter is that women cannot be well represented on reel when they are underrepresented in real. Even the liberating technological domains of new media remain male dominated in the post truth, post human, post gendered mediums of communication. The new media is institutionalised on the models of Alternative Journalism and Citizen Journalism, yet even this supposedly participatory media is coloured with the hegemony of men.
India is the second largest market of smart phones and internet consumers but this technological penetration is skewed towards men, excluding women form the digital progress. Reporting on the Gender Digital Divide, Livemint in the article ‘She is Offline’ demonstrated how India accounts for nearly half the digital gender gap worldwide – “The world today has 3.58 billion internet users. Roughly 2 billion (56%) are men and 1.57 billion (44%) are women, of that shortfall of 430 million users, 42% comes from India.” An evaluation released by the LIRNEasia, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) think tank, published that India has the most meagre number of women online, and the maximum gender gap in mobile phone ownership among 18 similar countries. According to the study, only 43 per cent women in India use mobile phones as opposed to 80 per cent men, surpassing the gender digital divide ratios of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Rwanda and other countries. With less than one-third of India’s internet users being females, women are endangered to further marginalisation if they continue to remain digitally unlettered, more particularly in the backdrop of the country making a push towards a digital economy. The impediment in working towards a gender equitable digital India is the alarm against women using mobile phones to access the new media in the broader context of patriarchal restrictions on women’s autonomy and right to information.
The International Federation of Journalists published a text on women in media in South-Asia – The Stories that Women Journalists Tell. The Indian Roundtable oriented the discourse on how the media explosion in the country did not impel the recruitment of women journalists in smaller cities and rural quarters more specifically, because of the poor pay and poorer working conditions. “Increasing criminalisation and militarisation also affects women and limits their opportunities. Safety and security becomes a major issue and specialised training is needed to help women in media.” The participants recommended the establishment of stronger networks and support groups, so that women can encourage and empower each other in the media industry, transcending regional boundaries. In this frame of reference, the Khabar Lahariya model of journalism is worth mentioning. Khabar Lahariya is a pioneering rural news network run by 24 women reporters in eight off-the-map districts of North India. The documentary ‘Writing with Fire’ filmed the revolutionary organisation of Khabar Lahariya where women assume absolute responsibility of running the newspaper by reporting, editing, designing, publishing, and distributing on their own immunity. Back in 2002 when the first edition was launched from Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, a woman travelled to Allahabad each week to print the newspaper copies and came back to sell Khabar Lahariya to each household in the village. Today the circulation of the newspaper records 3 hundred thousand copies every month in a variety of rural dialects and vernacular languages. What makes this experiment all the more groundbreaking is when women from the tribal and backward communities, women from unschooled and untrained sections, outrival the gender relations, caste dynamics, literacy divides to come together and contribute a feminist voice to the news waves of the country.
To engender gender equality in the society, it is imperative that media promotes and protects this gender equality in its own backyard. Gender equity in media houses is central to any discussion about a competent representation of women in popular culture. Journalism can essentially practice gender sensitive reporting only when its own ecosystem inculcates that sensibility. Hence all journalists, regardless of the gender determinant, should have the right to certain fundamental principles in media. The three elementary entitlements are recruitment subject to professional dexterity, equal pay for equal work and opportunity for promotion sans discrimination. Further the media environment, whether public or private, must encourage the participation of women in their workforce by committing to the following tenets – training women to operate new technologies, removal of gender assignment segregation, insurance for women journalists, introduction of anti-discrimination charters and most significantly implementing the laws that deal with sexual harassment at workplace. The South-Asia Media Solidarity Network nominated a multi-pronged approach to address the concern of sexual harassment at media organisations by mapping the incidences and prevalence of predatory behaviours, execution of existing laws that prohibit sexual harassment and setting up an Internal Complaints Committee to put in place the redressal mechanisms. For a still greater inclusion of women, media houses must address to the special needs of journalists as parents since the onus of childcare often falls upon women in the country. To support the participation of mothers in media, the organisation can make provisions of accommodative working hours, fair allowances in maternity leaves and availability of child care services to advocate the crèche culture.
If as John Stuart Mill suggested, we tend to accept whatever is as natural, this is just as true in the realm of media organisations as it is in our social arrangements. The whole purpose of journalism says, natural assumptions must be interrogated and the mythic constructions must be questioned so that the objective truth can live in light. It is here when the very position of women as acknowledged outsiders in the media, the maverick ‘she’ instead of the neutral journalist, defeats the whole purpose of journalism and media in contemporary India.
- Bathla, Sonia. Women, Democracy and the Media. New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 1998.
- Dasgupta, Sanjukta, Dipankar Sinha, and Sudeshna Chakravarti. Media, Gender and Popular Culture in India: Tracking Change and Continuity. New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2012.
- Deshpande, Anirudh. Class, Power and Consciousness in Indian Cinema and Television. New Delhi: Primus Books, 2009.
- Munshi, Shoma. Remote Control: Indian Television in the New Millennium. Penguin 2012.
- Prasad, Kiran. Women, Globalization and Mass Media. New Delhi: The Women Press, 2006.
- McQuail, Denis, Philip Schlesinger, and Ellen Wartella. The SAGE Handbook of Media Studies. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2004.
- Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. Pearson Education India, 2013.
- Jones, Amelia. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader.Routledge Publications, 2003.
(Srishti Singh is a student of Journalism at the University of Delhi and
is currently interning with India Foundation.)
(This article is carried in the print edition of November-December 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)