‘Talk to my eyes, not to my chest’
In January 2012, BBC reported that India has more than 70,000 newspapers and over 80 news channels. It is the biggest newspaper market in the world, with more than 100 million copies sold daily. Stalwarts from the Indian media, at a recent conference, agreed that people in South Asia generally had a strong faith in newspapers, which is why the industry continues to thrive. But what also thrives is violence against women journalists in the field, and their ongoing harassment within the journalism fraternity.
On August 23, about 500 journalists from various publications and news channels sat silently in anger at Hutatma Chowk, one of the major squares in downtown Mumbai, to protest the rape of a young photojournalist by five men the previous day. She was on an assignment to photograph a dilapidated textile mill with a male colleague; her colleague was tied with a belt while the men raped her.
The mood at Hutatma Chowk was somber. Various news federations issued statements about the general safety of women in “the New York of India.” But a different set of murmur was also abuzz — that of the harassment that women journalists continue to face within their work sphere. A senior female journalist had to once tell her male colleague, “Talk to my eyes, not to my chest.”
Violence against women has been an ongoing topic in the Indian media, spurred by several shocking rapes and murders, but also by the rise of women within various professions. But the moralistic media in India has been largely quiet about sexual harassment in its own workplaces: A female journalist’s chastity is questioned if she rises ‘too quickly’ in her career; atrocious sex jokes made by men fly around in the presence of the women. An ex-colleague — a photojournalist — wouldn’t stop checking out the photographs he had taken of a model whose garment had come undone on the ramp.
It took veteran journalist Rina Mukherjee a decade to win justice in a case of sexual harassment against a former superior at her then-employer, The Statesman newspaper. “The police are utterly confused about how to deal with a white-collar offender. Molestation by roadside miscreants is easy for the police to deal with,” she wrote, right after she won the case, earlier this year.
Mukherjee also discovered that the Vishakha Guidelines, laid down by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 in an attempt to define sexual harassment in the workplace, were largely useless in practice. Among the duties for employers is to create complaint committees. But most female employees — including journalists — would not want to risk their job by complaining against a colleague or a senior.
Uma Kadam is a photojournalist with an experience of 13 years; her photographs graced an Indian language newspaper every single day for three years. In her early days, male photojournalists would brush her behind even as they all would be fighting for that perfect shot of the newsmaker of the day. “They knew that I wouldn’t react, as my main concern — like theirs, too — was to get a good photograph. During the days when we used a pager, some male photographers would send me false information about incidents. But I slogged on, ignoring their touching and groping and their remarks. But then, my boss, who is a man, is a gem. In these 13 years, I have seen the best and worst of men in the field of journalism.”
During the protest, many women realized that the phrase “I am a journalist” did not feel powerful anymore. The sexist culture of the profession and the nation inhibit their jobs: The discrimination women journalists face on the field for asking tough questions in tough situations is well known. When I told a senior male colleague after the protest how we women are constantly stared at, he stared back blankly and said, “I never considered this aspect ever — that women like you would feel so unsafe.” Perhaps that’s where addressing the concerns of women as professionals — and women in the wider Indian society — begins, rather than with empty promises of police security.
Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist in Mumbai. She was the 2012-2013 IWMF/Elizabeth Neuffer fellow in Boston.