Wednesday, March 21, 2007


The following piece is the text of a talk given by my friend S. R. Madhu on 'Women and the Media.' I thought this would be a good place to reproduce it.

Before I plunge into the subject of "Women and the media," let me conduct a little quiz on the subject.

Who is the first journalist to earn a salary of a million dollars a year? (Barbara Walters)
Who is the lady journalist from Kerala who covered several wars for CNN and Time magazine? (Anita Pratap)
Who is the editor of the best-known Indian magazine for women’s empowerment? (Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi)
Who is the only woman editor today of a major Indian daily newspaper? (Mrinal Pande, editor of Hindustan).

Why should we study women and the media? Because this subject is a mirror of women’s empowerment, according to Gloria Steinem herself. There’s a strong connection between women’s media and women’s empowerment.

What are the strengths of women as media specialists? They are more observant than men, they are more sensitive to unfairness and injustice than men, they often speak and write better than men.

Further, women are more effective than men in drawing people out, getting them to speak. They are more effective interviewers than men, particularly when the subject is a celebrity. One reason is that women have easy access to the celebrity’s wife, daughter, sister or mother – who are often the best sources of rare nuggets of information.

In my talk today, I’ll compare the status of women in the media about 50 years ago and now. I’ll discuss some issues concerning women in the media, then give you a few snapshots of some outstanding or exciting women achievers in the media today.

The status of women in the Indian media has undergone a tectonic shift. In the 1960s, most newspapers did not even have a single woman. Rami Chhabra was 19 when she met Prem Bhatia for a job in the Statesman of Calcutta. She was well qualified, she had just won an award from the BBC, and she was passionate about working in a newpaper.

Prem Bhatia looked up from his desk and said "Young lady, if you want to work in a daily, wipe off that lipstick and remove those ear-rings. Pretty girls shouldn’t be in newspaper offices. They distract the men." Prem Bhatia went back to his work, and Rami Chhabra stood dismissed. She approached other newspapers, but they said: "We know you write well. But why don’t you just sit at home and give us articles? We’ll both be happy."

In fact, some of the most legendary editors in India uttered similar sentiments. Girirlal Jain of the Times of India said a daily newspaper was no place for a woman. Later his own daughter joined a daily newspaper. Pran Chopra, another great editor, denied Razia Ismail a job saying "I’m sure you’ll refuse to do night shifts." Razia Ismail later had a distinguished career in the United Nations.

Difficult working conditions

But gradually, the prejudice against women in newspapers weakened. Newspapers in India started hiring women as reporters and subeditors. But they faced difficult working conditions.

-- There was no separate toilet for them, and a girl reporter often had to go down three floors or go up four floors to find a ladies’ toilet.
-- Usha Rai of the Times of India, wife of famous photographer Raghu Rai, says that when she got pregnant, she was shocked to discover that there was no provision for maternity leave! She had to fight for it before she got it! Some newspapers peremptorily divided three months of maternity leave into six weeks before the baby, six weeks after the baby. If the lady said, "I want only one week before the baby and seen weeks after the baby," managements didn’t agree.
-- Women had complaints about unequal pay and work conditions. Women were often given low-fee contracts, not absorbed on the staff. And women were always assigned soft stories – flower shows, gallery shows, fashion shows, beauty contests, book launches, film and drama reviews. They were thrown crumbs from the reporting beat, while men covered Parliament, the Prime Minister’s office, the Home Ministry, Finance Ministry and so on.

There was sexual harassment. In Mumbai, a news bureau chief assigned a girl to do a story on pornographic literature on the pavements, and passed on to her on his collection of pornographic limericks as "research material".

Ammu Joseph who lives in Bangalore, has written a book titled Making News: Women in Journalism. It is based on interviews with 200 women journalists from different parts of India. The book contains many interesting stories and anecdotes, many of them unpleasant.

In a newspaper office the night shift is the most important. Meena Menon of the UNI says when she volunteered for night duty, the news editor remarked: "So you don't mind being raped!' And broke into a laughing fit till he became breathless. Some women who walked home after night shift were harassed on the road. People assumed that a woman alone on the street at night could only be a prostitute.

In the 1980s, labour laws were passed saying that no woman should work alone on a newspaper night shift, there should be at least two women. And they should be provided transport back home. Because of this rule, many newspapers all over India did not employ women on the night shift.
On the other hand, some newspapers were sometimes overly protective about women. Usha Rai was once covering a price rise demonstration outside the Super Bazar in Delhi. Word broke out that the police had resorted to tear gas. Her bosses in the Times of India broke into a panic. They got two male journalists to locate and rescue Usha Rai.

In The Statesman, Tavleen Singh, who is one of India’s best-known columnists, insisted that she would drive home in her own car after night duty, she wouldn’t take the office car. For a whole year, The Statesman sent a chauffeur- driven office car behind Tavleen Singh’s car, to escort her.

The Renaissance: Women in the Media after 1976

In 1976, after the emergency was lifted and Mrs Gandhi was thrown out of power, the Indian press went through a renaissance. Many new magazines started. For women, it looked as if the floodgates had opened. Opportunities for them expanded and opened up. And today, newspapers and magazines are teeming with bright women. They are everywhere, doing everything -- covering political and economic news, the CBI, the foreign office, sports and even the stock market. They are talented, well-educated, sharp, and extremely ambitious. And TV news is dominated by women.

I would like to provide a few snapshots of some of the best and brightest women in the media business today.

Snapshots: Anita Pratap

Anita Pratap first came to the limelight when she interviewed
Prabhakaran of LTTE and wrote on the shameful anti-Tamil riots of 1983. In fact there were rumours of a romance between her and Prabhakaran, and she discounted them fiercely, she said Prabhakaran was grateful to her for her coverage of the ethnic problem. She wrote the book "Island of blood" on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.

Anita also reported several wars for the CNN and Time magazine – the Afghan war and the Taliban’s triumph, India-Pakistan wars, the Naxalite menace in the northeast, India’s nuclear tests. She has interviewed the Prime Ministers or Presidents of several countries.

She was the first TV journalist to report from the highest battleground on earth, the 22,000 ft Siachen glacier, where Indian and Pakistani armies exchanged fire almost every day.

Anita Pratap writes forcefully, insightfully, often caustically on political subjects. Besides hardcore breaking news, Anita Pratap has reported on development issues such as population, education, health care, poverty alleviation, women’s concerns. She is now an independent documentary film-maker.

Madhu Kishwar

Let me now talk about Madhu Kishwar, a social activist and the editor of Manushi, and a great symbol of women’s empowerment. Manushi has been described as one of the world’s best women’s magazines, also as the voice of India’s conscience.

Manushi was founded in 1978 by Madhu Kishwar and a few others with a capital of Rs 500. What makes the magazine unique is that it accepts no advertisements and no donations. Sometimes the magazine doesn’t have money even for postage. In its early years, it could not even afford a typewriter. The magazine has 6,000 subscribers in India, Europe, the US, Africa and Australia.

Says Madhu Kishwar. "In India, you get a lot of affection and respect if
if people are convinced that you're not out to make money, that you are a genuine social worker."

Madhu Kishwar desribes Manushi as a "catalyst to make our society more just and humane. We don’t just passively put together articles that come to us, we initiate positive and corrective change."

Manushi is more than a magazine. It provides legal aid, it conducts human rights campaigns, it publishes books, it even organizes street plays. It exposes discrimination against women. But it is not a magazine for women only. Manushi is also every thinking man's magazine.
Early issues of Manushi focused on atrocities against women and the pliht of the landless poor. But now, the magazine is more reflective and philosophical. It carries inspirational people profiles, it discusses Indian traditions and tribal rituals. It carries poetry, film reviews, book reviews, short stories and analyses of social trends and political events. Every issue carries a thoughtful piece by Madhu Kishwar herself. She once outlined a down-to-earth 10-point plan to strengthen Hinduism.
Readers almost died laughing when Manushi ran a piece on the superiority of Indian-style toilets over Western-style toilets!

Madhu Kishwar has remained unmarried. She is strongly attached to her family. Her father is a retired LIC officer, her mother is a housewife. She says she derives her strength from the unconditional love showered on her from her family – not just her parents, but grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Madhu Kishwar says "The only women I have had problems with are Indian feminists. They empathise with Western feminism, not with our own society and people. For some reason they're the only ones who can't stand Manushi. Nothing satisfies them. I don't understand what they want. I have an uneasy feeling that they want to remould Indian women into creatures alienated from their own social environment." Not everyone agrees with Madhu Kishwar but everyone respects her.

Barkha Dutt

Barkha Dutt is perhaps the first lady of Indian television. She has recorded so many "firsts," and won several awards, specially for her coverage of the Kargil war. She does interesting programmes every week. For her, and for many other TV reporters and anchors, nothing matters more than a good story. They are prepared to do anything -- even maybe risk their lives or break the law -- for a good story.

To illustrate this trait in Barkha Dutt, here's an anecdote. She wanted to visit Afghanistan and do an eye-witness story. India's Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was going to Kandahar on a political visit, he wasn't taking any press people with him. But Barkha was determined to go. She rushed to the airport. When she saw a bread van about to leave for the tarmac and deliver bread to Jaswant Singh's plane, she sweet-talked the driver of the van, got into it and reached the plane. The Finance Minister was horrified and ticked her off. Barkha was disappointed that she couldn't pull it off. "But at least I tried", she told herself.

Mrinal Pande

Mrinal Pande is an icon of Indian journalism. She is the first Indian woman to be the editor-in-chief of a national daily newspaper, Hindustan. It is part of the Hindustan Times group and comes out from several cities.

Mrinal Pande has studied English and Sanskrit literature, ancient Indian history, archeology, classical music and the visual arts. She published a short story at the age of 21, and has been writing ever since, for the past 40 years – journalism, fiction, drama and essays. She has also been a columnist, broadcaster and television presenter.

She has spent several years on the National Commission for Self-Employed Women, inquiring into the conditions for rag-pickers, vegetable sellers and domestic help. Her recent book "Stepping Out, Life and Sexuality in Rural India", is a revealing book on the condition of women in rural India.

Mrinal Pande says "I may have neglected my family because of my work. But I believe that writers are selfish. Others make more room for writers, than they make for others."

Sucheta Dalal

Sucheta Dalal, 45, is one of India’s most powerful journalists. She is the person who exposed the Harshad Mehta scam in the early 1990s and the Ketan Parekh scam a couple of years ago. She is a consulting editor of MoneyLife, a personal finance magazine. She is a columnist for the Indian Express and for, and a consulting editor of Financial Express.

Sucheta Dalal is known for a simple terse style, free of flourishes. She writes from the standpoint of the common citizen and the average investor, and she fearlessly exposes what is corrupt, what is dubious, what is questionable.

Sucheta is the author of two books,. One of them is about stock market scams, the other is a biography of industrialist A D Shroff. She has worked with two financial dailies -- Business Standard and The Economic Times. The government made her a member of the Investor Protection and Education Fund, and that has been warmly welcomed by the general public.

Bachi Karkaria

Finally, a few words about Bachi Karkaria. She is an excellent writer – witty, forceful, elegant. She has held one of the prize jobs in journalism in India, that of editor of the Times of India. She says her father passed on two mantras to her. One: make your own sunshine. Two, be flexible. If you bend, you won't break.

She is outspoken about how far women have come in the media. She says "The women we interview for jobs are so much better than men, that sometimes we take a man just as a token gesture for men." About the biggest challenge facing women in the media, she says: They should stop thinking gender, they should only think professional.

I think that’s a great message for the future. The media in India belongs to women – provided they don’t talk gender, they only talk professional.


Sathej said...

It is an inspiring talk for women.The working conditions for women in those days seem pathetic.Today,it is a much better situation,I guess.
The last sentence stands out,'provided they don’t talk gender'.A good point made.
However,I don't quite see the justification for the comment that women often speak and write better than men.The other points regarding the sensitivity and observation may be true to quite an extent.Also,women may be better interviewers sometimes, with celebrity guests.But,on speaking and writing skills,to say that women are better is a huge generalization with not much backing.

Tony said...

Insightful speech. Where was Madhu's 'talk' held?

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Hi Toe Knee,
It was a talk at the Woodlands Hotel in Chennai organised by the Joint Action Council for Women.

matcher said...

Lady!!!What a great write up.Full marks on your clarity of Indian women journalists.Alaphia Zoyab's Blog has finally has come of age and has become class apart after months of nitty-gritty writing.

Barkha Dutt,She is one single iron clad woman who will stand apart in her career.But what about the rest of the lot.Will any "Indianised" woman show the guts and nerve to go to a Taliban infested region or to the war-ravaged zones in Iraq.

TV Journalism has really brought limelight on the extenstive courage and dare-devil act of bravery of these women journalists which otherwise would have gone unnoticed in the Print Media.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Hi Matcher... I didn't write this piece. Like I said in my introductory remarks, this is the text of a speech made by a friend of mine called S. R. Madhu.


Makes very good reading.
The treatment meted out to women journalist in the sixties was sadly in keeping with the trend then of looking at the woman only in her role as homemaker and mother.
Today the Indian woman journalist has proved that she can stand with the best of them - in print and electronic media.

donthecat said...

Great write-up, journo :-) . Enjoyed reading it. Thanks for reproducing it here, Alaphia.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Hi Sathej - Unfortunately Madhu could not log on but this is his reply to your comment.

Thanks for your comment.
I must confess that since I was addressing an audience of women,
I tried being complimentary to them! You are right. No generalization
can be made about the comparative abilities of men and women.
However, I have been a judge at school-level debates and elocution contests in Chennai,
and invariably, the girls out-performed the boys. This also seems to be
happening in examinations. So boys had better watch out!
However, most of the great writings, in journalism or literature, have been by men.
Most of the great speeches, in politics or other disciplines, have also been by men.

S R Madhu

Hi don,
Thanks for stopping by. Like I said, S.R. Madhu wrote it...most happy to merely reproduce it.

Sathej said...

Thanks for the reply,Madhu and thanks Alaphia for posting it!By the way,examinations,well!That is debatable.Board examinations,girls of course do well,but in competitive professional entrances,boys show better results.

Karthik Narayan said...

good one. thanks for sharing. I can use the trivia :) and register the names somwhere if am asked in a quiz...

GVK said...

Would appreciate if you could draw Mr Madhu's attention to my take in Desicritic on women in the media - Are our media women over-empowered?

Achinthya said...

Hello there,
First time here.
stumbled upon this post as I was googling for something.Really interesting and insightful.Mr Madhu is quite right when he says that we women can open stubborn locks of silence into the skies of free communication.Thanks. Will check the other posts.
Love and peace

Gramachandran said...

We can add Alaphia Zoyab, my former bench-mate from St. Michael's to that list as well, can't we?

Interesting Blog, I should say!


Alaphia Zoyab said...

Hi!! Thanks for the comment and I'm very excited that you stopped by my blog.

Leave me your email or a contact or something! I remember you were in Atlanta when I last met you at Arjun's apartment in Besant Nagar for that little reunion. Where now? Whaddup?

Rohan said...

It's a pity that many women themselves have a mentality of subservience to men. I know for a fact that many women/girls donot go to certain/most places without a male "bodyguard". I donot however, mean to discredit the need for security.