Women of their word

Women of their word

Women of their word

Each of the stories mentioned here go on to document anecdotes of courage that warm one’s heart and inflame one’s imagination, writes Revathi Siva Kumar 

 A collection of personal stories by 46 Chameli Devi Jain Awardees promises to be rich and rousing. You are sure that a one-stop platform for so many ‘Outstanding Women Mediapersons’ must be about the Real Journalist, the idealist-activist-writer with an ear to the ground, an eye for detail and a pen dipped in sharp and bitter truth.
Most, if not all, of the stories do live up to expectations. Hence, you feel somewhat privileged to share, through 30 years, the journeys of remarkable women who stormed male bastions of power and privilege, and held the banner of professionalism fluttering through change, corporate greed and graft.

The book is thus a mirror of changing media ethos. Even as you read the individual graphs, you can just feel the shuffles, shifts and shudders as the personality of the media changes colours and clangs into greater stridency. For instance, in the 1970s, an editor accuses women of using a newspaper only “as a waiting room for marriage”. But in 1982, the proprietor of the same paper says they prefer women, who are “more hardworking and conscientious”. And by 2009, one of the awardees, Nirupama Subramaniam, objects to being given a special honour as a ‘woman journalist’.

When you study the list of awardees, however, you cannot help sensing some kind of a bias in the choice of winners. In his preface, the president of the Media Foundation explains that the women are chosen for breaking new ground and adding something to the profession. Yet, the list seems to favour English mediapersons, especially from print.
A very rough count shows about 22 from major national English publications, three from English publications in smaller cities, five from major English TV news channels, six from non-English publications, six documentary makers, one photojournalist, one from a community radio station and one from Pakistan. And it is only in 1983 — 13 years after the award is instituted — that Manimala, a scribe writing mostly for Hindi publications, seems to make it to the list, at least in this book.
Even presuming that there are more women awardees whose stories have not been included in the book, the overriding feeling is of a bit of disbelief. Are there few women in the regional or smaller press or non-English TV channels? Or in the smaller states, cities and towns? Or are they not ‘breaking new ground’? Or are they perhaps not as ‘outstanding’ as their English media sisters in the major metros?
The truth, perhaps, lies in the sad fact that the English media is more visible and therefore ‘seen’ to be more socially conscious. Sheela Barse, a freelancer in two or three languages, accidentally answers this point when she writes: “I had to [also] write in English-language publications to make an impact at policy levels…The powers-that-be ignored Hindi publications, even though their editors were culturally rooted, great litterateurs and wonderful human beings. Unlike the snooty and often unimaginative English editors…”
You also realise that scribes who get developmental beats, or specials postings or columns, or even the backing of the more earnest and committed media houses, such as The Indian Express or The Hindu, tend to have it easier than say, freelancers or those from less visible platforms.
However, once you decide to suspend your disbelief, you can then go on to read, understand, experience and enjoy the first-hand accounts of these remarkable women. After all, from covering “flower shows, fashion and food news,” these trailblazers wrote some of the best stories from wide and varied domains — gender justice, health and family welfare, equity, consumer rights, war, tribal conflict, consumer affairs, scams, the stock market, internet news, communal conflict, foreign affairs, city news, sex workers, environment, investigatory analysis, remote and under-reported areas such as Kachch, the north-east, tribal Jharkhand, slums and children.

The collection opens with the very deserving awardee, Neerja Chowdhury, in 1982, who, among other exceptional acts, files a PIL against Madhya Pradesh on behalf of bonded labourers. More wonderful sagas follow: Sakuntala Narasimhan reports extensively on civic and community issues in an upmarket woman’s magazine. Sheela Barse, in 1982-83, is actually banned by newspapers in line with the Maharashtra home minister’s directive to not publish her honest and scathing reports. Madhu Purnima Kishwar collaborates with Shetkari Mahila Aghadi in 1986 to wrest economic independence for farmer-women of Maharashtra.
Story after story, throbbing with raw passion, goes on to document the anecdotes of courage that warm your heart and inflame your imagination. The list includes well-known luminaries and a few less visible ones: Prabha Dutt, Barkha Dutt, Shahnaz Anklaseria Iyer, Chitra Subramaniam, Usha Rai, Pushpa Girimaji, Sucheta Dalal, Teesta Setalvad, Sunita Narain, Kalpana Sharma, Rupashree Nanda, Shikha Trivedy, Manimala, Patricia Mukhim, Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija.

Two exceptional awards include Homai Vyarawalla, the oldest and best-known photojournalist, whose beautiful and illuminating black-and-white photographs flash an entire era before the eyes; and Rehana Hakim, the fearless editor of Newsline, Karachi, a women’s collective. It is a treat to read about her hot and heady struggle against male prejudice, state stereotyping and social demons.
The prose is by turns lyrical and robust but charged with the idealism it reflects. Madhu Kishwar, for instance, expresses simple yet lucid insights into the engine of her energy: “I take inspiration from Gandhi and believe that we need creative ideas to meet the challenges of our times, not dead and deadening ideologies.”
And for that, you have to doff your hat at the brave band that just about manages to keep the profession on this side of ‘nobility’ in an era of ‘paid journalism’.

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