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Op-Ed

In Her Words

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By EMN Updated: Aug 29, 2014 11:03 pm
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In this column we will be featuring the writings by award winning women journalists in India found in the collection of the book ‘Making News Breaking News Her Way. It is a publication by Tranquebar Press in association with Media Foundation, New Delhi which instituted the annual Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Women Mediaperson in 1980.

Nirupama Subramanian

Reporting from the neighbourhood

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]irst, a confession when I heard about receiving the Chameli DeviJain Award, my immediate instinct was to call the awards committee and make the following declaration: ‘Thank you for thinking I am deserving of this award, but I regret to say I cannot accept it because I do not think of myself as a “woman journalist”. I am a journalist, full stop.’ I managed to beat down that instinct to accept the award – because, let me be honest -it is always nice to be recognised; that too, by such a prestigious group of people, but while I have not fully made my peace with the label that goes with it, it forced me to look back at my career seriously through the gender prism.
In a quarter century in the profession, my work has been dominated by coverage of conflict, in Sri Lanka and in Pakistan. It is believed that women reporting on conflict tend to convey the story differently from men. Women are usually the worst sufferers in any conflict, and a woman journalist, it is felt, understands their suffering instinctively. It is really for others to judge whether I brought a perspective to the coverage that was uniquely feminine. Much depends on the individual competence of the journalist, regardless of gender. This much I can say: within the restraints placed by the governments of these two countries on foreign/Indian journalists, my effort was to bring to readers all dimensions of the conflict –its politics, what it did to people, its effects on a nation.
Everything was significant, from missing persons to art and architecture in Pakistan, or Sri Lanka’s maid industry. I have written about an eighty-year-old woman, the wife of a Pakistani general, who taught Bharatanatyam in Islamabad despite the religious disapproval of dance, travelled, during the height of the conflict in Sri Lanka, to witness a mass ordination ceremony for child monks in Buddhist Anuradhapura, and spoken to women whose children had been recruited by the L TTE.Some newsrooms still call these stories ‘features’, and are reluctant to give them prominent display as if that would devalue the newspaper. In my view, they were important stories to do because they opened a different kind of window to the places I covered.
Unfortunately, the one question I am asked more than any other has nothing to do with my reportage. It is also the one where I don’t have to think for even a second before answering: ‘Being an Indian woman, how safe was it for you in Pakistan?’ My reply: I have never felt safer than I did while living in Islamabad. I could drive home alone even as late as two am without fear of being assaulted. This I would certainly not try in Delhi or even in Chennai.
In fact, if there was something I was truly apprehensive about in Pakistan, it was the frequent seismic tremors that almost always came in the dead of night, jolting me awake. I would go into a panic, wondering if I should run out of the house, and if so, what I should carry with me. The tremors had become so frequent at one stage that I even discussed this with a friend, a Swiss diplomat, who said he had decided that the things to take were a suit and tie (because he would be required to work even harder after the earthquake, meeting survivors, dispensing Swiss aid), his laptop and a bottle of whiskey.
I had a few problems in Pakistan, but these were a consequence of government policies towards Indian journalists, and nothing to do with gender. In fact, I suspect that as a woman, I was perhaps able to make friends more easily in Pakistan than my male predecessors. People were always offering to help me, worried I might not be coping too well with all the circumstances of living in a difficult country. Feminist theory would put this down as a display of the paternalistic protective instinct towards women that is common to all feudal patriarchies. To me, accepting help was a way to meet more people, an opening into a society that I wanted to learn more about.
Beyond how gender mayor may not have affected my coverage of two important South Asian neighbours of India, did being a woman help my career? Would there have been more and better opportunities had I been a man? More troublingly, did I subconsciously become’ one of the boys’ in order to be accepted as an equal of my male colleagues and be considered for the assignments that were once deemed male turf?
I never had the opportunity to agonise over these questions. The reason perhaps was that ‘women journalists’ of an earlier generation had already done all the difficult spadework for those of us who followed. Usha Rai had stamped her presence at The Times of India, and Prabha Dutt, before her untimely death, at the Hindustan Times.
At The Indian Express in Delhi, where I worked in city- reporting in the late 1980s, there was no apparent need to think of oneself as a woman journalist. At least to my then young eyes, men and women were equal in the reporting room. The men did pass sexist remarks and cracked male jokes all the time. Those wouldn’t pass now in any newsroom, but then, the women just ignored them. And yes, the women’s 100 could have been better (in fact, I used it so rarely because it was badly maintained that now I cannot even remember where it was located). But when it came to work, the women were certainly not relegated to covering unimportant stories. Rather, the Express women were all trailblazers of their time.
Arati Jerath was a legend on the Delhi crime beat; when I was assigned the beat many years after her, I was told to read her story of a disaster at the Qutub Minar. Several children had been killed in a stampede on its steep circular stairway. In the pre-television breaking news age, it was a lesson in how a report could be precise yet moving without it being melodramatic.
Vidya Subrahmaniam was dispatched to Lucknow as the Uttar Pradesh correspondent where she raised the bar high for covering India’s politically most important state; Anjali Puri gave us all valuable reporting lessons with her first-rate coverage of an election in Pakistan -Benazir Bhutto’s first; Pushpa Girimaji had already carved a niche for herself With her Consumer Affairs column; Sevanti Ninan and Neerja
Chowdhury were in the bureau covering even weightier stuff The Express magazine was run by another set of formidable women -Nandini Mehta, Ranjana Sengupta, Shailaja Bajpai and Manisha Dubey. Across on the business desk, there was Jasjit Purewal. Over at the sub-editors’ desk, there were several women, and they Worked all shifts, including the night shift -there was no paternalism about women working late hours in the office; the office vans dropped them home after the shift.
There was a certain naturalness to it all. No one wore gender on their sleeve. As well as shaping the reporter in me, everything in my first five years as a journalist also gave me a ‘What gender?’ attitude.
If it was true of the The Indian Express, it has also been true of most big media houses since then, that women reporters do not have to struggle with their male seniors or colleagues to be assigned to mainstream beats. In fact, editors are inclined to hand Women reporters challenging stories because they tend to work harder to get the story. My own assignments as a foreign Correspondent In Sri Lanka and then In Pakistan- yes, I was even described as the ‘first Indian woman journalist’ to be based in that country -are testimony.
Single Women fare better on this scale as they do not have the time-consuming responsibilities that go with being married; and for certain kinds of assignments that involve a transfer of residence, single women are even being preferred because they are less expensive than a man With a family, especially if the company is confronted With having to pay for his children’s education at the new location.
Women journalists have also done well as reporters because many of the beats that they once covered almost exclusively, because these were ‘soft stories’ that would be relegated to the features section, are now part of mainstream news – development issues, the environment, education, health, Bollywood. More women are still writing about these issues than are men, but now they are on Page 1, because they are important stories.
But for perspective, it is useful not to forget what an editor of a national daily admitted some years ago: hiring women is good business logic because they tend to work harder to prove themselves. They do not complain about salaries because they tend to come from well-off families and what they earn is pocket money. Plus, as many tend to quit early to get married or have babies -the organisations do not have to plan for their rise up the hierarchy.
This thing about moving up the organisational ladder: when I joined The Times of India as a sub-editor -my first job after a year’s training at the Times Research Foundation – senior sub-editor colleagues often threw a question at one another, only half jokingly, as they watched reporters bask in the glory of their by-lines: is there life after the desk? The reporter’s job was seen as more glamorous than being stuck on the desk, editing reporters’ copy.
Paradoxically, I have been asking myself if there is life after nearly twenty-five years as a reporter. I am discovering that women seem to be more valued professionally when they are out in the field than in an office -few newspapers plan for its women professionals to rise in the hierarchy to positions where they can bring their experience in the field to drive news coverage. It’s almost as if they are surprised you want a job in the office. At the Times Research Foundation where I got my journalism training, we were thirteen men and thirteen women. More of the men remain in journalism than women, and more men are in positions where they are driving news or in senior managerial positions, than are the women.
So, someone please tweet when things change on this front, if Twitter is still around then. Meanwhile, I really liked whatever I have done for most of my career, especially those assignments in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. I hope to continue making useful contributions to journalism in the years ahead. One last thing: I am still unsure if labelling ourselves ‘women’ journalists works to our advantage or disadvantage.

Nirupama Subramanian, a Chennai-based journalist and author, is a deputy editor at The Hindu. She had two stints as a correspondent in Sri Lanka, first for The Indian Express (1996-2000) and later for The Hindu (2000-2002). As The Hindu’s Pakistan correspondent (2006-10), she covered all the major events in that country -the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the lawyers’ campaign for the restoration of independent superior judges, the parliamentary elections, and the induction of the new democratic government. She began her career in journalism in 1986, with The Times of India and has also worked with The Sunday Observer, The Indian Express and India Today. Nirupama Subramanian won the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 2008. She shared the award with Vinita Deshmukh.

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By EMN Updated: Aug 29, 2014 11:03:17 pm