After the Delhi gang rape, the Tarun Tejpal case and charges of sexual misdemeanour against two retired Supreme Court judges, it has become increasingly difficult to attend international events outside the country without being asked “How safe do you feel as a woman in India?” and assorted questions that reflect the dim opinion of India many outsiders harbour.

(file pic : socialism.in)
(file pic : socialism.in)

As the year drew to a close, the Tejpal case still gripping national attention, I was attending Unesco’s Global Forum on Media and Gender in Bangkok last December. Anticipating a barrage of probing questions from fellow delegates, I prepared myself to participate in the discussion. True to my fears, the questions I was being asked by women journalists from even war-ravaged and troubled countries such as Afghanistan, Jordan and Syria were embarrassing, to say the least. Sample these: “What time do you get home from work?”, “Does your husband accompany you to your assignments?”, “How do you handle male bosses at work?” and “Oh my God! You live in Delhi? How do you commute?”

The mounting count of high-profile cases of sexual abuse, brutality and harassment across the country has resulted in two things – heightened media glare and thus quick delivery of justice to  women, and  more women coming out to report such cases.

Sadly, these have resulted in the country’s image taking a terrible beating in the eyes of the world. Earlier when you said ‘India’, you could expect keywords like ‘honking’, ‘colourful’, ‘chaos’, ‘Ayurvedic massage’, ‘Goa’ and ‘bliss’ in the conversation that ensued. Now, ‘India’ seems to elicit the imagery of depraved men on the prowl ready to pounce on women – any age, any class any time. The gang rape of a 51-year old Danish woman in New Delhi recently has only helped to further reinforce such an impression about the country.

What has changed?

It isn’t that rape and sexual harassment of women is new to India. It isn’t also that every case of rape gets reported by the media – only some do. Says senior journalist Kalpana Sharma, “The Indian media goes to any length to recreate the crime scene, the hows and whys behind the rape of a middle-class woman. Newspapers follow these stories up, sometimes going into graphic details, just like a serial where new facets are unravelled every day. Why don’t these newspapers show the same interest when a slum dweller is raped?”

Sharma, who delivered a keynote speech at the Forum, contends that a large part of the readership derives voyeuristic pleasure out of reading these stories. And newspapers deliver what readers want. I have no empirical proof to back that statement but Sharma, a veteran of this country’s newsrooms, should know. If she is right, the trend is truly unfortunate.

If the India story at the Forum seemed to be primarily related to the struggle of our women against sexual violence and our womenfolk constantly fighting a minefield for safety and dignity, it was no better elswhere. Women journalists talked of dodging mortar shells, insensitive and chauvinistic men and battling in-your-face, terrible discrimination – adversities that need raw courage to counter.

At the Forum, I heard stories of unimaginable courage from some amazing women who have stood their ground as professionals even in inhuman circumstances. Flutura Kusari was a 15-year-old when NATO bombed her home in Serbia in Kosovo. Growing up as a refugee in Albania, she is now a lawyer in Kosovo advocating against corruption and nepotism. “If media is economically and politically independent, it will be easier for them to protect themselves and create legal standards to protect their women,” she says. Sounds like utopia for us in India.

Subhra Priyadarshini
Subhra Priyadarshini

Well, we aren’t as bad as many countries, I thought when I heard a man from Mogadishu tell the Forum depressing stories of rapes and killings of women journalists in Somalia. Hassan Abdi Mohamed, who heads a radio station in Somalia, says women workers have absolutely no rights in that country. Women can be sacked anytime from a job without any reason at all. Shocking!

I also befriended the graceful Lara Setrakian, who covers Syria running the portal ‘Syria Deeply’ with bureaus in New York and Beirut. “Sexual hostility and aggressive behaviour towards women is all pervasive. The best coverage of the Syrian war, however, has been by women reporters,” she says. Why and how, I ask. She tells me the not-so-obvious fact. “That’s because even when there’s no glory, we stick to the story.” So, long after the glamour of the war wore off, her women reporters were still writing about civilian life in the country making for remarkably human coverage.

The best piece of advice came from Jane Arraf, a middle-eastern journalist who told me she uses “being a woman” to her advantage in news coverage. “Leveraging your ‘otherness’ is something I always advocate. Sadly, women are either too modest or too shallow. For women like us covering conflict zones, empathy is the key. We can empathise with those at the receiving end so much better – that’s our biggest tool as workers in any field,” she says. I agree.

On a positive note, the Tejpal case has shown a ray of hope for women workers seeking justice. If such a powerful editor can be put behind bars, all is not lost for women – this seems to be the underlying trigger for the optimism. I see more and more women mustering the courage to stand up to unfair demands by their male bosses or unfair distribution of assignments based on gender. Suddenly, stories of sexual harassment that were brushed under the carpet are being discussed in the open. Old grievances are being heard afresh. Human Resource departments are briefing men and women employees about what constitutes a healthy work atmosphere. I even heard two young office-going girls discuss the ‘Vishakha Guidelines’ in the Delhi metro recently.

That’s a good beginning. Whether it will bring about substantive change in the way we treat our women merits another blog sometime soon.

*Delhi-based Subhra Priyadarshini is the Editor of  ’Nature India’ magazine.