From rape threats to Twitter trolls: being a woman journalist in India is tough

Can’t have it all.
Can’t have it all.
Image: EPA/Piyal Adhikary
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Till the 1960s, journalism was a male bastion in India. Often, media houses simply refused to hire women journalists.

“They were gawked at and there was a lot of speculation as to how long they would survive in the taxing profession,” Usha Rai, one of the country’s earliest women journalists, wrote in a paper (pdf) published by the Press Institute of India and the National Commission for Women.

Eventually, as Indian society changed and journalism schools cropped up, women slowly started crowding newsrooms, taking on late-night duties, covering prime beats such as politics and foreign affairs, and becoming top bosses. But women journalists’ struggle with sexism is far from over. In fact, it may have worsened in today’s world of WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook.

This past week, an Indian television anchor suffered a ruthless backlash for moderating a session on whether worshipping Mahishasura, the mythological demon, was anti-national or not.

Sindhu Sooryakumar of Asianet News TV, a Malayalam news channel, allegedly received more than 2,000 calls on her mobile phone after the Feb. 26 broadcast—abusing her, threatening her, and calling her a “prostitute.” Her number was posted in a WhatsApp group and members were provoked to harass the journalist.

Sooryakumar was attacked for referring to goddess Durga as sex worker during her show, The News Hour, while discussing education minister Smriti Irani’s speech in parliament on Feb. 24. However, as The Indian Express newspaper confirmed, those words were actually read out by a Bharatiya Janata Party member on the show, while quoting from the pamphlet allegedly distributed at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“They said they won’t let me live in peace and will destroy my family. The comments were sexist and abusive. I filed a police complaint when I couldn’t take it anymore,” Sooryakumar recounted.

In another recent case, the house of Malini Subramaniam, a contributor to news website Scroll.in, was pelted with stones following her reportage from Bastar, in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Following incessant threats, she was forced to leave the town.

Earlier, in November 2015, a sub-editor with Madhyamam, a Malayalam newspaper, received a barrage of abusive comments for her Facebook post on sexual abuse in madrasas. Her account had to be temporarily shut down.

Attacked from all sides

On assignments in crowded areas, women journalists have often complained about being groped, teased, or pinched.

With the rise of social media, the problem has become more pervasive. In addition to on-the-job harassment, they are brutally trolled on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites for their stand on political or civic issues.

“In the garb of anonymity, they (trolls on Twitter) are saying things they wouldn’t say to you in person,” Sonal Mehrotra, a senior journalist with news channel NDTV, told Quartz. “They have cursed my parentage, my ovaries, and every possible organ.”

Last month, Mehrotra was among journalists who were manhandled and threatened at the Patiala House Courts premises by lawyers. “They can get very derogatory with a woman, like question their womanhood. They won’t do that with the men.”

Of course, male journalists are not spared by trolls. But the attacks on women is way more severe.

“There is no doubt that women are targeted in a way that men just are not,” Barkha Dutt, NDTV consulting editor, said in a recent interview. “That misogyny is true everywhere but especially amplified online, where so-called critiques of our work fast descend into comments on how we look, what we wear, and oh-not-to-forget, our fictional husbands and lovers! Malicious online trolling is a mind game—they want to unsettle you with their hatred, they want to intimidate or bully you into silence… and I’m damned if I’m going to let them do that.”

“You do feel vulnerable,” a senior female journalist at an online media outlet told Quartz, requesting anonymity. “You’re much more exposed in today’s world, and so you’re attacked much more easily.”

Viciously done

In 2013, a 22-year-old photojournalist was gang-raped in Mumbai, while she was on an assignment. That opened the debate around safety of women journalists, and led to many speaking up about the nasty incidents they had faced.

One of them, Ashima Narain, the photo editor of National Geographic Traveller India, described her work in The Indian Express:

…as more women started to express an interest in pursuing photography, I started to give more responsible and encouraging answers like, “I am looked upon with a certain amount of curiosity, but being a woman allows me access, people don’t feel threatened by my presence.” I believed it. I still believe it, but I now wonder if all these comments needed to be punctuated with more words of caution. I wonder if I need to tell them about how I once woke up in my hotel room and found the bellboy standing over my bed. I wonder if I need to recount that while crouching on the ground during a festival, I didn’t realise I had been surrounded by a group of drunken boys and had to crawl through their legs before the leering, lewd gesticulating and touching turned into something uglier. I wonder if I need to talk about the things I never talk about, like fear, because I have been lucky enough to come out safely.

Clearly, despite women journalists having had their way in the media houses, their struggle with everyday sexism is far from over. Companies need to put in place a safety mechanism to minimise the risk faced by their women employees. On the other hand, as far as the trolls go, Dutt had a piece of advice in her interview, “I think I follow the wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt, who as far back as the 1920s advised women in the public eye to ‘grow skin as thick as the hide of a rhinoceros’.”

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.