Sunday, April 15, 2007

Are women in media over-empowered ?

I know this is a loaded question, prompted by a statement in S R Madhu's talk to the Joint Action Council for Women that met in Chennai last month. He believes there is a strong connection between women's media and their empowerment. Full text of his engaging talk appears in a blog by Madhu's young journalist friend Alaphia Zoyab. Bloggers like Ms Zoyab, to my mind, can work at securing equal empowerment of non-media women.

Their target group ought to be middle-class urban career women, who, seen as liberated in economic terms may not be so empowered in their domestic situation. Empowerment of rural women may well take a generation or two to be realised. Media women are a class apart.

They are perhaps the most empowered of the lot. So much, in fact, that if the likes of Ms Kakaria have their way, women's empowerment in the media may well become a threat to many men hoping to get into the media. Mr Madhu in his talk on 'Women and the Media' gives profiles-in-brief of the empowered such as Anita Pratap (ex-CNN), Madhu Kishwar (editor, Manushi), Barkha Dutt (needs no intro), Mrinal Pande (editor, Hindustan), Sucheta Dalal (finance columnist, and more), and Bachi Kakaria (Times of India)

As Sunday Times of India feature writer, Ms Kakaria used to send me memos (then, a TOI outstation correspondent) asking for 300-word input for articles she was working on. She was in an empowered position of aggregating, editing, clubbing-with, and, at times, ignoring, inputs received from various correspondents. The resultant feature articles got a full-page play with Bachi's byline. Of course, they acknowledged our input, at the bottom of the story, in italics; almost as an after-thought. I suspect such inputs-driven Sunday features were invented by editors to promote their blue-eyed ones in the organization; and to hassle outstation reporters such as yours truly.

I am not blaming Ms Kakaria, merely making a point about how empowered women can get. Mr Madhu's talk cites Ms Kakaria as saying, "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". Her message for women in the media: Stop thinking gender; think only professional.

They have evidently come a long, log way, women in media. There was a time when newspaper editors would not think of having a woman on their staff. Speaking of the status of women on the media scene in the 60s Madhu cites the case of Rami Chhabra, who, seeking a job on The Statesman, Calcutta, was told by editor Prem Bhatia, "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."

Pran Chopra reportedly turned down Razia Ismail for a job saying, "I'm sure you would refuse to do night shifts". This was a legitimate concern of editors those days. In the initial days when a few women got into newspapers, usually because of high connections (being daughters of high government officials or editors in other newspapers) editors didn't give women the night shift. Which caused resentment among men, because their turn for late-night week came quicker on the duty roster. Unable to take flak from male peers, some women in newspapers, feeling uncomfortable with favoured treatment, have in fact insisted on they being given night shifts, just as their male colleagues. Razia, I knew, joined Indian Express, New Delhi.

Madhu's address on women in our media refers to Barkha Dutt, a hotshot TV reporter from 24x7. I can't help feeling that her go-getter reputation has something to do with her genes. Barkha's mother was a reporter with Hindustan Times, New Delhi. Those familiar with Prabha Behl (before her marriage with S P Dutt) knew her to be combative in chasing stories, fairly vocal at press conferences, and friendly with other reporters. She had a wavelength with those of us in other papers; and usually addressed us, male or female, as 'yaar'. Prabha rose to be the chief reporter, Hindustan Times. She died young

This piece also appears in Desicritic

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