By Taruni Kumar
A year which ended with Merriam-Webster declaring ‘feminism’ the word of the year, was one, you can safely assume, in which plenty of international news was examined through the lens of gender.
How did the Indian news media do this year? Well… there is good news and bad news.
Here is the good news. Indian news media seem to have got the hang of simpler issues of representation as it actively identified the gendered narrative within larger issues like elections and GST.
Take the Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections this year, where winners Ram Nath Kovind and Venkaiah Naidu ran against Meira Kumar and Gopalkrishna Gandhi respectively. While there was no call for more inclusivity in the candidature, news reports were quick to point out that only 9% of those entitled to vote in the presidential elections were women. The issue of representation was clearly top-of-the-mind for most, which is definitely something to cheer about even if the numbers themselves aren’t. Then again, headlines like The Times of India’s did club women together with crorepatis and criminal cases when it declared, “9% women, 71% crorepatis, 33% with criminal cases in electoral college for prez polls.” Made it sound like you’re lamenting the woman vote here, TOI.
Similarly, headlines after the assembly elections reflected on the abysmal number of women in the fray. In the five states that went to the polls between February and March this year – Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Manipur – only 234 women ran for elections from a total of 2,979 candidates. A spotlight was placed on Gujarat’s lack of women in the political arena as well where BJP fielded 11 women candidates out of 182 seats and the Congress fielded 10. And for Himachal Pradesh, Hindustan Times went with this incredulous headline: “The last time fewer women ran for the Himachal Pradesh assembly was 19 years ago”.
And it wasn’t just representation in the elections that caught the media’s eye. During the coronation of one of the biggest opponents to the Women’s Reservation Bill, Yogi Adityanath, as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, many news outlets pointed to not just his anti-religious minority stance but towards the way he sees women. “Uttar Pradesh: Yogi Adityanath had opposed women quota, defied BJP line in Parliament,” wrote The Economic Times, while DailyO went with the more general, “It’s not just Muslims, this is how Adityanath views Christians and women”.
It was also an unexpected pleasure to see that when GST came into force the media didn’t automatically assume that it would only affect men. Editors and reporters across India marvelled at the tax on sanitary napkins that remained at an astonishing slab of 12%. Comparisons were made between gold (taxed at 3%), insulin (taxed at 5%), sindoor, bangles and bindis (tax-free). Regardless of the government’s defence of the tax bracket, the media (and the Delhi High Court) seemed reassuringly certain that because periods are not a luxury or a choice, sanitary napkins shouldn’t be a choice either.
Also at the happy end, most of the media stood by Kangana Ranaut first when she was attacked by men in the industry for talking about nepotism and later in her very public battle with Hrithik Roshan even when other industry insiders didn’t. While also reporting anti-Ranaut criticism, Roshan’s responses and support for him, the news media did not succumb to the age-old practice of trying to paint a strong, vocal woman as ‘crazy’. In a December article on reporting sexual harassment at the workplace, The Times of India mentioned Ranaut and Angelina Jolie as positive role models in the story’s headline.
The media also did its job while reporting the sexual assault allegations against The Viral Fever (TVF) founder Arunabh Kumar, so thoroughly that it eventually forced him to step down. And all this happened prior to the movement that shook the world and led to Time magazine dedicating its cover to the ‘Silence Breakers’. On a similar note, Varnika Kundu’s stalking ordeal was also picked up from her Facebook post by the Indian media and followed up in a manner that, refreshingly, spoke about her as a successful career person and didn’t reduce her to entirely to victimhood.
Another key factor in the reportage of feminist issues was the scale and visibility that was afforded them. Happily, they weren’t relegated to the inside pages of newspapers or considered minor stories in the face of ‘more important’ news. They got their due time, debate and discussion. The news didn’t have to be gruesome rape or murder and wasn’t dismissed with the age-old “chhua toh nahin na? kuch actual mein hua toh nahin na?” Yes, this may sound like a low bar but perhaps we can set the bar higher next year.
Now let’s look at the bad news.
On several occasions, insights into complex feminist issues still seem to evade media organisations, where they instead seem to fall straight into the loving arms of jingoism and muscle-flexing. All of which was on display in the Hadiya case.
This was one story where the Indian media just seemed to lose the plot in 2017. The term love jihad was thrown around as an accepted term as if it were already valid and sensible. And when discussions did happen to question the validity of the term, more often than not, they revolved around the motives of the Muslim men rather than the agency of the women involved.
No, seriously, what is love jihad? Also, why is it that women are so easily viewed as ‘brainwashed’? It’s 2017, people. Let’s acknowledge that women can have agency and think for themselves, please? Even as Hadiya testified for the first time in court, the media focused on the many accusations of love jihad and her father’s claims of her questionable mental health. The entire question of a woman and her agency was also subsumed by a nationalist and Islamophobic narrative as debates revolved around her husband’s possible links with ISIS.
And that’s certainly not the only example. When a five-judge Supreme Court panel was formed to examine the practice of triple talaq in India every celebrated the religious diversity among the judges but most media houses didn’t seem to care that the panel included not a single woman.
Then there was the fun to be had after the panel declared triple talaq unconstitutional. Muslim women’s rights activists and petitioners had been fighting against the practice for years. But if the English news channels were to be believed, they had each single-handedly brought about the end of the practice of triple talaq (leaving aside any thought on how the judgement would affect actual practice on the ground). CNN-News18 and Times Now all ran tickers claiming that their campaigns against Triple Talaq had been victorious. Even Republic TV, which isn’t even 8 months old yet, jumped into the fray to claim the victory for which women had fought for decades. One could laugh at the audacity and dismiss it all as TRP-generating drama that shouldn’t be taken seriously. But against the backdrop of the erasure of women and their achievements in the annals of history, it’s dangerous to let this slide.
While we’re talking about Republic TV’s need to save women, in May, we still haven’t forgotten Arnab Goswami jumping into the middle of Sheetal Rajput’s newscast to save her from… doing her job successfully, we guess?
The list continues. TV news seemed to think that Indian farmers were mostly men and their issues were largely men’s issues. The reportage around Eman Ahmed’s story of weight loss treatment in India was oddly fetishized in an India-as-saviour and a fat woman before-and-after sort of way.
And then there is the question of reporting on sexual violence, which until very recently, was what most media thought gender reporting was. Some of our older complaints still stand. The murder of a Kerala woman committed by her stalker was reported as a “love story turned tragic”. Which makes you despair further about everyone’s understanding of consent when you think that the whole national establishment was intent on proving that the love story of another Kerala woman, Hadiya, was a crime.
While there is an uneasy understanding that sexual violence needs to be reported with more sensitivity, on an everyday basis no one seems to know how to do this yet. The Rohtak gangrape (and many other rapes for that matter) were reported with gruesome details in the headlines like “The Rohtak Gangrape Horror Gets Uglier, Victim’s Food Pipe Was Ripped Out And Gnawing Marks Found On Her Chest!”.
So, yes, in 2017, the Indian media had its ups and downs when it came to issues that involved women, but the omnipresent male gaze took a break once in a while and made way for a more inclusive, gendered view of politics, culture, and news. As for nuance, delicacy and tact though, that’s still a bit of a reach away.
Co-published with Newslaundry.