Journalism, like many others, has always been a male-dominated field. Unequal access to education and employment meant that men had already solidified their position long before women arrived at the scene. This meant that unhealthy power relations quIckly developed between men and women at several publications. Even so-called ‘progressive publications’ were not exceptions to this: the decade-spanning scandal of Tarun Tejpal has proved as much.
The effect of this gender inequity used to be quite clear on the front page itself. Women were absent from the news except in stories of marriage, motherhood and sexual assault. Such a lopsided depiction of women persisted for too long in India. Fortunately, things are improving for the better. In the last few decades, several notable women have broken through the glass ceiling, emerging as sharp voices and pierced through the male-gaze to confidently say, “we exist”.
The oldest among these is probably Madhu Trehan. In 1975, Madhu started India Today, a journal of culture and politics. During Indira Gandhi’s didactic reign in the following years, India Today was a staunch voice of reason and rebellion. Within its ranks were several prominent Indian journalists, including Shoma Chaudhary and Tarun Tejpal who would go on to shape progressive politics through ‘Tehelka’. It was Madhu who taught them to critically analyze the state and question the leaders of their day. Today, Madhu Trehan’s publication Newslaundry serves as a rallying point for the dissenters of a new generation. While the font on the front page may have changed, the work remains the same: to give a voice to the oppressed.
Women were absent from the news except in stories of marriage, motherhood and sexual assault.
Another prominent figure who worked with the oppressed is Bachi Karkaria. Although she did not butt-heads with the state quite as often as Madhu Trehan, her work was no less political. Over the course of a career spanning three decades, she raised issues including female foeticide and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Her stories were instrumental in bringing about a progressive policy to address these concerns and put a human face to the LGBTQ+ community. Perhaps no other figure in the history of Indian journalism has done more to address dangerous prejudices against the LGBTQ+ community that exist in Hindu society.
Any conversation about progressiveness in India would be incomplete without mentioning Gauri Lankesh. While Bachi Karkaria battled prejudice in Hinduism, Gauri Lankesh fought superstition. Her work openly criticized godmen and snake oil salespeople and helped raise public consciousness in her home state of Karnataka. Aside from being a foremost figure in the rationalist movement, her political writing is also of much importance. She was a constant critic of casteism and Hindutva, an ethno-nationalist movement in India – a criticism which cost her her life in 2017. Gauri Lankesh is now known and will be remembered forever for her fearless reporting and her concerted efforts to improve Indian society.
While a loud Hindu majority has often drowned out voices from other parts of the country, India remains a diverse country with diverse problems. The northeast, for example, is embroiled in issues related to citizenship, conservation and tribal communities. All of these – and more – have been the career-long concerns of Patricia Mukhim. Her writing has provided valuable insight into the militancy in the state of Meghalaya, peeling back layers of police inadequacy, corrupt governance and ethnic tensions. Indeed, neither contemporary Meghalaya nor contemporary journalism would be quite the same without Patricia.
Any conversation about progressiveness in India would be incomplete without mentioning Gauri Lankesh.
Which raises the question: what is contemporary journalism? Alongside advances in digital news, there has been gradual democratization of news. Blogging sites and social media are very often the grounds where stories first break: seemingly begging for the right person whose confident prose and capable manner can turn a story into news. Someone perhaps like Vidyut Gore.
Vidyut, originally a blogger and a twitter personality, has quickly become a respected voice in Indian journalism. Starting off with satirical websites that earned the ire of the political elite, Vidyut soon turned her talents towards investigative pieces that were instrumental in solving murders committed against Mumbai’s vulnerable classes. Further, her website www.aamjaanta.com (Hindi for ‘common man’), now serves as a fence for whistleblowers, earning her comparisons with Wiki-Leaks. Although she may write spoofs as well as the best comedians, Vidyut Gore has proven that she is no laughing matter.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention Rana Ayyub. Born to a Muslim family in Mumbai in 1984, Rana was only eight years old when she witnessed firsthand the horrors of communal riots. As one would expect, this left an indelible mark on her and much of her work dissected the seemingly-eternal conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India. In 2002, when riots broke out in Gujarat, she was the first on the scene. In fact, her bold reporting helped bring perpetrators of the violence to justice.
Although she may write spoofs as well as the best comedians, Vidyut Gore has proven that she is no laughing matter.
Revolutionary not only in her writing but in her personal life as well, Rana’s resignation was crucial to putting an end to Tehelka. Tarun Tejpal’s publication, which for years had been a progressive voice in Indian polity, had now become embroiled in the sexual harassment scandal of its founder. By raising her voice she empowered her peers and helped enable the Indian #MeToo movement.
Today, Rana Ayyub and the rest are recognized as the stalwarts that they are; as heroes to every girl who goes unheard and an example to us all. They stand out as voices of reason, emancipation, and courage, bringing to light the problems of the oppressed and challenging the powers that be. The future of women in the news is dim no more.