On a cold winter’s day, in January 2019, more than 150 women journalists from across 23 states had gathered at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. They were there for a three-day conference organised by the Network of Women in the Media, an informal collective of women journalists which was born in 2002. The theme this time was #MeToo.

Key Takeaways:

  • Women were only grudgingly allowed to enter this macho profession which was projected as being unsafe.
  • In those early days, most of us women chose to dress down and make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible so that we could avoid that dangerous “male gaze.”
  • The exponential growth of women in the media happened almost overnight during the nineties and in a way the boys club was quite unprepared for it.
  • We have come a long way from the time we were battling to even find a toehold in the newsroom. Today we are talking about zero tolerance, gender neutrality and breaking glass ceilings.

The women journalists at Jamia represented just a fraction of the sorority of media women spread across the length and breadth of India.  What a dramatic sea change this was I thought, remembering how I had battled my way into the profession.  When I entered the newsroom of the Indian Express in Bangalore a little more than half a century ago I became the first woman reporter on the beat in Bangalore.  I would never have even dreamt then that I would see the day when women would storm every media bastion in the country.  And I would have never even in my wildest imagination thought I would see the day when sexual harassment at the workplace would be recognised as a hazardous offence and that a survivor driven #MeToo movement helmed by women journalists would sweep the country.

I would have never even in my wildest imagination thought I would see the day when sexual harassment at the workplace would be recognized as a hazardous offence and that a survivor driven #MeToo movement helmed by women journalists would sweep the country.

In the late sixties and early seventies, the media space was very different from what it is today.  There was no TV or internet and the media consisted of a couple of mainstream newspapers and a few magazines.  Job opportunities were limited, the pay was poor and like most other professions journalism too was dominated by men.

Blissfully unaware of all this, when I graduated from a prestigious Bangalore college with an English Literature Degree in hand I thought I would land my dream job as a reporter in a jiffy.  But I had a rude jolt waiting for me.  Every mainstream publication rejected me solely because of my gender.  I worked for a couple of months as an unpaid intern in HT in Delhi and freelanced for JS, Statesman’s iconic youth magazine before I finally landed a job as a sub-editor in Indian Express Bangalore. I used my published articles to ease my way into reporting.

Every mainstream publication rejected me solely because of my gender.

Like many other pioneer women journalists, once I got there, I had to settle for doing “soft stories.”  In the newspapers, in particular, since there was no female perspective, the stories which “mattered” followed a certain stereotype.  There was a well-entrenched hierarchy with senior male political journalists sitting right on top of the pecking order and female newbies doing the arts and crafts and culture beat at the bottom.

Women were only grudgingly allowed to enter this macho profession which was projected as being unsafe. Unsafe because the newsrooms were full of men who might prey on the women who pushed their way in.  Those were still the days when the onus was on the woman to keep herself “safe.”  There were night shifts and hazardous field reporting where riots and war had to be covered and women were too delicate to survive all that, I was repeatedly told.  These were considered valid enough reasons for my parents to keep telling me I should choose another profession. And valid enough for other women to get scared away.

There was a well-entrenched hierarchy with senior male political journalists sitting right on top of the pecking order and female newbies doing the arts and crafts and culture beat at the bottom.

The message that women in the reporters’ room would be endangering themselves was so strong that many women did keep away.  In those early days, most of us women chose to dress down and make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible so that we could avoid that dangerous “male gaze” and follow our profession without unnecessary interference. We also learned to sidestep sexual innuendos, lewd jokes and what we generally called “lechy behaviour.” We were afraid to talk about this at home for fear we would be asked by our parents to quit.

In those early days, most of us women chose to dress down and make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible so that we could avoid that dangerous “male gaze”

Meanwhile things were changing in the media world. The magazines were coming into a life of their own.  Femina and Eve’s Weekly and Women’s Era began carrying women-centric stories which were not just about fashion and the arts.  New magazines like Society and Stardust appeared on the horizon. Film journalism began to open up new fields. Feature writing was in demand.  Some of the younger magazines like Himmat employed women.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency churned the media pot and threw up an unexpected gift which actually proved to be beneficial to aspiring women journalists.  In the wake of the lifting of the Emergency, a number of new magazines appeared on the horizon.  It started with India Today and Sunday, but soon there was a spate of them.  In fact even the staid Illustrated Weekly got a facelift as dynamic editors like Pritish Nandy and Khushwant Singh took charge.  Regional language newspapers and magazines also proliferated as did journalism courses and many qualified women got absorbed by the industry.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency churned the media pot and threw up an unexpected gift which actually proved to be beneficial to aspiring women journalists.

Then came the nationwide TV networks and twenty-four-hour news and entertainment channels and before we knew it, women were everywhere.  The exponential growth of women in the media happened almost overnight during the nineties and in a way the boys club was quite unprepared for it.  These were the next-gen women.  They were in the profession to stay.  They were not intimidated by risky assignments, late night shifts or working alongside male colleagues.  Unlike the previous generation they neither wanted to dress down or disappear into the woodworks.  They were more ambitious, self-confident and assertive.

The exponential growth of women in the media happened almost overnight during the nineties and in a way the boys club was quite unprepared for it.

But change at the top could not come so suddenly. The male bosses had been in control for generations and they were not giving way so easily.  The women had proved themselves again and again… during riots, during wars, during terrorist attacks, earthquakes and flood.  They were in places where it mattered, reporting from the ground.  But the decision-making positions were still elusive to most.

Me Too The Story Inside

Meanwhile, the backlash started.  Sexual harassment in the workplace was more covert and not spoken about aloud in the previous generation.  It was there but not so rampant.  Now with so many women in the offices, the predators got more openly aggressive.  The women spoke about it in their whisper networks, they tried complaining to older women who they thought were their mentors and even to the male bosses themselves.  They soon realized that they were only causing greater harm to themselves by doing this because, ultimately the male boss, however aggressive or sexually objectionable his behaviour might be more valuable to the organization than the junior women he preyed upon.

Sexual harassment in the workplace was more covert and not spoken about aloud in the previous generation.

The Internal complaints Committees (ICCs) mandated by law after the Vishaka Judgment was passed, remained on paper in most organizations.  Even where they were functional, women did not have faith in them.  A few bold women went to court against their predators.  Many stayed silent and either changed their jobs or quit the profession.

The #MeToo deluge started after a senior woman journalist wrote about an iconic editor who had harassed her badly on her very first job.  The behaviour of this editor was an open secret which everyone knew about but no one spoke about probably because they were afraid of the repercussions.  The editor who had by now gone into politics and become a Union Minister was forced to resign when many more senior women journalists who had worked under him shared their own harassment stories.  By now the floodgates had been opened and women journalists from across the country were coming out with their #MeToo experiences. More heads rolled.

Some of the women who complained had cases slapped against them.  Others lost jobs or assignments.  #MeToo was proving to be more than a temporary movement.  Its sweep was wide.  But, more importantly the journalistic sorority had come together to battle obnoxious behaviour and to claim their legitimate place in the profession.

We have come a long way from the time we were battling to even find a toehold in the newsroom.  Our early battles were centred around how to get in, how to get good assignments and of course more mundane things like how to get the office to provide a ladies loo!  Today we are talking about zero tolerance, gender neutrality and breaking glass ceilings.

Yes, we have come a long way, but there is still much to be achieved.

Gita Aravamudan is an award-winning author and journalist from Bangalore. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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