After the gang rape of a 22-year-old photojournalist in Mumbai last month, a growing number of female journalists in India have broken the silence around sexual harassment and violence they have faced while doing their jobs.
In their accounts, the women highlight some of their experiences, which are seldom discussed in newsrooms because reporters run the risk of losing an assignment if they come across as weaklings.
As a young journalist with CNN in 1996, Suhasini Haidar was part of the crew that covered the national election that year. It was the first she had covered. Even after 17 years, she cannot forget the experience she went through during an overcrowded public rally she attended outside of Delhi, near the northern Indian state of Haryana.
“We were horrified by the number of times our bottoms got pinched and we were brushed past,” said Ms. Haidar, now the foreign affairs editor of the Indian television station CNN-IBN.
Fear is what ensures I look back as I walk, it’s what makes me look for exits when I enter potentially difficult spaces, it is what keeps me alert and often, alive. I call it other things like discomfort or commonsense, because it’s weak to be afraid — it might expose me for what I am, a woman.
Ms. Narain argued that there was an urgent need for media organizations to provide safeguards to their employees, who are often “expected to take calculated risks,” she wrote.
“For our jobs we need to go to unsafe places,” said Nazia Sayed, 29, a crime reporter with Mumbai Mirror newspaper. She has developed a routine of contacting the nearest police station whenever she is reporting late at night. “Just in case something happens, at least someone knows where I am,” she said.
When you need the police, it does help being a crime reporter. Recently after reporting on a murder, Ms. Sayed was returning home after midnight in a Mumbai local train. She was traveling in a women’s-only compartment and noticed a group of six men had entered the women’s coach.
There were no policemen onboard and she was uneasy with the men’s presence. She repeatedly asked them to move out, but they refused to budge. One of them taunted, “She is a girl — what can she do?”
Ms. Sayed called the nearest police station. “The police came and chased them away,” she said.
She did not share this incident with her editor, she said, because she felt she was able to handle it on her own.
Not every woman who travels on the trains in Mumbai has the same sense of security. “When one is traveling late at night with heavy and costly equipment, it is quite risky traveling alone,” said Shriya Patil Shinde, 32, a freelance photographer in Mumbai. She carries a can of pepper spray as she often encounters drug addicts and drunken men as co-passengers on the train at night. “In media organizations, those who are put in charge of assigning work to reporters or photographers should be more sensitive,” Ms. Shinde said.
Her husband also works as a photojournalist, and the couple often report on same subjects. Covering news stories involving crowds exposes both male and female photojournalists to violence. “I feel more vulnerable because of the threat of sexual violence,” she said.
In 2005, Ms. Shinde was covering the premiere of the Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s movie “Mangal Pandey” at a theater in Mumbai. “Aamir Khan was sporting a new look for the film, and there was a big crowd that had come to see him,” she said. “We could not see him, but held our cameras high up, just to get that an image of the actor.”
In a swarm of people, a man tried to grope her. “I could not see his face. I screamed,” she said. No one heard her. She lunged her camera in the man’s direction and hit him, which sent him off.
Reporting from rural India comes with its unique set of difficulties. Anumeha Yadav, 30, a correspondent with The Hindu newspaper, has over the last year reported from the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, which is prone to violence by Maoist rebels. Jharkhand is also one of the most economically backward states of the country. “When I am reporting, I am not worried about Naxal attacks,” Ms. Yadav said. “They do not usually target reporters.”
Ms. Yadav is very careful about traveling at night, she said. There is a high risk of being robbed on highways in Jharkhand. On reporting assignments, she is usually accompanied by a male photojournalist, who is also vulnerable to attacks. But being a woman, “the possibility of rape comes to my mind,” she said.
For India’s female journalists, it is a big leap from the way things were a few decades earlier, when women weren’t even allowed to leave the office to report. Journalism in India was a male bastion in the 1940s and the 1950s, with the exception of a few women in newspaper offices, who usually wrote columns or worked on weekend editions but were almost never sent on reporting assignments by their male bosses.
The first woman to break the convention and make a mark in Indian journalism was the legendary photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla, who died last year. She began her career in the 1930s, covered major political events and personalities, and even photographed some events in World War II along with her photographer husband.
“Women were not taken seriously in journalism,” said Usha Rai, who worked in the Indian print media for 37 years. “Men thought that beat reporting was their preserve,” she said.
“I was part of the generation that covered flower shows and fashion shows,” said Ms. Rai, who started her career in 1961 as a trainee reporter with The Indian Express in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, and went on to become a pioneer of development journalism in India.
She said that female reporters of her generation fought hard to prove that they were not just “social butterflies” hanging out in newspaper offices. Her contemporary, Prabha Dutt, who died several years ago, was the first female journalist to cover war in India. “Her editors at Hindustan Times refused to send her,” Ms. Rai recalled.
But that did not stop Ms. Dutt, who took leave from her office to go to the frontier and filed dispatches during the second war that India fought with Pakistan in 1965. The initial reports were ignored by her editors at the Hindustan Times, but gradually they were published because they were good, Ms. Rai said.
The rise of journalism schools in the 1960s and the accompanying social changes in India helped women become more visible in the profession and leave their imprint on Indian newspapers and magazines over the years.
The battles Ms. Dutt fought with her editors to go out into the field might seem quaint in the contemporary India, as some of the best-known reporters covering conflicts, among other subjects, are women. Yet even the most ambitious female journalists have to take into consideration the menace of sexual harassment as they go about their professional lives.
“At times you are interviewing someone and he asks an odd question or makes a remark that leaves you wondering whether you make a comment and lose a source or ignore it,” said Ms. Haidar of CNN-IBN.
She still recoils from an experience from about 20 years back, when she was working with CNN in India. She had been trying hard to interview an Indian government official. The official eventually agreed to meet her at his house. Ms. Haidar arrived to find him alone at his home.
“He asked me nosy questions about my personal life,” she recalled. The official made numerous phone calls to her after the interview.
She stayed silent about the harassment. “If I had reported it, I would have lost an assignment,” said Ms. Haidar, who now regrets that she didn’t register a complaint.