DHRUV TREHAN | 17 JUNE, 2018
In Conversation with Neha Dixit and Patricia Mukhim
“The slut-shaming and hatred felt like being punished by a mob for my work as a journalist, an attempt to silence me. It was aimed at humiliating me, breaking me by trying to define me as a “promiscuous,” “immoral” woman,” reads Rana Ayyub’s Opinion piece for the New York Times, in which she recalls a harrowing episode of abuse and harassment she was subjected to, after a picture of her with a quotation in favour of child rapists, falsely attributed to her, made the rounds of the Indian internet on 22nd April, 2018. On the 23rd of April, there was another image of her, with a falsely attributed quotation, and on the same day, she was informed of a pornographic video that was being circulated across social media and WhatsApp groups; It had her face photoshopped on the body of an adult actress. In keeping with her alternate opinions, and her unwillingness to self-censure, as several others in her professional community, Rana is made victim to a regular “apparently coordinated social media campaign that slut-shames, deploys manipulated images with sexually explicit language, and threatens rape.” The purpose of this story is to provide an argument into reading the mode of harassment as a representation of the gendered nature of the journalistic space in India and have a further conversation about the same with female journalists from the country.
An interesting study to understand trolling : What’s It Like To Get Trolled All Day.
Reception and Understanding.
When one observes the trends of trolling, against female journalists, the thing that stands out the most is that all of it, invariably, turns into an attack upon the female journalist’s sexuality as a woman. She is made to appear as a corrupted member of her sex and criticised for her ‘sexual impropriety’ in spite of, and along with, her opinions, and body of work. Rana is not plainly called a Congress-sell out, but, instead, she is branded with the scarlet letter and paraded as a whore. The female, in the public sphere, can exist as a journalist, up until she aligns herself with the majoritarian narrative, and, if she bothers to escape this condition, she is reminded of the fragility of her ‘character,’ and her ‘dignity,’ by repetitive proclamations of the man’s ability to ‘defile’ her through rape. The woman is not allowed an anti-establishment voice without being reminded of her powerlessness as a woman of the establishment. She is measured against the standards of patriarchy, before those of her profession, and the market. The pornographic video ensures the greatest threat of all, the woman is made into a literal canvas for the perverse nature of the trolls, a grotesque erotica, to play out on; a video affirmation of the real position of the female in the Women, the State, and the Journalist hierarchy. Of course, the present of the sexual was a definite affirmation to the difference that gender inspires, but how far does it really go?
(Neha Dixit. “She has extensively covered gender, development, and, conflict, in South Asia).
These were some of the thoughts that crowded this reporter’s mind as he sought to speak to Neha Dixit, about his possibly idle rhetoric. Neha, an independent journalist, had to first face the brunt of institutionalised masculinity, in 2016, after publishing an investigative report titled Operation #BetiUthao. The report detailed how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had flouted several international and national laws relating to the rights of children, and juvenile justice, in transporting 31 young tribal girls from Assam, “to Punjab and Gujarat to ‘Hinduise’ them.” There was a case filed against her, by party members of the currently ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party, claiming that the story sought to incite communal hatred. I had the chance to speak to her, on a calm and sunny Friday morning, and even with the weekend just around the corner, Neha seemed to be in a state of occupation, between the task she had to set out to do and had just gotten over with. She started with mentioning that it has been five to six years, now, that she has become subject to regular trolling, and, yet, there is something crudely different about the ‘debate’ and ‘discourse’ that surrounds such harassment, in the modern day. She seemed indifferent in mentioning the several numbers of times she has been on the receiving end of unsolicited photographs of male genitalia, the several chances on which her face has been morphed onto the top of a naked body, to make it seem like she was, in modern twitter jargon, a ‘presstitute.’ Her indifference seemed to stem from a resignation, she was “at a point where I’m immune to it,” “that it’s not even an issue any more.” Much more pertinent, for her, was an inquiry into the way the discourse around harassment has become increasingly “individualistic, and an elite, middle-class,” discourse.
She did not seek to undermine the importance of recognising the difficulties that surround being an opinionated and visible female journalist, and repetitively stressed upon the importance of addressing such issues, but, to her dismay, and frustration, the conversation, in the recent times, had only worked so far as to remove the focus from the actual body of work that most of these women put their efforts into. She has gone through the mental trauma that comes with “constant threat and abuse,” but finds herself troubled with the eliteness and the seclusion that the coverage of it inspires. “The mainstream media only focuses on the trolling, and not the context.” She seemed to suggest that in focusing upon this image of the harassed and trolled modern middle-class Indian women, most members of the readership lost track of the stories that had caused all the trouble in the first place, rendering the proletariat, the subjects of the investigations and opinions, invisible, yet again. “No one focuses on the widows of the men that we write about, working class Muslim people and families of those that are killed extrajudicially, in Haryana and UP, people I write about.” She said that even with the story about the girls from Assam, while there was a lot of discussion surrounding the court case and the treatment of journalists, no one from mainstream media followed up on the story, leaving it to gather dust in the digital archives of the internet. Her ideas suggested an interesting interaction of the patriarchal and the capitalist machinery, and the ways in which the modern culture of political correctness and liberal development suggests of a crucial exclusion, and an almost unconcern for the under-class. Towards the end of our conversation she remarked at how male journalists are defamed as corrupt, and money-hungry, even as women are, still, only associated with the sexual.
(Patricia Mukhim. Her bedroom window was attacked with a petrol bomb in April 2018.)
Patricia Mukhim’s Wikipedia page introduces her as an “Indian social activist, writer, journalist, and the editor of Shillong Times, and provides a well-rounded understanding of her contributions in the unpacking of the mining mafia in Meghalaya, and a holistic development of the region, in the fourth-pillar manner. In April, a petrol bomb was hurled at her window, in an attack motivated purely by her profession and position as a powerful editor of one of the largest newspapers in the region. When I emailed her, to continue the conversation, she mentioned, “I would say it depends on the location. In the region I come from especially in Meghalaya I have not faced any discrimination by being a woman journalist. But of course, one receives threats and intimidation and Molotov Cocktails for standing up for a cause one believes in and for not taking a partisan stand or not leaning towards the society one belongs to. I come from a region where ethnocentric identity politics raises its ugly head every now and again.” Research has well established that the North-Eastern states perform much better against other regions of India, on indicators of gender performance and equality. Ethnicities are more important modes of identity, over Gender. But, is there absolutely no difference in the ways that men and women journalists are received and understood? She mentions, in answer to my question, “Of course, as usual there is a higher standard of scrutiny for women as a rule and for me too.”
Institutions and Access.
There are more women in the public sphere, than in the 50s and the 60s. It is possible to argue that the ease with which women can enter the journalistic space has improved, and the situation presents a brighter scene than before, but, as the Rana Ayyub incident makes extremely clear, an inclusion on paper does not automatically translate into a holistic and equitable acceptance. Most female journalists are asked to work on news ‘Features’ and ‘Magazine’ writing, as opposed to the ‘hard news’ of reports and political commentary, and conflict journalism, and so on. The credibility of female journalism remains under additional scrutiny; an army of men ready, with rape threats, and prostitution claims, to attack at the first displeasing opinion, the barest shred of an independent reasoning. And the few women who can make their way through such institutional barriers, are not allowed to progress by being kept out of private circles that concentrate power at the higher rungs of the professional structure.
An article on the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia website begins, “Understanding the role of gender in the newsroom involves tracing a shift from an initial consensus that women’s only journalistic role was to write with “a woman’s touch” about women, for women readers, to a claim that women should be allowed to produce the same “unmarked” news as men.” It further notes, that Conflict reporting remains one of the most gendered arenas, with women and men being treated with different standards. The International Federation of Journalists, in a 2014-2017 survey supported by UNESCO, and in partnership with UN Women, quotes Chandreyee Ghosh, senior manager, editorial services, of the Ananda Bazar Patrika(ABP) newspaper group, “Doing feature-based stories suits women more - makes them more comfortable. The result is that we have 70% women in these sections against 30 percent men.” Such a categorisation becomes representative of a diluted version of the ‘woman is too soft, and, too passionate, and, too emotional, to deal with the real World’ line of thought. Virginia Woolf builds upon the same idea, in her book A Room of One’s Own when she introduces the contrasting images of the “red light of emotion,” and the “white light of truth.” Women, for her, and for several scholars before and after her, are constructed as too creatures of the red, by men, and by external forces, and then chided for not being white, and kept out of the access.
When I mentioned the same to Patricia, she recalled her three-decade long career, in “commenting and writing upon socio-political issues, some highly controversial ones related to insurgency/militancy.” She mentioned that she has received several violent threats in response to her strong reason and opinions but has never been attacked as a woman. Even though, even according to her, “within the region women journalists are assigned soft stories and men by and large report on politics and conflict.” There was an anecdote, that she shared with this writer, which becomes a very interesting reading into the ways in which the society isolates women from the public sphere. “There was a time when I was a columnist and wrote regular columns for The Shillong Times and people said that those articles were ghost-written. That's because they cannot accept that a woman can also be politically astute and analytical. After they have seen me articulate issues on public platforms verbally then they began to acknowledge that I did have brains. That's how gendered things can be.”
Neha, too, had an interesting story to share from 2015. It was the year she did a profile of Akhilesh Yadav, for The Caravan, the title for which was, “Everybody’s Brother: Akhilesh Yadav in The Family Business.” The profile sought to construct Akhilesh’s brand of politics as being strongly associated with the family drama that plays out on the grand stage of Uttar Pradesh’s polity, and Neha was criticised for focusing too much on the familial, as a woman. “And the family caused the party split in 2016,” said Neha. She also emphasised upon the self-censure that has crept into the business because of the coordinated efforts of the current government, and that the trolling and the harassment have increased in the current regime, with situations much worse for journalists on the ground.
Even with the rich literature that already exists, about the intersection of gender and journalism in India, the complete nature of the space remains unknowable because of the ‘self-censure’ that the mortifying program of online harassment gives birth to, and, a dominance of men in the top-rungs of the professional ladder. The unions that had been able to mobilise journalists from across the country to fight for wage laws, and press freedom, and appear to speak for the community, are largely masculinised spaces with barely any women as members of them, and hence have not been able to voice their concerns on the scale required. The conceptualisation of the Union, especially for the right in India, has always been as a hub of intellectual disruptions and distance, or, as peopled organs of public disorder. In the modern day, the strength which a strongly coordinated Union represents cannot be undermined in its importance, the numbers surely aren't the best on the side of the masses. But, as it seems, the traditional sources of such support aren't free of its biases. When I asked the women about the support they expect from these institutions, the response was only bitter-sweet.
Patricia “regret[ted] to say that we in Meghalaya have a Meghalaya Editors’ and Publisher’ Association (MEPA) and earlier on they involved me in all activities. Now they have stopped inviting me for meetings etc. It has become a boy’s club. I think here I find that the idea of a stronger woman editor has become a threat to the male ego.” However, “I don’t want to make much of this since I believe this is too petty a matter.” Neha, recalled, that back in 2016, in the aftermath of the RSS story, it was only Committee to Protect Journalists, an international and independent non-governmental organisation, that released a statement, while Editors’ Guild of India, and the Press Trust had no response. But, while Patricia was glad to have been invited to be a member of the Editors’ Guild, which she believes to make more sense that being a part of an editor’s club in Meghalaya, Neha spoke earnestly about being associated with Network of Women in Media, India, a non-hierarchical organisation.