Kalpana Sharma

Do I remember when exactly I became conscious about feminism, or the women’s movement in India? Not really. In fact, in hindsight, I think it was almost accidental. As if a stray news item or a chance meeting had awaken me to the stirrings within the ranks of women like me across India.

What I do recall is asserting that if we were concerned about human rights, then women’s rights, too, would be accommodated. How wrong was I!

My commitment to human rights issues, on the other hand, was no accident. It was the direct outcome of experiencing the Emergency in 1975 in a very personal way. I was then working with Himmat Weekly, founded and edited by Rajmohan Gandhi. We were a young and an idealistic team. So when Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship, we decided that this was unacceptable, that we would not abide by it at any cost. Through the twenty dark months, when Indira Gandhi slammed the entire opposition into jail and stifled India’s free press into silence, small publications like Himmat continued to find ways to defy her diktat.

Working with Himmat convinced me that freedom of the press was not a luxury meant for the rich; but in a country with such abject poverty as India, it was an essential; because only a free and independent media could ensure that the voice of the voiceless reached those who made the policies. The stories that were banned during the Emergency were precisely those that exposed the way the State exploited and stamped on the rights of the poor.

When the Emergency ended in 1977, and press censorship was lifted, commercial competition from new and better-funded publications forced the closure of small, but brave publications like Himmat. But Himmat’s demise allowed people like me to take a deep breath and plunge into mainstream media, though with some trepidation, I must admit.

I joined Indian Express, Delhi, in 1983. This was at the height of the autonomous women’s movement in India. There were demonstrations, meetings, articles in the media and campaigning on a range of issues. Journalists, in general, could not be indifferent to the questions, the slogans and the assertions being made by women across India.
For instance, for the first time, some of us in senior positions within various newspapers suggested to our editors that International Women’s Day should be noted and commented upon editorially. To my surprise, when I proposed this to my editor, not only did he accept with alacrity but suggested that I write the edit! For years after that, March 8 always saw an edit in Indian Express and many other newspapers.
At the end of 1984 I was asked if I wanted to write a column on gender for Express Magazine, the Sunday section. I was delighted and also a bit overwhelmed. Interestingly, a woman colleague of mine had quite the opposite reaction. ’If you start writing such a column, everyone will know that you’re a feminist!’she said. I thought about it. Why not? Why should people not know that I am a feminist? – although I had not defined myself as such till then. And, in any case, being a feminist was not as if it disqualified you as a writer or a journalist, nor was it an infectious or life-threatening disease! So I said ‘yes’ and thereby my column ‘The Other Half’ was born. It is still running, currently in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine. That makes it the longest running gender column in the country, in an English language daily newspaper.
By openly associating and writing about the struggles of women in the country, some of us in mainstream media began to find each other. After I moved to Mumbai, we found that there were a number of us at fairly senior positions in mainstream media who had similar concerns. ‘Why not work together?’, some of us thought. So one day, a group of us met at a club and formed an informal body – the Women and Media Group. It had no clear agenda but, amongst other things, we felt we should tackle issues that had to do with women’s portrayal in the media, which at that time was a major talking point, and also look at the working conditions of women journalists in the media. (This group morphed, in 2002, into the Network of Women in Media, India – www.nwmindia.org)

It was not always easy – being both a feminist and a journalist in mainstream media. Many of us were afraid of labels. Would our activism undermine our professionalism? No matter how hard we worked to separate our personal and political convictions from our professional work, we were, inevitably, labeled “activist” journalists. Some of us were afraid that if we appeared too “committed” and spoke up too strongly on issues, our chances of getting ahead in our careers would be affected. In some cases, this did prove to be true. Some of us were perceived by the management to be “rigid”. They preferred pliable editors and some of us did not fit that bill. This had nothing to do with our professional abilities. But perceptions matter when it comes to promotions and designations.

So in hindsight I can see that some of us did get left behind.
As journalists, there is often no time to investigate issues in depth. As some of us had already begun commenting on the absence of women’s concerns in the media, Ammu Joseph and I felt that we needed to study this in more detail. So we set out, with hardly any money and little academic training, to organize a study of the coverage of women’s issues in the media. This is how ’Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues’ came about (published by Sage in 1994 and republished in an updated edition in 2006). As far as we can make out, it was the first systematic study of print media in English and four regional languages, analyzing the coverage of women’s issues through the 1980s.

Today, much has changed. The media has redefined ‘news’ as anything that sells. Women’s concerns matter only if they can attract eyeballs. At the same time, there are many more women in the media, daughters of those who fought for women’s rights in the 1970s and 1980s. Are they more feminist than we were? Do they face the same battles that we did? Is the media kinder to women’s concerns? All these require a separate study altogether– perhaps one that they, this new generation of feminists, can undertake.