- NL Sena
How much agency do women correspondents have in the conflict-ridden state?
Author-journalist Elizabeth Becker had once remarked on the few women who had covered the Vietnam War: “Female reporters covered that war, rewriting the rules so that the phrase ‘woman war correspondent’ would never again be an oxymoron.”
The fight against this “oxymoron” is waged by women reporters in all conflict zones. Kashmir is no exception.
As the number of publications increases in the state, it is worth noting that most stories are written, edited and published by men, while women are reduced to a wailing image and mentioned with reference to the men in their lives – as wife, mother, sister or daughter.
Author Essar Batool had pointed out that by voicing over women’s concerns and disallowing them agency, the news only ends up catering to and reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes.
A male journalist who chose to remain anonymous admitted that no matter how sensitised a man is, there is still “a barrier which makes it impossible to access the stories behind the veils”. “To delve into the minds of women ‘is not a man’s job’,” he said.
Where are the women?
The irony is that in Kashmir, more women than men graduate after studying media courses. Yet, more men dominate the profession.
Zehru Nissa, health correspondent with local daily Greater Kashmir, believes that most women tend to teach journalism than be journalists. For the few women who do enter the field, their roles/beats are mostly pre-defined – health, education, lifestyle or city at the most.
Senior editor of Greater Kashmir Arshid Kaloo agreed that most women work on health or social issues (harassment, dowry, women’s commission, etc). “But the women opt for it. We don’t assign it to them,” he said.
According to research scholar Heeba Din, a woman who covers political issues is seen as a liability as she has to be “taken care of”. “If by chance a woman journalist is given the ‘all important political beat’, it would be either co-supervised or guided by a senior male journalist. Also, very often male journalists assume an air of authority on political issues – a privilege hardly granted to women,” she pointed out.
Insha Latief, reporter at Rising Kashmir, said: “Editors of most newspapers don’t even seek the consent of a woman reporter before giving the ‘big story’ of her beat to a male reporter.”
The editor of weekly magazine Free Press Kashmir (FPK), Qazi Zaid, attributed three reasons for the huge gender disparity and bias in the profession – lack of women-friendly work spaces, the presumption that conflict zones are unsafe for women and the conservative mindset of society.
Afshan Rashid, a reporter with FPK, corroborated this. She revealed that she had started off as a food photographer but the 2016 uprising in the state changed everything.
“No media house was interested in food, all they wanted was conflict-based stories. So I was at home for the next four months,” she said.
However, Saima Bhat, a reporter with weekly news magazine Kashmir Life, denied male dominance in the industry. “You must understand our culture and society. We are protective about our daughters because of our bitter history of rapes by the forces,” she said.
When on field: Reporter first, woman next
For hard news reporting in any conflict zone, a strong source base is required. In Kashmir, 70 years of conflict – where daily life includes surveillance, questioning, search operations, spying and frisking – have produced a society of suspicious people. It is difficult to establish a good network of trustworthy sources. And if you’re a woman reporter, it is even more of a Herculean task.
In her article in The New York Times, journalist Becker minced no words when she wrote: “It is stressful enough covering a battle – you don’t want to have to worry that a guy would make a pass at you”.
Many women reporters complain that their sources expect them to text them or meet them often in return for professional help.
Afshan said she has now got used to receiving random texts or calls mostly from officials she ends up meeting on the ground. “Once an official even called my office landline because I wouldn’t respond to his calls,” she added.
Another female colleague of hers was offered a recharge coupon by an official who wanted her to call him back. A non-local reporter who did not want to be named said the same happened to her with a CRPF personnel. “I met him at a protest rally and he started calling incessantly from different numbers. He said he was lonely and want to roam around with me,” she said.
Utsa Sarmin, who worked in Kashmir with FPK, revealed how cat-calling was a common problem. In her article in the magazine she wrote: “Firstly, any issue in Kashmir or related to Kashmir must have a link to aazadi, separatism, terrorism or Islamophobia! What is the link between aazadi and harassment? By linking the two separate incidents, one is not only diluting the experience of a woman, but also trying to delegitimise the cause and struggle of Kashmiris. Both of which are harmful in their respective ways.”
Nevertheless, not all women feel the same.
Rohini Mohan, a freelance journalist, said that in the context of Kashmir, she actually felt “safer and protected” because she was a woman. Rabiya Bashir, who works for the daily Kashmir Monitor, also said that neither of them had ever faced any sexual harassment. In fact, Saima said “our boss treats all the women in our office as his daughters”.
(Left) Afshan Rashid and Rabiya Bashir.
Editor Qazi Zaid admitted he was aware of the harassment his women employees face on the streets. “We encourage them to write it about,” he said. On the other hand, Zaffar Mehraj, editor-in-chief of Kashmir Monitor, said he had never received any complaint of sexual harassment from his employees.
Most of the women Newslaundry spoke to said they preferred not to complain because it might make them look weak, and editors might not send them out for stories. Worse, it could even cost them their job.
Global journalists’ union report sidelines women reporters in Kashmir
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a body of journalists’ trade unions which aims to protect and strengthen the rights and freedoms of journalists, recently released a Kashmir Situation Report – 2017 on the perils of working as a reporter in the state. In its introduction, vulnerability of women reporters is listed under the “Key Issues” section. But the 11-page report has only four sentences in reference to women.
While data was collected for reporters who face violence, is sexual harassment not included in this category? Why was no attempt made to collect data for the sexual/gender violence women journalists face in Kashmir?
“Ask any woman reporter (not necessarily someone in a conflict zone) and they will advise you to grow a thick skin or use one’s identity to one’s advantage. I hope people realise this is a coping mechanism and not a solution,” said one of the woman journalists.
*When a name is mentioned for the second time in a story, usually the surname is used. In this piece, all the women named preferred to be mentioned by their first name for the second time because their surnames refer to their caste or their father’s family.