Dosai amma dosai
Amma sutta dosai!
Arisi maavum uluntha maavum
Kalanthu sutta dosai!
Thinga thinga aasai
Innum ketaal poosai!
Loosely translated, this nursery rhyme in Tamil says the father will have four dosas, mother three, elder brother two, and the child, most likely a girl, will get one. If the girl asks for more, she will be given a beating instead. It’s a common theme in numerous poems and anecdotes in the scores of languages spoken in India. Citing this rhyme as an example, the journalist Kavitha Muralidharan, who writes extensively on gender issues, says, “I don’t think a man who grows up in a family that believes it is normal to deny a woman an additional dosa would ever stand up for a woman when she is assaulted. I wouldn’t be surprised if the man himself is the one who is assaulting her. The family has taught him that it is right to do so for then the women wouldn’t cross their limits.”
Not rarely, even girls who grow up reciting such poems unconsciously normalise this ugly view of how women should be or deserve to be treated in society.
The sheer prevalence and savagery of gender-based crime in India – consider, say, the 2012 Delhi gangrape or this month’s gangrape and murder in Hyderabad – calls for urgently reconsidering our perspectives on gender. Considering how major a role the media plays in shaping narratives and opinions, and how daunting a challenge crime against women is in India, one would expect the news media to be at the forefront of this battle. That, sadly, is not the case.
The Gender Inequality in Indian Media report, published by The Media Rumble in partnership with UN Women earlier this year, combed through the country’s top newspapers, magazines, TV channels, and news websites, and found that a dismal 8% of their output over a six-month period in 2018 – news reports, features, opinion pieces, primetime news debates – dealt with gender-related matters.
Since the 2012 Delhi gangrape, except for when the #MeToo movement was raging last year, how often has a newspaper published an article about gender-related issues or a TV channel held a primetime debate? Barring daily reports on rape, the Gender Inequality study found just 2.6% of all articles in the six English dailies covered gender issues. Hindi newspapers only did marginally better, at 3%.
Instead of leading an informed conversation around gender issues, the Indian media has, at times, perpetuated regressive, patriarchal notions of gender. As the journalist Makepeace Sithlou points out, “Indian media’s coverage of gender issues is restricted to stories of rape or sexual violence.” Not infrequently, it uses insensitive language and imagery that serves to sensationalise and trivialise gender-based violence. Blaming sexual violence against a woman on her choice of attire, or when she was out or who with isn’t unheard of.
Such insensitivity is not the preserve of men in the newsroom. Most recently, for instance, a ground report by Aaj Tak saw a female reporter seeking to reenact the events leading up to the Hyderabad gangrape and murder. The media, like the society it serves, is informed by and perpetuates the same patriarchal principles. Instead of empathising with the victim and sensitising themselves about such issues, newsrooms often perpetuate the stigma towards rape and sexual violence survivors.
Noting that problematic reportage of crimes against women is a symptom of a deeper social malaise, independent journalist Urvashi Sarkar says the media internalises the biases, prejudices and attitudes of the wider society. “Figuring in the points of view or experiences of women is usually an afterthought, tokenistic or missed out altogether by the media,” she adds.
An example of this is how many media houses tried to wash their hands off any accountability when stories of sexual harassment and abuse in their workspaces emerged during the #MeToo movement.
Neha Dixit, an independent journalist whose work has appeared on national and international platforms, points to the media’s tendency to look at the “superficial reasons” behind gender-based violence while turning a blind eye towards the fundamental causes. “The root cause of this kind of violence which emanates from caste discrimination and class discrimination, which emanates from the kind of majoritarian rule that we have – there’s no discourse around that which leads to violence in a patriarchal society.”
Dhanya Rajendran, editor in chief of The News Minute, echoes the view. Calling out mainstream media in general and TV news in particular, she says they have been treating violence against women as rare incidents, highlighting them only when there’s a gruesome crime. “And once that outrage cycle is over, they move on and never talk about underlying issues or solutions that are less ‘catchy’ but actually important,” she adds.
A recurring lacuna in reports about gender-based violence is the absence of expert voices on gender. A study, Violence Against Women and Girls in Indian Newspapers, by Niharika Pandit and Amanda Gilbertson found that 88% of English articles cited police or legal professionals in their reportage while only 5.5% of English articles included quotes from gender experts or representatives of organisations working against gender-based violence.
A structural issue is how gender is taught in journalism schools, argues the journalist Geeta Seshu. “It is pathetic.” Barring a few schools, she adds, most universities either offer gender as an elective subject, incorporate it in some general society and culture section, or don’t offer it at all.
Seshu says there have been rich debates and discussions in the women’s movement and the academia on gender-related issues. Many women journalists, too, have been leading the demand for accurate and non-sexist representation. However, she thinks these conversations have not managed to percolate into everyday news coverage that continues to follow the trope of “good woman, bad woman”, or the sensationalised and sexualised coverage of women and violence.
Selective reporting of gender-related crimes is yet another issue that plagues Indian newsrooms. As Muralidharan says, “With due respect to Nirbhaya and the Hyderabad gangrape victim, we should also ask why other victims are forgotten, or worse never known at all?” Two days before the news of the Hyderabad rape broke, a 30-year-old Dalit woman who sold balloons for a living was gang-raped and killed in Asifabad, Telangana. In a report in the Deccan Chronicle, the husband complained about the lack of response from the government and attributed it to the fact that she was a poor Dalit woman. As Kalpana Sharma points out in her Newslaundry column, “The media thrives on crime, controversy and crises. The media can generate the latter two when they are in short supply. But as there is no shortage of crime, the media sets out to pick and choose the crime stories that sell.”
Merely having more “token women” in newsrooms won’t solve the problem though, argues Fatima Khan, a journalist with ThePrint. “The presence of women across reporting beats – crime and politics, as photojournalists, senior editors – must be normalised,” she adds.
Newsrooms should encourage “a conversation between men and women on a page that exclusively deals with gender,” suggests the journalist Vrinda Gopinath. Rama Lakshmi, an opinion editor at ThePrint, too is of the view that gender as an issue should not be ghettoised. Men need to be a part of the conversation, as well.