“It’s like jumping into the fire.” – from Zile ki Hulchul, a grassroots survey conducted by Women Media and News Trust, 2014
That is one of the best similes we’ve come across in our 15 years of work to capture what we do everyday, and who we are – the experience of being women journalists in India’s hinterland.
The fire does not rage inside our bellies only – it’s also raging around and outside us, threatening to engulf us with its prejudices, expectations, norms and stereotypes.
“Male reporters often wondered why I was in this ‘dirty’ profession,” says Riya Singh, laughing, when we meet her on a busy street. We laugh with her, and share our reason for the interview on a shared auto ride through the lanes of Banda, where she works. We inform her that we have set out to scout spirited women like her and us, to celebrate Khabar Lahariya completing 15 years.
We roll our eyes at all the advice we have received (and continue to) from our ‘well-meaning’ peers, while jostling through crowds to sniff out the stories – and, in the process, stand head and shoulders above the ‘dicks’ in the profession. “They advised me to join a beauty parlour, a grocery store, or a sari ki dukaan,” says Riya.
As part of this special commemorative series profiling women journalists in Bundelkhand, we met with news anchors and reporters across different media outlets, both in TV and print. Apart from Riya Singh, who works for a paper called Nav Karm Yug, we also met Saumya Srivastava, an anchor with K News (in Banda), and Aakanksha Shukla, who works for City Star News. They are all fighters – and like most self-driven women who’ve had to make noise to get noticed – their performances speak for themselves.
Given the dismal literacy rates in the country (65.46% for females and 82.14% for males), the existence of such women in a state like Uttar Pradesh (UP) is cause enough for celebration. In a world where women are only encouraged to take care of homes, Riya’s hatke hunger stands out: “Girls usually don’t aspire to be journalists – either because they aren’t allowed to, or because they’re scared.”
Being on the field is an imperative for a journalist, but the ‘exposure’ can only be detrimental to a woman – such are the pre-conceived notions women battle with every day. After all, who wants their girls to be ‘exposed’? Mindsets like these are reasons why girls continue to drop out of schools for several years. This is also why they continue to opt for ‘safe’ career choices such as nursing or teaching. After all, in a state that has always been notorious for its crimes against women (rapes, domestic violence, harassment), safety becomes all-important.
Aakanksha Shukla, who has her own show and is a prominent face on television, has battled sexist attitudes, jibes, slander and trolls on social media, and even fake lawsuits. She has also been harassed by her co-workers and by male reporters. These attitudes are embedded within the fabric of society – “When a female journalist reports for duty, she’s first asked for a personal introduction. She’s asked about her family, then her clothes are commented upon. All of this is downright disrespectful.”
It’s the same old problem of boundaries – and, as 23-year-old Saumya Srivastava puts it, “Bundelkhand is a place that still wishes to confine its women to their houses.”
Riya, Aakanksha and Saumya have come forth from within these social restrictions. Therefore, it is no wonder that they seem to have channel a bit of the ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ swag. And why not – given their efforts to make some space in their profession and force their peers to take them seriously!
Aakanksha breaks down while sharing details about the lawsuits that were filed against her. She rants against patriarchy, adopting a ‘holier-than-thou’ stance: “I chose journalism in order to battle injustice. Even if people try and suppress certain news items, I make sure the truth comes to light.” And then, she is quick to quip, in a radio-jingle style: “Koi baat nahi, haar ke baad hi jeet hoti hai! (Victory comes only after loss!)”
Saumya’s self-assuredness also comes from years of rehearsing, both on and off the camera: “I come from Banda, where people still believe that girls shouldn’t do jobs that require any sort of exposure. They believe that girls should take up professions like teaching. Journalism is still frowned upon. People don’t want their girls to be well-known or recognised.” She insists that her own family is her support system. She further adds, “I take pride in the fact that I am a well-known face in Banda!”
The journey is a tough one – we tread off the beaten path every single day. Even when we do ‘make it’, we know that the discrimination does not end there. Statistical data on the gender-gaps in salaries earned illustrates this point. For instance, according to the Monster Salary Index, women in India earn 25% less than what men earn. According to the Index, while a man earns ₹345.80 per hour, a woman earns only ₹259.88 per hour for the same work.
So, even if women do beat the odds and actually complete their schooling, they are met with discrimination at each step – making their path to employment a minefield. And if, by some miracle, they do manage to get employed, they are harassed and discriminated against, leading many to quit.
Striving against it all is an arduous choice. When Riya spoke of her initial fears and reservations, we couldn’t stop ourselves from remembering our own early experiences. The specificity of it all was a déjà vu for us, in both good and bad ways. As she says, “I still remember how on my first day, I was told to interview some officials at the Vikas Bhavan. I spent all day simply walking around and peering into the offices. I simply did not have the courage to actually enter any of the offices!”
And when she confidently adds, “Today, I can speak to anyone – from the DM to the SP to the Collector. You have no choice but to overcome the challenges,” we can’t help but count our own dreams and visions, that have haunted as well as egged us on, all through these 15 years!