Forty six years ago, when I stepped into The Times of India (TOI), full of enthusiasm, determined to make a career in journalism, it was a lonely place for a woman. There were just a handful of women in the profession — television had not yet made inroads into the media--- and women were seen as upstarts and birds of passage. There was no toilet for women in the editorial floor, and I had to share the toilet with the telephone operators in the basement of the four storeyed building on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. Though I was a reporter I was not expected to do night duty because according to the labour laws there should be at least two women on duty after sun down and transport had to be provided.
The men clung on to the more important beats, whether it was covering the Delhi Administration, the civic body, local politics and even crime. I was asked to cover flower and fashion shows and Shankar’s on the spot painting competitions. TOI was just beginning its entry into the big world of glamour and beauty pageants and fashion shows had to be covered. In fact Girilal Jain, one of India’s most illustrious editors, told me off saying “news papering is not for women” a reflection of his patriarchal mindset. Of course his views changed when his own daughter got into the profession! Even when I asked for maternity leave in 1969, I was told there was no such rule in TOI to allow women to sit at home and have babies on paid leave.
Even before I entered the profession as a reporter for this leading Indian newspaper in the mid 1960s, Kamla Mankekar, Promilla Kalan, eminent film critic Amita Malik, Rami Chhabra, Aruna Mukherji, Shantha Rangachary had blazed the trail, writing wonderful articles on social and political issues for The Statesman, Hindustan Times (HT), TOI and The Indian Express (IE). In Mumbai in the 1950s, writer Freny Talyarkhan and photo journalist Homai Vyarawalla (98) were known names. Vyarawalla was one of the first woman photo journalists who covered the Independence struggle. Her images are archival material today.
Women then did columns, special articles, Sunday features, not daily reporting. Eve’s Weekly, with Gulshan Ewing as its editor, and Femina, with first a male editor and then Vimla Patil, had just made their foray into the profession, bringing in women’s views, and a quotient of chic and glamour.
Women became full time reporters only in the mid 1960s. Prabha Dutt in HT and I in TOI were pioneers in reporting. Dutt, in her short life as a journalist, did some great investigative stories. She had gone as a trainee to the HT from the Chandigarh College of Journalism, and based on the excellent stories she had done, she sought a permanent job. Editor Mulgaonkar said appointing a woman was against the newspaper’s policy. So she left with an assurance that if he ever took a woman, it would have to be her. A year later, he appointed Nandini Narain and Dutt was back asking Mulgaonkar to honour his promise. She did get a job. That was the kind of struggle in those early years. Dutt, Narain and I became great friends. Soon there was a crop of good women journalists — Razia Ismail, Nandini Mehta, Taveleen Singh, Coomi Kapoor, Madhu Jain. Making inroads in the profession was a challenge for all of them, but all of them were good writers and wielded the pen like artists.
Tavleen Singh was a strong, independent woman and spurned The Statesman car that was to drop her home after night duty so there was the bizarre scene of The Statesman car trailing her as she zipped home in her own vehicle. Kapoor was superseded as chief reporter because of her sex. Ismail, despite her excellent, in depth articles, was denied the External Affairs beat and left to join UNICEF as head of the communications team.
Hindi journalism was bereft of women till Mrinal Pande came on the scene. She was the first woman to get the top job of an editor in Dainik Hindustan. A few years later in Bangalore, R Poornima also blazed a trail as the editor of the leading Kannada daily Udayvani. Anita Pratap in India Today did some fantastic work covering the ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka and Mumbai, Sucheta Dalal created headlines breaking the Harshad Mehta stock market scam. In about 15 years, there was a sea change. Women journalists were still rare, but the few that were there were making their presence felt.
With Doordarshan and the opening of private channels in the 1990s, women journalists became more visible. Women news readers and anchors were sought after and projected on television. But the newspaper industry was going through some major changes. Hindi journalism began capturing the markets and the language press came into its own in other parts of the country. Across the print media the wage board structure was being replaced with the contract system. Trade unions in the media lost their clout and with contracts, journalists were hired and fired at will. The women were the first to be booted out. Even editors lost the supreme status they held as newspaper owners and managers began calling the shots.
In 2004-2005, the Press Institute of India was commissioned by the National Commission for Women to do a study on the Status of Women Journalists in the print media. Most of their findings hold good even today. The study revealed that women in the regional and vernacular press are lagging behind their colleagues in the English language press. There is a vast difference in the wages they earn. In many parts of the country, men and women are hired like contract labour on daily wages. At the end of the month they were paid on voucher system just Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000. Journalists were insecure, living month to month, and when the newspaper decided it did not want so many, the women were the first to be axed. However, the majority of the women were on two and three year contracts, with no guarantee it would be renewed. Several newspapers were also reluctant to employ women because they would take maternity leave or have to be provided transport after night duty.
Sexual harassment at work was a reality, and despite the Supreme Court ruling that there should be a permanent committee to look into such cases, respondents said there were no such committees. Mrinal Pande narrated how she and other representatives of the Indian Women’s Press Corp had pursued a timely case of sexual harassment in a newspaper, but “there was little justice and a lot of embarrassment. Whenever managements do take action, it is invariably an occasion for them to sack a person against whom they already have a case.”
In the electronic media women have done extremely well both in English and Hindi. Though most of them are in front of the cameras, many handle cameras and do editing and other jobs. One of the most successful TV journalists who has earned laurels galore is Barkha Dutt, group editor of English news, NDTV. Her younger sister, Bahar Dutt, is the environment editor of CNN IBN. Both are daughters of the late Prabha Dutt, a pioneer woman journalist who blazed a golden trail.