The Joys and Woes of a Woman Reporter

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– R Akhileshwari

I was always interested in women’s issues, perhaps influenced my mother who shared her experiences of being a second wife in a privileged household. Though some of her stories were real and some exaggerated they taught me that injustice and inequality were woven into the life of a woman. As a result, I rebelled: against everything that was upheld as a norm, whether it was performance of puja, or a bath as a daily compulsory ritual, visiting temples or keeping fast on ‘auspicious’ days, wearing gold, a traditional sari or a long plait.

The Careers of a Woman Journalist

After journalism in 1974 in Osmania University, I passed up a better-paid bank job and became a trainee journalist as sub-editor in Deccan Herald (DH), Bangalore. I was
the only female sub on

the desk, aged 20, amid colleagues who were 40 years OLD! While I was almost friendless as the older men would not talk to me except to give work, the atmosphere was
not hostile perhaps because I was related to the management. This made my job doubly difficult as this perception overrode any appreciation of my abilities. Much later my colleagues would grudgingly admit that I was good at my work despite having connections to the management!

I requested a shift to reporting but the editor declined: women could not withstand the ‘rough and tumble’ of reporting. Later, he entrusted me with a reporting assignment that turned into a series of investigative reports on the terrible status of schools, the plight of the teachers, and the exploitation of the parents. The matter was raised in the Karnataka Assembly, and the Education Minister took a press party to verify the stories we had reported. My woman colleague and I (the team for the story) were invited. The male reporters were resentful: locals, that a ‘non-local’ like me shook the government; those at DH, that a sub-editor was chosen for the assignment and not one of them. They attributed it to the ‘sweet eye’ the old man (Editor) had for young women.

Those post-Emergency days were the golden period for investigative reporting and our work was recognised with an award. While we were perhaps the first women
reporters to do investigative reporting, our stories were not noticed at the national level because of the DH’s regional profile. Later, the Karnataka Union of Working Journalists selected one of my stories as the Best Feature published during the year.

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Married, three years later, I moved back home to Hyderabad in the late 1970s. As I explored the market of English language journalism (precisely two news agencies and two daily newspapers), I found that my awards and experience as sub-editor/reporter in the reputed DH could not tip the scales against my gender. All the newspapers and news agencies had already one woman reporter/sub editor on their rolls—a second one was ‘an unnecessary burden’. I applied in Eenadu Telugu daily. The chief of the group, no less, interviewed me and asked if I was prepared not to see my name in the byline as per Eenadu policy. I had accumulated a bagful of bylines in DH, so I agreed, but did not get the job.

Fortunately, around that time, a senior Telugu journalist started a features agency, the first of its kind in AP. This was after the journalists revolt in Eenadu had led to mass dismissals of senior Telugu editors; many were rendered jobless. My salary, after three years of experience and awards, was at the level at which I had started: Rs 300 with a bonus bus pass of Rs 35! A year later, this burden on my employer too was removed since accreditation came with a free bus pass and other concessions.

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A shoestring budget to run a household forced me to rethink my situation. When an opportunity as Assistant Editor opened in a central government-run rural development research institute, I joined. I faced the most demanding boss in my entire career, and my hair turned almost completely grey in those five years. When I wanted to apply for the post of deputy editor in my department, my boss was scandalised (I was 35 and he had occupied that honoured post only in his mid-40s). He wrote to the Director General that he did not need that kind of senior person in his department. The advertisement was withdrawn! Determined to quit I saw an opening in my alma mater, applied, was selected. I became Lecturer in the Dept of Communication and Journalism in Osmania University—not a satisfying experience.

I resigned three years later to become a correspondent in Andhra Pradesh in DH. This was an important post for a regional paper in Hyderabad, because the political scenario had attracted national attention. The Congress (I) had been decimated by a fledgling Telugu Desam Party launched in the mid-1980s by an unlikely politician, the highly popular Telugu film star N T Rama Rao. NTR turned out to be an unusual CM, making news with his quirky style. Thus, eight years after research and teaching I returned to journalism, my first love. No looking back since!

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Within a year my Associate Editor who knew only my work of reporting and stories for the different supplements, recommended to my Editor that I be sent to Namibia, then a colony (the last in the world) of South Africa. A post-apartheid South Africa, understanding the agony of the colonised, decided to grant it independence. DH wanted exclusive coverage. I was to fly out of Delhi and my Associate Editor, an old Delhi hand with connections, decided that I would need a briefing on South African politics from a globe-trotting Africa specialist. When this person heard that I had no hotel reservation, he was scandalised. The entire world media would descend on Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, the government would have had commandeered all the hotels in the small city for the dozens of heads of states attending the ceremony, and here was a foolhardy reporter going to cover it without assured accommodation. “To top it all, you are sending a woman,” he berated my colleague. Worse, it was her first trip abroad. “Go back to Hyderabad!” was his peremptory advice. I was aghast. What on hell had gender to do with having ability and wits to survive? All set as I was to take the flight in three hours’ time this man put the fear of the devil in me. My aplomb and confidence took a beating. My colleague tried to assuage my fears on the taxi to the airport. He asked me to ignore his friends’ remarks saying I would emerge in flying colours. “I know you and he doesn’t”, he said with conviction. The butterflies in my tummy remained overactive.

I managed to find accommodation in Windhoek and report the independence of Namibia.

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Soon after, I was offered the coveted Foreign Correspondent post in Washington DC. Extended family of brothers and sisters, in-laws, neighbours, their friends and relatives tried to dissuade me: I would leave behind my daughters who were three and eight , and they would be traumatised by my long absence; I would be vulnerable without male protection; I would not have the support of friends and family; I was being un-Indian and un-womanlike, putting career ahead of motherhood and wifely duties. However, my husband firmly supported my decision and I flew off to new experiences. I was perhaps one of the first woman journalists to be posted as a foreign correspondent. It was all the more unusual because a regional paper had taken the bold and rather expensive decision of posting a full-time reporter to Washington DC.

I took my elder daughter along, ironically to protect me from predatory men, soon realising that she was never a dissuading factor for any man who targeted me as a single woman. In my four years in Washington, I covered the last years of George Bush and the first term of Bill Clinton’s. I was given the dream assignment to Moscow to cover the fall of the USSR. As a post-Independence generation Indian, the USSR had a special place in my heart. Four years later, I returned to a posting in Hyderabad to be with my family. I served DH for several more years as its special correspondent in AP and retired to take up teaching.

Challenges of a woman reporter

So does a woman reporter face more challenges and problems than women in other professions? Not really. Like any other woman professional, a woman reporter/journalist encounters discrimination, bias, prejudice and sexual harassment in the course of her duty in a patriarchal society. How much her performance is affected by these depends on her mental strength, her commitment to her job, her adventurousness and the risks she takes in the course of reporting.

Belonging of the second generation of women journalists, my research for the National Commission for Women and for my doctorate showed that the situation hasn’t changed much in the 30+ years that I have been associated with the media. Women continue to be second class citizens in media houses, confront the glass ceiling, and face sexual harassment at the hands of news sources and colleagues. Should they score over their male colleagues, their character is shredded; her success attributed to her ‘trapping’ the editor/news editor/chief reporter or even sources such as a politician, et al, invariably male. While women journalists are now visible, especially on TV, they remain marginalized in terms of opportunities, beats and promotions.

If you are a woman, your success becomes your bane. Both your colleagues and your immediate superiors resent you. When I was posted to Washington DC, the senior who was handling the Foreign Page in DH was so resentful that he had been overlooked for the post as a natural choice he killed at least 20 of my stories. With no internet and expensive phone calls then, there was no way of knowing if the story appeared. We would get to see our papers in the Indian Embassy 10-12 days later. One day, my editor called up to ask why I was not filing any story! I said I was and then sent him on the teleprinter a list of stories I had done. He immediately transferred the Foreign Editor. Several women journalists have experienced jealousy of male colleagues and superiors because they got special stories or scoops; some were removed from their beats by a jealous chief reporter, others have found their byline dropped in print ‘by mistake’.

In Washington, the Indian press contingent comprised three women and seven men. The men formed a clique to discuss the leads of every story that broke. Two of us women were out. The third, married to one of the men, was part of the clique. They would snigger if a woman asked a question in a press conference; comment loudly, laugh and pass nasty comments if a woman reporter went for an ‘exclusive quote’ from an official after the press conference. Three of the men in fact functioned like a new agency: one would do the leg work, often sending the wife, and the others would write the story. One would use the original and the others re-wrote it differently. Needless to say, we were kept out of this cosy club.

They would dissect our stories after they appeared in print and at times grudgingly admit, “Not bad, she can write.” When they were not patronising they would deliberately mislead.

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Sexual harassment is an epidemic in the media that is conveniently swept under the carpet. If action is taken against the culprit, it is often a light slap on the wrist. Every woman journalist experiences sexual harassment on duty but rarely admits to it, or complains to her superiors. The harassment can come from boss, colleagues, fellow journalists and news sources. Let me cite my own experiences. In Washington DC, a single woman with a daughter in tow, innocent of American protocol and culture, I invited to my home, a news source – a doctor, perhaps in his 60s, from Mysore. He showed no signs of leaving even as it got dark. He got calls from his daughter which he answered in Kannada saying he was somewhere else, thinking I did not follow Kannada. I lacked the courage to ask him to leave and he continued his vigil hoping (I suppose) I would come to the point. On another occasion the American Ambassador to Pakistan who had just returned home after completion of his term wanted to play ‘toey-toey’ so I hastily concluded my interview and fled.

One day, I met a Karnataka cadre IAS officer had been deputed to the India office of the World Bank. After a professional lunch in the Bank cafeteria, he walked me to the Metro. As we stopped at a red light at the zebra crossing, he asked “What do you do for sex?” I was dumbstruck. “I am here for you”, he offered. The light turned green, I fled.

Back home, as correspondents of outstation newspapers, we keep in touch not just with news sources but also fellow outstation newspaper correspondents. So we would cultivate our male colleagues, which is a sure invitation to trouble as I realised soon enough.

If I stayed in hotels by myself, it invited unwanted attention. Just before I went to bed in a hotel in Trivandrum, the phone rang repeatedly and a male voice kept asking “Shall I come?” On my insistence, the hotel management followed up the next day and subsequently told me that it was a waiter and that they had suspended him.

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One of the common beliefs among men is that women can and should do the ‘soft’ stuff, not hard news like politics or crime, that they are simply not capable of reporting and analysing politics. While in the earlier days, women were asked to report beauty shows, flower shows and cultural exhibitions, nowadays women are in charge of the supplements that deal with features or the ‘soft’ news. Women journalists are ghettoised even today by limiting them to some areas of journalism, very rarely politics.

Yet, if some men discouraged us, there were others who supported us; if some men ran us down, there were others who egged us on; if there were some men who resented our achievements, there were others who recognised our talent and gave us our due; if some refused to cooperate, others went out of their way to help us; if some sabotaged our work, others shared their leads with us.

Conclusion

So were the trials and tribulations as a woman reporter worth the effort? Unquestionably! Despite the long hours, despite daily deadlines, despite the stress and anxiety of meeting them, despite taking risks and despite the disappointment of your stories being rejected or pruned badly, despite the disadvantages faced, discrimination endured, every single moment has been worthwhile!

Hand and PencilAkhileshwari is a senior journalist living in Hyderabad
akhileshwari.ramagoud@gmail.comButton