By Ammu Joseph
Day 1 | 9 February
The public meeting on 9 February 2007 was without doubt the highlight of the three-day 5th Annual Meeting of the Network of Women, India, which concluded in Bangalore on 11 February. The event, which drew a large and diverse audience from the city, was made extra special by the exceptional and distinctive speeches by chief guest Gloria Steinem and special guest Ruth Manorama, as well as the poignant yet inspirational launch of the Anupama Jayaraman Memorial Award for Young Women Journalists, won in this inaugural year by Smita Aggarwal.
Ruth Manorama, a well-known activist promoting women’s rights, particularly among the urban poor and dalits, whose work over three decades was rewarded with the prestigious Right Livelihood Award last year, gave away the new media award. She highlighted several home truths about the media in her characteristic, inimitable style, which drew appreciative responses from the audience. While acknowledging the media’s service to society, she underlined the importance of reporting the truth and nothing but the truth because “only the truth shall set us free.” Referring to media coverage of issues concerning the urban poor, who constitute a sizeable proportion of the country’s population, she pointed out that while events like slum demolitions do sometimes capture the imagination of the media, little attention is paid to the multiple, valid, often preventable reasons that drive poor people from rural areas into urban slums or to the many ongoing efforts to secure justice for them.
Casteless, classless and gender-equal society
On the question of caste and the media, she pointed out that it was important to pay serious attention to the scarce presence and skewed representation of dalits in the media. She described the marginalisation of Dr Babasaheb R Ambedkar, the main architect of the Constitution of India, during the early post-independence period and drew attention to the way Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, was written off as a casteist leader whose death in 2006 did not merit front page coverage in some leading newspapers.
She also made light references to media responses to the news that she had been conferred with what is often known as the alternative Nobel Prize, pointing out that the Kannada media paid far more attention to it than the English media. According to her, despite the fact that friends in national television channels often call her for brief comments on various current events and issues, none of the channels interviewed her in any depth after she received the award: “Maybe my colour is not suitable for TV,” she said – only partly in jest.
In conclusion she called for more diversity in the media so that it becomes accessible to dalits, adivasis and minority communities and thereby truly represents Indian society. She ended by challenging the NWMI to help break stereotypes and thereby contribute to the struggle towards a “casteless, classless and gender-equal society.”
The thought-provoking, applause-producing and laughter-generating keynote address by internationally renowned feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem covered a vast canvas. “The Current Campfire,” the title of her talk, refers to the long tradition of people gathering around campfires to sing and dance, and to share stories and information.
Describing the media as “the current campfire” she said the question of whether human beings become “empathetic, peaceful and supportive of each other’s welfare or narcissistic, dominant and convinced that life is a zero sum game” depends to a large extent on “the kinds of campfires we, our families and our communities grow up with.” In many cultures most women and certain groups of men were relegated to the task of keeping the fire going and restrained from telling their stories at the campfire. However, thanks to women and supportive men in the media, the circle of those who speak has slowly been enlarged and this has changed what is being learnt by everyone.
Kalpana Sharma, Gloria Steinem, Ammu Joseph, Ruth Manorama, SG Vasudev and Devaki Jain.
“We are also beginning to learn that we have a collective human history in which everyone sat around the fire and everyone was heard, when we told news and sang, and our voices were valued for their usefulness to the whole group – not just the group into which we were born,” she said.
According to her, it is important to recall the 95 per cent of human history that predates patriarchy, which has been in existence over the past five to eight thousand years, so that it is clear that things have not always been this way and need not always be this way. We are finally beginning to understand that there were other forms of human organisation during 95 per cent of human history, she said, pointing out that knowledge about these “original cultures” is important not only to the female half of the human race but also to the races and classes of males who were also suppressed and made to serve the so-called superior groups.
Post-patriarchal, post-monotheistic, post-nationalistic age
“I want to excite your curiosity about thinking of the whole span of human history instead of just 5,000 years or so and to understand that patriarchy and monotheism are very new,” she said. “In fact, perhaps we should tonight declare the past 5,000 years of patriarchy, political forms of religion… and nationalism as an experiment that failed. And declare this as the first meeting of the post-patriarchal, post-monotheistic, post-nationalistic age!”
Returning to the concept of the media as “the current campfire,” she reiterated the fact that women and “wrong” groups of men have been keeping the fire going but prevented from speaking around it. Pointing out that a society that is deprived of a large part – indeed more than half – of its wisdom is going to be in trouble, she said: “We are now in big trouble.”
Describing the status of women and coverage of events and issues in the US media, she said the gendered view of the world which has led to the division of news into “hard” and “soft” can be seen in the way Oprah, “arguably the most influential media person in the US,” is condescended to by “serious voices” in the media who “talk with sorrow about the Oprah-fication of the news.” According to her, by that they just mean that she is discussing most of human experience and that she dares to use narrative – not just generalisations, not just figures, not just two opposite poles fighting over an issue: “She dares to take seriously the subjects that affect most of our lives.”
She also highlighted the many important stories that remain unreported or incompletely covered by the media because of this partial view of the world. She called upon the media to recognise that there are not just two sides to every question, that everything is not about winners and losers, that it is important to focus on solutions as much as problems, and that narratives are just as relevant as – if not more – than statistics and analysis even while tackling serious issues.
Gloria Steinem with a participant.
“Altogether, as you can see, we have a big job in gathering the whole human family around our various media campfires, with voices that are not prejudged, not excluded, with all ears open and with everybody tending the fire – not just a particular set of groups,” she said. “We are not doing this only because of the great talent in this room, we are not doing it only because of the female half of the human population, we are not doing it only to free and allow the full circle of human qualities to be accessible to men as well as women, we are doing it to save this fragile spaceship earth that we love so much.”
WHO, WHAT, WHEN
The public meeting held in the evening was preceded by an afternoon session featuring two sets of films: excerpts from two films (July Boys and The ‘M’ Way) from the “Coding Culture” series focusing on Bangalore’s software industry, directed by Gautam Sonti and Carol Upadhya, and Suttaru Solloppadavaru (Burnt not destroyed), on acid attacks against women, directed by Sanjana C B and Usha B N The film-makers were present to introduce their films and interact with participants.
Earlier in the day participants took part in an interactive introductory session. Nearly 100 women journalists from
nine states (Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Manipur, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) participated in the NWMI meet – all but one of them paying their own way to Bangalore. Among them were 20 women involved in community media – print, radio and video – in Andhra Pradesh (Pastapur and Chittoor). In addition, there were four South Asian journalist participants (from the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), who also came on their own steam. Ten media students and two international observers from outside the region also attended the meeting.
Day 2 | 10 February
Saturday morning saw participants benefiting from two sessions that were specially tailored to address health-related issues faced by professional women in general and journalists in particular: one through yoga (led by Vishalakshi of the Atmadarshan Yogashram) and the other through an interactive session on nutrition for women on the go (by Sheela Krishnaswamy of Niche4Nutrition, a nutrition consultancy firm).
Vasanthi Hariprakash leading a session.
The first working session of the day was a panel discussion on “The Media, IT/ITES/ICTs and Gender.” Social anthropologist Carol Upadhya, who has been researching various aspects of the IT industry and IT workforce in Bangalore, presented an overview of gender issues in the Indian software outsourcing industry. Psychologist Manika Ghosh, who has been involved in counselling ITES sector employees, provided a glimpse of the range of issues faced by female call centre workers. Kavitha Kadambi, a software professional, spoke from her personal experience and observation of the role and impact of women in the IT industry over various stages of its development. Anita Gurumurthy, founding member and executive director of IT for Change, spoke of the need to look beyond the IT/ITES industries to appreciate the potential of information and communication technologies for women’s empowerment, especially at the grassroots.
In the next session, Sri Lankan journalists Dilrukshi Handunnetti (Editor, Investigations Desk, The Morning Leader) and Seetha Ranjani (senior journalist and member of the Free Media Movement) spoke about the long-standing and now escalating conflict in the island nation and media coverage of it both within the country and in neighbouring India. While Dilrukshi provided background information on the conflict and critiqued media coverage, Seetha’s presentation focussed on her work on the nearly 38,000 war widows in Sri Lanka belonging to different communities, including widows of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan armed forces.
There were two parallel sessions in the afternoon – one exploring issues faced by women in the Kannada media in times of globalisation, and the other on the experiences of rural women working in community media. The former had Dr Vijaya, senior journalist, in the chair and R Poornima, editor, Udayavani, in the role of moderator. Among the other speakers were C G Manjula, Gayatri Devi, Savitri, H N Arathi and Champavathi. The latter featured print journalists involved in bringing out Navodayam, a magazine for rural women in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh, as well as the radio and video women of the Community Media Trust, Pastapur, AP. Two short films on the work of the latter, The Sangham Shot and A Radio of Their Own, were screened during the session.
An optional session with a woman artist and a woman art collector took place in the evening at a city art gallery. Artist Shanthamani, whose exhibition was on at Gallerie Sumukha, made an audio-visual presentation about her evolution as an artist and the themes and media she has explored over time. Well-known industrialist Kiran Mazumdar Shaw (chairperson and managing director of Biocon Ltd) talked about her love of contemporary art and continuing efforts to support and promote it.
Day 3 | 11 February
Sunday morning began with more yoga, followed by an interactive session on ergonomics, focusing particularly on lower back pain – a common complaint among women to which journalists are particularly vulnerable – led by Dr Kalyan of Manipal Hospital.
The rest of the morning was devoted to discussions among participants on issues relating to the network at the local and national levels, as well as plans for the future. There were animated debates about the network’s structure, systems, membership, communication (including via e-groups and the website) and activities.
The discussions included the possibility of working towards a network of women media professionals in South Asia (which had been mooted during the 2006 NWMI meeting in Kolkata when media women from the region participated in a panel discussion). Aminath Najib of the Maldives spoke about the overall media situation in her country and the importance of such linkages, while Seetha Ranjani talked about the fledgling network of women journalists in Sri Lanka and their eagerness to establish contacts across the region. Sahar Ali, a journalist currently working with Panos in Pakistan, described the background to the proposal to facilitate a coming together of women in media in South Asia.
Sunday afternoon witnessed two parallel sessions: one titled “Production, Property, Propriety and the Media,” and the other on emerging opportunities and challenges in media professions. The former, conceptualised and presented by the Alternative Law Forum, featured presentations by Lawrence Liang, Namita Malhotra and Siddharth Narrain on different aspects of the interface between the law and the media in a rapidly changing media landscape. The latter had media professionals from public and private broadcast media, new media, as well as publishing, speaking about their respective fields: Malavika Ganesan of Zee Kannada, Chandramouli from Doordarshan, Padmavathi from All India Radio, Jimmy Xavier of Radio Fever, Subbu Vincent of India Together (e-journal), and Jamuna Rao of Dronequill Publishers.
A final wrap-up session revisited decisions made in the morning session, assigning specific tasks and deadlines to different people. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the sizeable contingent from Pune, it was decided that the next annual meeting would take place there in February 2008.
A more detailed report on the NWMI meet will follow as will the texts of speeches and presentations made available for posting.