One of the most evocative pictures of 2018 was the one of Shajila Ali Fathima, a cameraperson from Kairali TV, filming the Sabarimala riots with tears streaming down her face. This photo went viral.
This happened after some rioters whom she was filming taunted her and then suddenly kicked her in the back. When they tried to snatch her camera as she writhed in pain, she fought back and held on to it. She stood up again and continued filming, even though she was in great pain as her back and neck were injured. She later told her colleagues it was her worst experience in her professional career.
Fathima was not alone. Among others attacked was Saritha Balan of The News Minute, who was also kicked in the back and had to undergo treatment for several weeks. The Sabarimala agitation brought to the surface the deeply entrenched misogyny which lies simmering beneath the woman-friendly veneer of Kerala society.
And much of the societal angst was directed against the women journalists who dared to report from the ground. It was they who were held responsible for whatever happened to them. If they were assaulted by â€śangry devoteesâ€ť for just doing their duty, it was because they, to use an outdated term, â€śasked for itâ€ť by going to an area forbidden to them.
Editors who sent their women staff to cover the Sabarimala issue also came in for a lot of flak. They were asked why they had to send women and provoke the â€śdevoteesâ€ť. Could they not have deployed men instead? In other words, the gender of the reporter became more important than his or her competence. The fact that these women had performed their duties in spite of being heckled and even physically assaulted was brushed aside. The blame was shifted from the rioters who attacked them, to the women who were doing their job.
In the 1970s, women journalists were almost unheard of in Kerala. Of course, this was true of most of the country at that time. However, while it was an aspirational career for women in the metropolitan cities of other states, in Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital, most young women did not even consider it an option. Partly because it was not a socially acceptable profession for women, but also because the womenâ€™s families were worried about their safety in an all-male world.
The big media houses were also most unwelcoming. The boys club had made it very clear that women were not welcome in newsrooms. â€śThe reportersâ€™ room is not a place for women,â€ť a senior reporter from a well-known Malayalam Daily once declared at a discussion on Women and Journalism held in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1980s. The discussion was part of a seminar organised by the University Womenâ€™s Association of Trivandrum and the question being addressed was why women had not entered the newsrooms in larger numbers yet in Kerala. â€śWe are all men and often we have locker room jokes and use language which you may not like,â€ť the senior reporter laughed. â€śAlso women cannot stay late in the night because they may not be safe, and they cannot be sent to cover dangerous situations like riots or war.â€ť
Those were different times and even though the all women audience protested about the locker room jokes part of it, they did get bothered about the safety aspect. Those were days when women were held responsible for their own safety, and the boys could just go on being boys. The fact that having womenâ€™s voices in newsroom would bring in important perspectives to news reporting got lost in the din.
Those were also the days when womenâ€™s bodies provided grist for the media mill, but the womanâ€™s perspective was considered unimportant. Yellow journals and magazines proliferated, as did â€śsoft pornâ€ť films disguised as women-oriented subjects. Since there were no women in decision making positions, the perspective was all male.
But by the 90s, things began to change. Young women with professional qualifications began entering the field. Journalism now became a sought after career. They began making chips in the well-entrenched patriarchal media network.
Today, the women who had once shied away from the profession are now a visible presence on the media scene. They are everywhere. On TV screens, in the print newsrooms, in the online space. They are reporters, editors, and anchors. They cover riots, floods, and campaign tours. They travel far and wide in search of stories. They investigate sand mining mafias and sexual harassment by powerful men. They have had cases slapped against them and got trolled, threatened, and physically assaulted.
But most importantly, they have stood their ground and brought in that much needed womenâ€™s perspective to news stories. Every issue has several sides to it. While the rioting, the violence, the political skullduggery, and the machinations of the rich and powerful get lots of coverage, the womenâ€™s voice is often lostâ€¦even when the centrepiece of the story is the woman. It required guts and courage on the part of the women reporters from Kerala to withstand the physical intimidation, emotional blackmail, and social backlash unleashed against them and continue to stay in the profession.