Women in Journalism in Orissa
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Women in Journalism in Orissa

Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee
Several Indian women edited women’s journals since 1850s. In April 1870, Mokshodayani took out the first issue of Banga Mahila which stood up for women’s rights and pledged it would fight for women’s causes. Swarnkumari Devi was the sole editor of Bharti from 1885-1905, 1909-1915. Her daughter Sarla Devi was also involved in this venture.

Hemant Kumari Devi, considered to be the first woman journalist in Hindi was born in 1868, Daughter of Shillong-based Navin Chandra Rai, a Brahmo Samaji , she was educated in in Agra and later in Lahore and Calcutta. She was the editor of journal for women- Sugrihini which was published from Allahabad.  Sister Nivedita (Margaret Elizabeth Noble, 1868-1911) regularly contributed to publications like New India, Dawn, Indian Review, Modern Review, Prabuddha Bharat, Hindu Review, Mysore Review, Behar herald, The Bengalee, East & west, Sindh Journal, Hindu, Balbharti, Amrit Bazar Patrika, Statesman, Advocate, Tribune, Maratha, Times of India and Bombay Chronicle. Nivedita’s journalistic works spread over more than a decade and half. Many times she used different pseudonyms for her writing. Her early writings appeared in some provincial British journals and were on divergent issues.

However, Indian women took the plunge into the rough and tumble of professional journalism during the first half of the 20th century, including several editors of journals like Asha Devi, Bhagwan Devi Pallival, Kamala Tai Lele, Madhavi Verma, and Radha Devi. There were scattered references to women in the English language press in India in the period around or just after independence. The little accessible literature on the pioneers exists mainly in the form of casual reminiscences and feature articles, which are woefully short on the dates and other details and refer almost exclusively to Bombay (now, Mumbai) and Delhi. Bombay was the first to open its doors to women, and Homai Vyaravalla was the first woman on the staff of mainstream publication when she joined The Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1930’s. She is also referred to as the first female news photographer in the country.

In the sixties, there were very few women in daily newspapers, either on the desk or as reporters. Several newspapers had an unwritten law that they would not admit women into what was considered a male domain. Women had to struggle to push open doors.

The biggest challenge for the early women to get into mainstream newspapers was the kind of work assigned to them. They were literally given the crumbs from the newspaper table. Senior male colleagues hogged the prime beats — political parties, Parliament, Prime Minister’s office, important ministries like Home, Commerce, Finance and Foreign Office. Women were initially asked to cover flower shows, fashion shows, health and education - all considered soft beats. Until the seventies, there may have been just one woman in each newspaper and two or three on the news desks in the English national dailies of the capital.

If the women who entered into mainstream press in the 1940s and 50s can be viewed as a first, small wave of female journalists in the modern era, the next and bigger wave occurred in the 1960s and early 70s. Among those who swept into journalism in the second wave were, in the English press: Usha Rai, Prabha Dutt, Razia Ismail, Jyotsna Kapoor, Neena Vyas, Modhumita Mojumdar, Zeenat Imam, Rami Chhbra, Rashmi Saxena, Madhu Jain, Coomi Kapoor and Tavleen Singh (in Delhi), Olga Tellis, Zarien Merchant, Fatima Zakaria, Elizabeth Rao, Bachi Karkaria, Dina Vakil and Carol Andrade (in Mumbai), Anjali Sirkar (in Chennai), Gita Aravamudan and Rima Kashyap (in Bangalore), and Kalyani Shankar in Hyderabad.

From the late 70s the scene began to change dramatically. The period is also referred to as the ‘Third Wave’ in the history of journalism. A number of factors may have contributed to creating this sizeable third wave. The ripple effects of the growing international women’s movement, officially heralded worldwide by the United Nations International Year for Women (1975), were stirring the waters in India too. In the English language national newspapers of the Capital, it was as if the floodgates had opened. As women topped in the journalism courses of the country and their writing skills got recognition, they began to storm the male bastion. By mid-eighties, on some days there were all woman-shift bringing out the early Delhi editions of The Times of India. The appointment of the first women chief sub-editor, actually bringing out the newspaper, was a landmark in the same newspaper.

A study conducted during the period between 1978 and 1987; found that the presence of women in strategic positions within the press at that time often made a substantial difference to the coverage of women’s issues in the national press.
The period also witnessed many women like Anita Pratap, Seema Guha, Tavleen Singh, Shiraz Sidhwa breaking into the highly acclaimed hard news reporting like war, insurgency, calamities etc. Others like Coomi Kapoor, Neerja Choudhury, Vidya Subramaniam, Neena Vyas, and Kalyani Shankar got into political reporting and analysis.

The 1990s welcomed the ‘Fourth Wave’, where there was widespread recognition of journalism as career option for women. There were a variety of role models at senior levels in all areas of journalism including traditional male beats like sports, photojournalism, cartooning. In fact, every newspaper could boast of one executive editor, a joint editor, a few resident editors, several senior editors and deputy editors, several chief editors and chief of bureaus, a large number of senior and special correspondents, a few news editors and deputy news editors, as well as a number of chief sub-editors who are women.

Though a large number of women climbed the echelons in the professional setting but there was still a long way ahead before one could dream of an ideal representation, a non-discriminative and healthy atmosphere, a supportive marital and domestic environment and above all a safe and secure work culture. This was what came out loud and clear in the National Commission for Women’s study on ‘Status of Women Journalists in India’ commissioned by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in 2004.  Prepared by the Press Institute of India (PII), this report was first such attempt in the country to look at the harsh reality - for women - in this often-glamorized profession. Major concerns that emerged from the study were job insecurity, neglect of maternity and child-care provisions, discrimination and sexual harassment. The study also demonstrated that women journalists had learnt that hard work, a supportive management, and a positive attitude could be keys to success. By and large, women journalists had a positive perspective and believed that opportunities in the industry have improved over the previous years.

In Orissa things were not different. Although there were women editors in pre independence era, but there were hardly any women journalist in real reporting beat. There were few women in journalism, mostly on the desk. Women reporter or photographer was a rare sight. However, things have changed since the 80s. As Elisha Pattnaik writes , “A decade ago women journalists in Orissa were rarely heard of. The few who took up the profession either free-lanced, or were confined to desk jobs and had to be satisfied looking after the women’s and cookery segments of the newspaper. Women reporters venturing out and running around for news at odd hours was something, which was not quite acceptable by the traditional Oriya families and society.

However, things have changed dramatically from 1980s. More and more women in Orissa - both in print and electronic media - are opting for journalism as their chosen profession. The establishment of media training institutes, growth in media avenues and career opportunities, exposure of women and a changed public opinion has been responsible for the gradual entry of an increasing number of women into journalism.”

“Perhaps, I was the only women journalist in the early 80s in the mainstream media and it was not very easy,” recalls Jyotsna Rautray  who was Chief sub-editor of Sambad, a leading Odiya daily. She has now left Sambad to work as a free-lancer. When she joined Sambad in mid-eighties, contrary to the norm, Rautray was sent to the field for stories to various parts of the State. “I was thoroughly dissuaded by my parents not to join a newspaper and the atmosphere too was not very conducive. But I give full credit to my editor Soumya Ranjan Patnaik for not showing any bias.” Subsequently, the launch of Sun Times, an English daily by the same Group in the late 80s saw many women entering the profession. The launch of Orissa editions of national dailies and growth in regional dailies also started providing avenues to many women writers.

Until early 90s, however, the growth in opportunities for women was mostly limited to the print media. The national television channels offered little scope and it was only after the beginning of a local Oriya channel - O-TV - that women got a chance to prove themselves in the electronic media. Later E-TV made its entry offering openings to women media persons. Nevertheless, till today, the opportunities in the electronic media by and large are restricted to the production and editing segments only with rare exceptions. Says Sharda Lahangir, State Correspondent for ANI, “Though there has been a perceptible increase in the number of women reporters in newspapers, in the electronic media they are few and far between.”

Despite an appreciable rise in women journalists in Orissa, many feel that it is mostly limited to the English media and the profession in general seems to be still male-dominated. For example, leading daily the Samaja, which had a woman editor, Manorama Mahapatra, has not encouraged the entry of women into its fold. It hardly has any women journalist on its payroll.  In comparison, other major Oriya news papers like Dharitri and Sambad have sizable number of women journalists.

Yet another opinion expressed by women journalists is that despite a rise in numbers, they are yet to be accepted in the male dominated media fraternity of the state. They are given to handle social features and soft stories and not business and politics which constitute the prime beats in any newspaper. Moreover, very few are members of the journalists’ associations or any press clubs in Orissa. A glance at the list of accredited journalists also reveals that there are not many women journalists. Their number has definitely increased, but the recognition of their talents and their contribution to the media is yet to be acknowledged.

However, another senior women journalist, Manipadma Jena feels that though the bias is not overt, the mindset that women may not be capable of doing justice to anything other than soft stories still remains. “But it’s not insurmountable if a woman journalist decides to prove herself,” she says adding, “There is no barrier as such except that the scope in Orissa is limited.”

Nevertheless, despite the varied opinions, the fact remains that more and more women are establishing their presence in the profession. Farhat Amin, a freelance journalist sums up by saying, “In the past they were ignored and rarely appreciated and never entrusted challenging jobs. But now we can proudly say that we have women bosses and reporters and that’s enough change.”

Orissa has had several mainstream daily newspapers with women editors. For example, Manorama Mahapatra was the executive editor of Samaja, Trupti Nayak is the editor of Janavani, Salila Kar is the editor of Matrubhasa, Sairendhri Sahu is the editor of Dhwani Pratidhwani, Binapani Dash is the editor of Dinalipi. Women are occupying responsible positions in several news media in Orissa. Sulochana Das, who was bureau-chief of E-TV, now runs an Orissa-news centric website kalingatimes.com.

Another indicator of growing presence of women in journalism is the growing number of girl students in Journalism courses. In Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Dhenkanal the number of boy and girl students in Oriya Journalism course over the years show a pattern: number of girl students is increasing. The same pattern is observed in MJMC (Masters in Journalism and Mass Communication) course in Berhampur University, Centre for Development Education and Communication (CEDEC), Bhubaneswar and other institutes as well.

This indicates two trends: first, girl students are taking to journalism like never before; and second, journalism as a career option for women is gaining social acceptance.

[Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee; Professor, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC); Sanchar Marg, Dhenkanal 759 001, Orissa; mrinaliimc@yahoo.in, www.mrinalchatterjee.in]

Useful Books:
Making news: Women in Journalism
By Ammu Joseph, Penguin India (2005)
Whose News?: The Media and Women's Issues (Second edition)
Edited by Ammu Joseph and Kalpana Sharma, Sage (2006)

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