Changing the script: women and media in the eighties

Pamela Philipose

Currently a Senior Fellow with the Indian Council of Social Science Research, Pamela Philipose was till June 2014 the Director and Editor-in-chief of Women's Feature Service (WFS), an agency mandated to highlight development issues with a gender focus in media 

While Pamela began her career with The Times of India, later she was Senior Associate Editor with The Indian Express, a role in which she anchored the edit page and wrote commentary on a range of issues including those of conflict, politics, children, development, human rights and the media. The Indian Express ran her satirical column, ‘Straight Face’ for ten years and Penguin India published her book of political satire, ‘Laugh All The Way To The Vote Bank’. 

In 1999, Pamela won the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Woman Journalist and in 2007, the Zee-Astitva Award for Constructive Journalism. She was also an advisor to the Media Task Force of the Government of India’s High-Level Status of Women Committee Report.

Pamela has co-edited two volumes, one focusing on reportage on conflict entitled ‘Across the Crossfire: Women and Conflict in India’ (Women Unlimited, 2012) and another that looked at women’s employment, ‘Work In Progress’ (Concept Information/ FES, 2013). She has also contributed to various anthologies including ‘Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India: Making A Difference’ (Women Unlimited/Kali For Women, 2011), the Latika Padgaonkar and Shubha Singh edited publication ‘Making News, Breaking News, Her Own Way’ (Tranquebar, 2012) as well as the Nalini Rajan edited book, ‘Practising Journalism: Values, Constraints, Implications’ (Sage Publications, 2005).

The beginnings

In her book, The Politics of Women’s Liberation (published in 1975, the International Year of Women), Jo Freeman observed that the key to the founding of the feminist movement in the U.S. was the exchange of information and ideas.

The same could be said of India. Those who struggled for women’s “liberation” (a word that sounds almost anachronistic today) shared concepts, experiences and strategies, and thereby placed gender on the national centre stage of post-independence India. This facilitated the setting up of women’s groups that reached out to every section of women: from domestic workers and factory workers to middle-class professionals.

These groups sometimes bore evocative names to signify women’s collectives such as Stree Mukti (Bombay), Stree Manch (Nagpur) and PennurammaiIyyakam (Madras). They flagged friendship and sisterhood: Saheli (Delhi), Sahiar (Baroda) and Sakhi Kendra (Kanpur). Or they evoked freedom: Nari Mukti Santha (Gauhati) and Nari Mukti Sangh (Patna and Ranchi). Some suggested awakening, as in Jagori (Delhi), Stree Jagruti Samiti (Bombay) and Chingari (Ahmedabad).

By 1980, shared knowledge brought together women from all over India to mark the International Women’s Day (1980) and protest against the Supreme Court verdict on the Mathura rape case. In order to do this, 12 organisations formed a proto-coalition in the capital city of New Delhi. Simultaneously, the then-newly instituted Forum Against Rape (later called Forum Against the Oppression of Women or FAOW) organised a public meeting and march in Bombay (Mumbai). Metros like Madras (Chennai), Hyderabad, Bangalore (Bengaluru) and Pune also saw demonstrations. These were early attempts by Indian women to represent themselves as part of a national movement.

Various national-level conferences hosted by the women’s movement also saw a great deal of learning and knowledge sharing. In November 1980, a national conference on the theme “Perspectives for the Women’s Liberation Movement in India” was held in Bombay. It helped to define the movement as autonomous and free of any allegiance to political parties or the government. This principle was underlined at another national conference held in 1985 which focused on “Perspectives for the Autonomous Women’s Movement in India”. In 1983, a week-long creative workshop in Delhi saw 200 women from various parts of India come together to both acquire and share skills ranging from poster making to song composition. “Expressions”, a four-day women’s national cultural festival held in June 1990 in Bombay showcased the creative and performing arts, and marked the culmination of this creatively rich period of feminist activism.

The circulation of newsletters, bulletins and journals produced by various groups formed another aspect of the knowledge-sharing process.  Among the earliest of these publications was the cyclostyled Feminist Network which later gave rise to Manushi, a magazine published alternately in Hindi and English. In its heyday, Manushi enjoyed national and even international circulation. Other feminist publications included Sabla (from Calcutta/Kolkata) in Bengali; Stree Sangharsh, Apni Azad Ke Liye and Aawaz Aurat Ki (from Patna) in Hindi; Samata (from Bangalore/Bengaluru) the Kannada publication; Baija (from Pune) in Marathi; Anusaya (from Ahmedabad) in Gujarati; AeideorJonaki Bat (from Dibrugarh) in Assamese. There were also several in English including Kruthi (Bangalore), Shackles and Women (Chandigarh), Womenews (Bombay/Mumbai) and the Saheli newsletter (Delhi). 

There was Sabla, which Jagori took over in the eighties and later renamed as Hum Sabla. Interestingly, the government realised the consciousness-raising value of this publication and distributed it very widely in the Hindi-speaking States. Jagori understood very early that the tools of multi-media were invaluable in reaching out to different kinds of audiences. One of its brochures noted that “By using oral and visual media, we believed that we could disseminate the messages of the women’s movement to non-literate masses in the most remote of village.”

A few years earlier, the Report of the Status of Women Committee – ‘Towards Equality’ (1974) – had already revealed the realities of Indian women. While constituting one half of society, women had hardly benefitted from the provisions of the State. Until the Report became public, little was known about this category of citizens and they hardly figured in the law-making or policy-shaping processes. The ‘Towards Equality’ report sought to change this by providing a fillip to new scholarship and research on women.

In Bombay, the Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women's (SNDT) University set up its own Women’s Studies centre in 1974, the first Indian university to do so. Many academics and administrators proved to be “frontier women”, facilitating the emergence of this new interdisciplinary field. Madhuri Shah, Hemlatha Swarup, Jyoti Trivedi, Phulrenu Guha, Vina Mazumdar, Lotika Sarkar and Devaki Jain were among those who contributed to the task of building Women’s Studies into a credible discipline.

The year 1980 also saw the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) being set up in Delhi. The following year witnessed the first national Women’s Studies’ meeting. During this event held in Bombay, women academics put forward the ambitious idea of transforming higher education by bringing in a gender dimension into all disciplines. One of the decisions from the meeting was the institution of a professional body that furthers Women’s Studies; this led to the birth of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) in 1982.

With pressure from women like Dr. Vina Mazumdar, in 1987 the University Grants Commission sanctioned funds to set up six small Women’s Studies centres within universities in Delhi, Punjab, Varanasi, Thiruvananthapuram, Calcutta and Bombay. Young scholars now began to unpack patriarchy and engage with feminist theory.  “The idea was not so much to acknowledge Women’s Studies as a discipline but to get it to work as a catalyst to make change happen,” as feminist academic Mary John was to remark later.

Over the rest of the decade, the synergy between Women’s Studies as a discipline and the women’s movement proved to be mutually beneficial and contributed considerably in the production of new feminist knowledge. Feminist publishing houses like Stree Shakti (1982) and Kali for Women (1984), and later others like Stree-Samya (1990) provided a fillip to the production and circulation of this knowledge and research, both among academics and the general public.

Media on the radar

Violence against women and dowry were among the initial concerns taken up by the movement in these early years. In the course of articulating them, another issue emerged: the manner in which women were represented and projected in the media.

It was felt that such images played a central role in perpetuating a culture of misogyny and patriarchy. Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah, in their book Issues at Stake quoted an activist of the Shramik Mukti Dal as having observed, “I see it more in terms of a reproduction of culture which reinforces the present stereotyping of women.” Activists came to believe that the women’s movement must also take note of the ways in which inequality between men and women was structured into mainstream public and mass media discourses.

In those days “mass media”, it must be remembered, largely comprised newspapers, magazines, popular cinema and the programmes of All India Radio and Doordarshan. Apart from countering the stereotypes and biases in the mass media, it was also felt that women needed to “unleash feminist expression that would reflect a fresh idiom”, as Abha Bhaiya once put it.

The first detailed survey on the issue of women’s representation in the Indian media from a feminist perspective was carried out by Manushi in its May-June 1980 issue. The survey titled ‘The Media Game: A Survey on the Big Business of Women’s Magazines’ argued that power groups within society wished to control wealth and resources by perpetuating inequalities and therefore devised weapons to keep people subservient. The mass media were one such weapon and they played a crucial role in “brainwashing people and forcing a distorted self-view down our throats” so that women were socialised into choosing oppression and even enjoy it. “The big business and government owned mass media play different kinds of games with different oppressed groups, selling them different self-views and manipulating their concerns.” The survey also noted how workers’ struggles were being framed as “law and order” problems and collective action against injustice was seen as “mob violence and rioting”. It saw women as special targets because their subjugation was the primary pre-condition for keeping society’s hierarchies and exploitative social structures intact.

The survey perused content in three prominent women’s magazines of that period– Femina and Eve’s Weekly (both in English) and Sarita (Hindi) – for over a year (1979) to gauge “the social role they have come to perform”. The covers of these magazines, it was observed, portrayed a smiling, passive women, rather like a “doll in a shop window” or a gift to be unwrapped. Although women were displayed like this to sell the magazine, the more important purpose served by such covers, according to the authors of the survey, was to project these “cover girls” as “role models”, representing the “ideal women” of male fantasy.

It is interesting to observe that although the word “objectification” (a concept that became commonplace as part of feminist theorisation in the years to come) was not used, that was precisely what was implied. In their 1997 exposition of objectification theory, Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi-An Roberts argued that women were viewed primarily as objects of male desire, rather than as persons in themselves. They observed that objectification functions to socialise girls and women to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated.

The Manushi survey also highlighted the way in which ads promoted consumption as a source of pleasure. “These magazines try to create and develop in women a craving for more and more clothes, cosmetics, figure developers, exotic foodstuffs...they help create the market which is further cultivated by glossy advertising.” In addition, there was the attempt to suggest acceptably “feminine” behaviour patterns for the “new man”.

The survey ended on the optimistic view that “readers are in fact coming alive to their own concerns and also to the games that consumer-oriented mass media try playing at their expenses.”