Micro-narratives of change: These Indian women are telling stories that need to be heard

The news you get through the mainstream press — TV, publications, websites — is tailored for a specific section of society, specifically the educated middle-class.

In this process, important developments often may not come to our attention. Even the Pulitzer Prize recognised the importance of these 'micro narratives', that can only be told independently and objectively by newspapers/other media that are not run by big corporations, when it awarded journalism's highest honour to a family-run publication, Storm Lake Times, which questioned the interests of powerful industrialists in Iowa.

That's the power of micro-narratives.

The mainstream press especially overlooks women. There's very rarely women-specific news, information that might help women, or which is written in their interest. And news is also written from the perspective of outsiders, which doesn't always allow the voices of people who should be heard, to be heard.

That's where these women studies come in. As a part of the Godrej India Culture Lab's #WeTheNation conference held in Mumbai recently, three case studies — of women path-blazers — were presented. Firstpost caught up with these intrepid women later:

Aisha Khantoon, filmmaker for Sanatkada Samajik Pehel, Lucknow

 Micro-narratives of change: These Indian women are telling stories that need to be heard

Image courtesy: Facebook/India Culture Lab

Twenty six-year-old Aisha Khantoon has been learning and teaching filmmaking at Sanatkada Samajik Pehel since 2012. Pehel is an NGO which seeks to empower Dalit and Muslim women by teaching them the power of the camera lens. By letting them record their perspective of life, and giving them the power of showcasing these perspectives, the NGO aims to raise awareness about the struggles these women face in their day-to-day lives.

Khatoon, after learning how to wield the camera herself, has been teaching other girls how to use it for filmmaking. But her journey as a filmmaker and mentor hasn't always been easy. She says that she would have faced a lot of opposition from her family if she would have told them that she wants to learn filmmaking. Instead, she withheld this knowledge from them until she had mastered the art and started making documentaries.

Khatoon says many girls in the programme have to do the same thing: hide the fact that they are learning filmmaking from their family, since this is not an acceptable profession for a girl in their community.

Khatoon, a graduate in education and Urdu, also says she faces a lot of trouble when her gender and religion come into play when she is on the field getting stories. She talks about her initial days, when she had just started filming: "We were shooting a film on marriage. It was fine when we shot the bride, but when we went to shot the groom and the maulvi, the maulvi refused to proceed with the ceremony until we stopped. Men are allowed to film the bride, but they have a problem when a women starts filming men.

Khatoon is now teaching filmmaking to a new batch of girls in the NGO, and dreams of becoming a filmmaker one day. On being asked what sorts of narratives she would like to pursue, she says, "I want to make documentary films on women."

Here's a film by her:

General Narsamma, production head for Sangham Radio

Image courtesy: Facebook/India Culture Lab

Image courtesy: Facebook/India Culture Lab

Zahirabad, a small, sleepy farming district in Telangana, is the center for Asia's only community women's radio, which is known as Sangam Radio.

How did a small farming village end up becoming a feminist icon? Here's the amazing story told by General Narsamma, head of production at Sangam Radio:

The NGO, Deccan Development Society, has has been working Zahirabad since the last three decades. Back then, the NGO used to work with small groups of women in the villages, called 'sanghams' to figure out a course for development for their lives. Since the economy of the villages used to depend on agriculture back then (and even now), the topics discussed used to revolve around food production and agriculture.

So when the UNESCO programme Learning without Frontiers came in, they talked to the organisation about their need for their own media, to spread much-needed messages related to farming and other knowledge systems across the country. UNESCO started training women for the initiative and Sangham radio was born.

As for the content of their radio, they were very clear about what they wanted. The women wanted to generate content based on the knowledge system of the village. They started talking to elderly men. Content at first revolved around food production and agricultural practices. Now Sangham radio broadcasts local news along with programs related to health, agriculture and local culture.

However, the road to becoming an official radio station was a difficult one. Narsamma elaborated through a translator that the government at first was unwilling to give them a broadcasting liscence since it believed that only governmental agencies can aquire a broadcasting liscence.

"We shot a lot of videos and sent them across to the government as a sign of protest. The voices of our struggles were heard when we finally got a broadcasting licence in 2008," says Narsamma.

It was in 2008 that Justice BV Sawant passed a motion which made them the first community radio station to get a licence, and also enabled others to do the same.

Sangham Radio is  unusal in many ways. Other than being Asia's only women-run community radio service, they also had a  unique revenue model. The radio was kept going by collecting funds from the women who run the radio service, and women who listen to them. All it takes is Rs 50 per head to keep it going — the radio is a service that broadcasts important information in the area — it has the reach and essential information for people who are not familiar with Google.

For example, Narsamma talks about a phone-in health show where women ask health experts for medical advice. The listeners also phone-in for things like asking the station to broadcast an alert about lost cattle.

While talking about empowerment through technology, Narsamma isn't conviced about the power of Steve Job's genius, nor does she believe in the power of the Google God.

She is averse to technology. For the women of Sangham radio, and for the editor-at-large General Narsamma, smart phones are  to be discounted since young people stare into them instead of talking to each other.

Meera Devi, reporter for Khabar Lahariya

Image courtesy: Facebook/India Culture Lab

Image courtesy: Facebook/India Culture Lab

When Meera Devi joined Khabar Lahriya in 2006, she was one of the only two reporters in the Banda region of Uttar Pradesh. She says about the time when she joined the newspaper in 2006, "It was a weekly newspaper when I joined. There were eight pages. The first page of the newspaper carried all the important news, next page carried news related to land, and other important matters. The third page carried local news about Chitrakoot and Banda region, the fourth page was the entertainment section and so on..."

"We were the printers and distributors of the paper too..." she says.

Meera's journey with the weekly newspaper Khabar Lahariya has been more than a decade long one. In that time, the news weekly, produced first by a local NGO in Delhi called Nirantar, has been making news as well as printing it because it is one of the first independently owned newspapers that concentrates on micro news in India, and it is run by only women.

Over the course of the years, the organisation made a radical decision to go digital, which helped the information disseminate to a wider audience. This helped carry the organisation's message across the country and also helped those at the helm of affairs  — the rural women reporters — in better news gathering. This process has many aspects and need further elucidation.

As the internet invasion took over India, Khabar Lahariya too, decided to adopt a digital strategy in 2015. As the team of six people in 2006 steadily increased to a team of 20 to 30 people, Meera tells Firstpost, technology helped them connect to each other and the audience better.

Meera says, "Now we file reports to our head office in Chambal Media in New Delhi and they take it from there." Meera, who is now the head reporter of her region, says the team also uses WhatsApp to send each other news upadates and talks about how she uses her smartphone to take pictures for her news stories.

Her smartphone is the single most important tool for her job. "That's why I have bought a good smartphone which can take pictures that I can use," she says.

The newspaper has now trained reporters to file video reports, converse with each other over phone to gather information better (they have a WhatsApp group). Meera has time and again said how using videos on their social media page has improved their credibility as reporters. She says since the phone is so easy to work with, it's easy to go to rural areas, film the subjects. The addition of video stories to their social media page and digital publication means that they can be at par with any national publication with digital equipment.

Now Khabar Lahariya has also started doing Facebook lives and recorded shows on their Facebook page, and  their reach has widened beyond their local regions. Their stories have gotten national attention, and international recognition. In 2009, the newspaper was awarded the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize. The paper has also won the Laadli Media Award for gender sensitive reporting in 2012 and the Kaifi Azmi Award in memory of poet Kaifi Azmi in 2013. Anupama Chopra, the film critic who runs the online movie magazine Film Companion, also donated a lump sum amount to the all-women run newspaper.

Meera talks about how she always wanted to learn how to use the computer since 2006. She says "At first when I joined, I was very scared to touch the computer, but I always wanted to learn how to use it, so I was excited when we decided to adopt the digital format."

Meera seems to be equally fasnicated with Google. She says, "I really like using Google. You can look up the internet for anything. Things that interest you, things about work... our newspaper now has countless possibilities because of the internet."

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Updated Date: Jul 09, 2017 10:23:54 IST