Misogyny and the media: What the Lakshmi Subramanian, Rana Ayyub incidents reveal

There was a time, not so long ago, when being at the receiving end of condescension was the norm for women journalists; when the stray woman in the newsroom was considered fit to cover only 'womanly' subjects like flower shows and sari exhibitions; when hard news (read: politics), sport and investigative reporting were considered the domain of men. The women who had squeezed their way into the profession then were very conscious of the fact that they had been allowed into “privileged” territory and would tread softly, lest they be eased out.

Over the years, their numbers increased slowly, but it was during the multimedia explosion that women journalists came to the forefront.

First it was on the television, where women newsreaders made a sort of passive entry into newsrooms. Then came 24-hour broadcast news, which was the game changer. Women media professionals were out there reporting, anchoring, moderating panel discussions and doing long features. The 'lakshman rekha' disappeared, and women proved they could do everything their male colleagues did, and more. They did night shifts, they covered wars and riots, and they reported on politics and crime. They expressed strong views which had their own unique perspective. Suddenly, the woman’s voice was heard loud and clear, and the hitherto patriarchal media began to panic.

And then came the backlash.

In the beginning, this backlash took the form of a defensive sexist attitude which was annoying, but mild compared to what is happening today. They'd be told things like, “You women must be uncomfortable because we are used to cracking bawdy jokes in the newsroom", "Oh! You're a woman, surely you can get any story by sweet-talking your way through it", and "You can’t handle this assignment, there will be a lot of political bigwigs there”.  Women who entered the profession at this stage learned to develop thick skins, ignore the condescension and sexist remarks, and get on with their work.

The real toxic backlash began after social media came into its own. Women became the targets of large-scale, organised trolling, often by paid trolls who would work in a much more focused manner. Yes, men were trolled too, but women suffered the worst. These were no-holds-barred attacks. Sniggering networks were now a thing of a more innocent and naïve past. The amorphous anonymity that social media offers gave the frustrated, the jobless and those holding differing views the freedom to post what they wanted, without facing any consequences. Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp served these people in the same way that public bathrooms did in the past. Women journalists’ names, photographs—both actual and morphed—their phone numbers, email IDs and addresses became information that was now public. Anyone whose views were in conflict with those that a journalist had expressed in the course of her professional duties could call her names, threaten her with rape and death, and stalk her both online and offline.

As women resisted this onslaught and stood up for themselves, the attacks turned more and more vicious. Being called a 'presstitute' was passé. The comments and allegations became increasingly sleazy, to the point of being pornographic. Sometimes they came from unexpected quarters. There was no dignity left; the trolls were all wallowing in the same slime.

 Misogyny and the media: What the Lakshmi Subramanian, Rana Ayyub incidents reveal

Lakshmi Subramanian said that Purohit's action was uncalled for, and was quite vocal about it. Twitter/@lakhinathan1

Recently, senior journalist Lakshmi Subramanian asked the Governor of Tamil Nadu, Banwarilal Purohit, a simple question at a press conference. He had called the press to counter allegations of sexual misconduct. Instead of replying to her, he patted her cheek in a condescending manner. She protested, saying that the touch was uncalled for, and was quite vocal about it. At this point, the well-known Tamil actor and Bharatiya Janata Party leader S Ve Shekher shared a Facebook post written by Thirumalai Sa, which said, among other things: "Recently this disgusting fact has come out through complaints that women cannot become reporters or anchors unless they sleep with top bosses. And with these faces, they come out to ask questions to the governor." He added, “It is actually the governor who has to wash his hands with Phenoyl [phenyl] after touching her. These [Tamil Nadu media persons] are cheap and disgusting creatures." Shekher deleted the post after there was massive outrage. He also apologised, but 30 journalists still gathered outside his house and pelted stones.

One of the most disturbing incidents involving a woman journalist in the recent past is the persecution of author and journalist Rana Ayyub by what she has called a “virtual lynch mob” over a statement which she never even made. The statement, attributed to her by the fake news parody account @repubIicTv stated that minor child rapists also had human rights and that the Hindutva government had simply brought in an ordinance for death to child rapists, just to hang Muslims in larger numbers.

What was meant to be a spoof tweet from a parody Twitter account went viral, and within hours it was shared over thousands of times on Facebook. Most people who shared it or commented on it didn’t even realise it was fake news. The tweet was withdrawn and the parody account was also suspended, but the damage was already done.

rana ayyub

Rana Ayyub was trolled endlessly for a statement she did not even make. Facebook/@ranaayyubjournalist

The trolls came out in huge numbers and attacked the journalist, who had not even made the statement. On Twitter, in particular, the trolls went berserk. The ball had been set rolling and Rana received the most misogynistic abuse, which left her shaken.

Meanwhile, The Network of Women in Media India (NWMI), which has been taking a strong stand against this kind of online vilification of women demanded that the harassment of the journalist should be stopped immediately. In a statement, the group urged social media platforms such as Twitter to take steps to “distinguish parody accounts from the real ones” and to “intervene when the platform is used for hate speech and threats of violence. Any delay on their part to respond promptly will serve to embolden these purveyors of misogyny and online abuse and encourage them in their criminal acts. It also makes Twitter a party to such acts,” the statement said. It demanded that the Cyber Crime Cell of the Delhi Police take immediate steps to ensure Rana’s safety, and to take action against those threatening her.

The NWMI has many times in the past issued strong statements condemning attacks on women journalists, who are more vulnerable because they are in a profession which puts them out there in full public glare. Once upon a time, journalists had a certain amount of anonymity because they were not always given bylines by their publications. In the multimedia world, not just bylines, but also faces, contact numbers and other personal details are all out there in cyberspace. Independent women journalists face the added problem of not having any support system to fall back on. If they are arrested, for instance, while doing an investigation or are sexually harassed or intimidated, there is no one they can turn to for help. It is in such situations that network groups of professional women can step into the picture and help their colleagues.

The misogyny might have increased manifold, but so has the confidence of women journalists. Today they are learning to stand up for themselves and fight back.

Updated Date: Apr 27, 2018 19:55:37 IST