Shivani Bali to Jahnavi Gadkar: 'Oh look, drunken woman driver' is now the hottest media beat

After a certain number of alcoholic drinks, you think you were meant to save Gotham or ride a T-Rex back home. And thanks to the unfortunate time lapse between your brain and the world, you jump on to your car and decide to go for a spin... err, ride. Basically, you are stupid and irresponsible. Also your drinking buddies care less about your well-being than the dengue mosquitoes in your building do.

What happens now? If fellow sober motorists and pedestrians are really lucky, they escape with their lives. Otherwise, you run them over and as bad karma, maybe even kill yourself.

Now in this scheme of things, what influence does a pair of ovaries or testicles have on the consequences? Logically and scientifically, none. However, if the recent news cycle and headlines are anything to go by, it matters deeply if a rash driver is a man or a woman. For example, a drunken woman who allegedly refused to come out of her car when cops intercepted her in Mumbai's Bandra, had made it to headlines as a 'drunken woman driver' , not just a 'drunken driver'.

 Shivani Bali to Jahnavi Gadkar: Oh look, drunken woman driver is now the hottest media beat

Jahnavi Gadkar and Shivani Bali.

In fact, The Times of India seems have been so horrified at the fact that a woman drove while being drunk, they have declared in bold font in their second page that Shivani Bali, the accused is the 'third drunk woman driver' to be booked in a week in Mumbai. The report doesn't carry a corresponding number for the number of male drivers who were booked for drunken driving in the city. But boys will be boys as Mulayam Singh Yadav once reminded us.

On 9 June, an inebriated Jahnavi Gadkar drove her Audi into a  taxi coming from the opposite direction, killing its driver and a passenger. Three others were injured. Here's what the headlines in most leading news portals looked like the next day:

NDTV: "2 Dead After Woman Lawyer, Allegedly Drunk, Rams Speeding Audi Into Taxi in Mumbai"

Hindu: "Drunk driving kills two in Mumbai, woman lawyer held"

The Times of India: "Drunk woman lawyer rams Audi into cab on Eastern Freeway, kills 2"

Most media fell into the trap of saying 'woman lawyer' in the headline, including ours. Wiggling the gender of the offending lawyer into the headline was surely not done to set high standards for precision in reporting. For example, a colleague pointed out, had the rash driver been a man, no headline would have said, "Drunken man lawyer rams his car into a taxi." It would be a bad headline, the gender of the offender an unnecessary appendage to the headline.

And then some media houses walked that extra mile to thoroughly investigate the many dangers of 'drunk women' walking, or driving, on our streets. And at times with no relevant data to justify their interest.

True gender separatists that we are, we went to great lengths to explore the phenomenon that is a 'drunken woman driver'. So the Sunday Times came out with a detailed front page article on how women get intoxicated more easily compared to men. That would be a very helpful nugget of information, had the context been slightly different. The Hindustan Times further explored this great new menace with two articles: one announcing that women get away with drunk driving easily in Delhi and another claiming 'drunk women drivers' are driving Mumbai cops up the wall.

It's almost as if there is new journalistic beat called 'drunk women driver'. But what drives it? It could either be humankind's deep faith in women and a belief that sati-savitris can do no wrong, forget driving drunk and running people over. So a departure from the same has shocked the daylights out of us. Or, it is a subconscious, sexist assumption that a woman's gender is somehow linked to her being an irresponsible drunken driver. As in women can't really drive, and now they are driving drunk? Either way, the assumptions and stupid, erroneous and reeks of incorrect gender stereotypes.

The result of his new interest - in the lack of a better word - in 'drunk women drivers', is there for us to see. Given that Bali is not a celebrity and doesn't have the media trailing her, who tipped TV journalists off who hovered around her and recorded the incident?  In fact, why was there such great interest in her as someone who made a fool of herself in a state of intoxication? It's not difficult to see how Bali became a 'story' worth 'covering' - it was the shock of value of, 'OMG, another woman drunken driver'. 

How many videos have you seen of drunk men sparring with the police when they are intercepted? How many times have mainstream news channels and papers run detailed footage of a man's drunken antics? Chances are you can't recall a similar incident as clearly.

Hindustan Times in an article on drunken driving in Delhi says, "Getting away with driving drunk in Delhi may be easier if you're a woman. The traffic police prosecuted 5,523 people for the offence through special drives this year, of which only 12 offenders were women. The fact that the department has only four women traffic inspectors out on the field may have something to do with this." 

It quotes a special commissioner of police saying that at times they have to let go of women drivers who are driving drunk, because they don't 'want to get into trouble later'. The other article on Mumbai says actually explores the legal provisions involved in arresting a woman - which is not any different in case of drunk driving as compared to other offences. However, the article begins with an assumption unsupported by fact: "This was one of a growing number of instances involving drunk women, who may pose a danger to themselves and others, wherein policemen were confused about the law governing the arrest of women."

There is no proof that there weren't drunk women drivers previously. Or that women 'pose a danger to themselves and others' any more than a man would. However, the article found it necessary to emphasize that "fact".

The focus of outrage and anxiety should ideally be be drunk driving. The fact that the emphasis seems to have moved to the driver happening to be a woman unfortunately smacks of sexist stereotypes getting the better of us.

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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2015 13:19:55 IST