17-23 July 2015 #767

Girls who’ll run the world

Men far outnumber us, but we are the future editors and publishers of this country
Trishna Rana

WOMAN IN CHARGE: BBC Nepali Service's Rama Parajuli interviews Ramesh Lekhak of the NC (left) and Maoist leader Barsha Man Pun at a temporary studio in Bhaisepati after the earthquake. Pic: Rabindra Mishra

When Nepali Times started in the summer of 2000, the country was in the throes of an armed conflict. While images of young women Maoist guerrillas in military fatigues with rifles slung over their shoulders were jolting our common conscience and forcing us to rethink women’s role in society, the newsrooms publishing these photos and stories remained firm bastions of male privilege.

In the 15 years since, the number of women in print, broadcast, and online media has flourished. As writers, editors, anchors, and producers we have fearlessly covered the power corridors in Kathmandu as well as given voice to the most neglected communities and issues.

The advent of community radio, in particular, has allowed women at the grassroots to improve awareness and engage with locals like never before. Even as women journalists chip away at the glass ceiling, however, mainstream media is still largely an old boys’ club: controlled by men at the top with an insidious masculine culture.

The willful undermining of our intelligence and abilities, the tolerance of casual sexism and harassment in the workplace, and the lack of mentors who believe in making the newsroom more gender-friendly and inclusive are clearly hindering our progress.

Manik Jha from Janakpur started her journalism career in radio at 17. As a young girl from Madhes, where women who step outside their houses are frowned upon, she says the initial years were immensely challenging. Neighbours would reprimand her father for letting her work, and question her character because she travelled and worked alongside men. Jha’s relation with her community became so fraught people stopped talking to her.

The situation within the newsroom wasn’t any better. “I have always been very blunt and am not afraid to speak my mind. But my no-nonsense personality got me into a lot of trouble early on because my male colleagues didn’t want to hear a woman’s opinion,” recalls the 26-year-old who is now with the Annapurna Post. “Junior men were given attention, but my views were just not important.”

Even today Jha says her presence at press conferences elicits double takes. Bhrikuti Rai, formerly with the Nepali Times and special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, says that while reporting on the earthquake she was constantly accosted by male journalists curious to know what she was doing in the field.

“I wanted to shout: the same job as you. There was also an Army man who asked me why as a Rai daughter I chose to be a journalist. That’s sexism and racism rolled into one,” she explains.

Once the surprise of seeing women journalists wears off, then begins the doubt over our skills and motives that our male counterparts are mostly immune from: is she smart enough to write on matters of national importance, can she grasp difficult concepts, can she handle herself when talking to those in power, is she in journalism for the long haul or just to pass time?

This is one reason why women are often assigned ‘soft’ lifestyle or only women-centric stories regardless of our interests. Or why colleagues and people we interview find it completely acceptable to address us as ‘nani’ or ‘nanu’ thereby telling us that we are less than professionals.

“If you’re a man you can write about entertainment or politics, you don’t have to make a choice and you’ll still be respected,” says Ammu Kannampilly, AFP’s Kathmandu Bureau Chief, which is one of the few news agencies in Nepal with a strong female presence both in leadership and reporting roles.

“Whereas with a woman, there is already an assumption that she’s not capable of writing about politics and if she happens to show more interest in lifestyle stories, then she’s not a serious journalist.”

Women have become so inured to snide remarks about our appearance, choice in clothes, marital status, and unwarranted suggestions of how we need to switch to more ‘ladylike’ careers, that most of the time we simply ignore them. But when these little micro-aggressions go unchecked, they lead to larger problems like physical and sexual harassment.  

“Whenever senior men get caught inappropriately touching or looking at junior girls, I have to speak up on their behalf because they are young and don’t know who to talk to or how to deal with the situation,” says a female journalist who has worked in the broadcast media for 15 years.

Just like the burden of highlighting women’s voices remains on our shoulders, so does the burden of fighting against harassment in the workplace.

“Men will apologise on their colleagues’ behalf in private, but not in public. Maybe they don’t want to be seen as too much of a feminist or they’re too scared to upset the fraternity,” says a young woman journalist who was hounded by male reporters on social media for an article criticising their boorish behaviour during foreign trips.   

This culture of a revered masculine space also means that women are often seen as threats rather than equal partners and their progress is seen as coming at the expense of men’s well-being.

“While working as the only female reporter in a newsroom of about 20, I realised that no matter how progressive they think they are, most men still believe that women should not or cannot work as well as them,” admits a fellow journalist.       In a country where people hesitate to interact with the opposite sex, women are put at a great disadvantage and miss out on important discussions and decisions because they cannot openly socialise and network in a male-centric space. Even if they do feel comfortable, their social reputation is unfairly at stake.

When women in the media are asked what they think will improve their workplaces, they unanimously say: more women to balance the playing field and influential mentors, who set the tone at the top, democratise the newsroom, and help and encourage young reporters navigate their way through. 

When many of us started our careers in journalism, we were shy, unsure of ourselves, and easily intimidated. To have a senior woman in a position of power who is assertive, who will advocate on your behalf, who knows how to push the right stories, can be very empowering. Men can also fulfill this role, but they first need to learn to be in tune to women’s needs from small issues like placing waste bins in our toilet, to bigger ones like introducing maternity leave policies.  

Manik Jha, who is now a well-known journalist in Dhanusha and who has become a role model for families with young girls, says: “There is nothing women cannot do. The future editors and publishers of this country are among us.”

Trishna Rana was Desk Editor at Nepali Times from 2011-2014.

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