When Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old independent photojournalist, learned that the Jammu & Kashmir Cyber Police had booked her for posting pictures on social media this April, the ground beneath her feet began to shift. Which law was she being charged under? She scrolled anxiously through her social media feed to check which post had landed her in trouble. Eventually, friends called. They explained that she was being booked under a draconian anti-terrorism law called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Women journalists must constantly negotiate risk on the field, face sexual harassment or vicious online trolling, and constantly prove themselves ‘serious’ professionals.
This is not the first time that a woman journalist has been a police target in Kashmir. Women journalists are often disrespected or abused at the hands of government forces. In September 2019, after the special status of Jammu & Kashmir was removed and it was divided into two union territories by India’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, a female journalist was harassed by security forces. She was travelling to a government-run media facilitation centre for work.
In Kashmir, the decade-long conflict has shaped the structure of news and newsrooms – consequently, all journalists are vulnerable to censorship and attacks. Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit which promotes press freedom, notes “Kashmir continues to be one of the most dangerous and difficult places in the world for journalists to work in.” In recent years, and particularly since the communication blackout and media gag on 5 August, there has been severe escalation in the restrictions and threats faced by journalists. Despite the recent pandemic, the Indian government has continued its crackdown by launching criminal investigations against them.
Women, however, are particularly vulnerable. Geeta Seshu, a journalist and co-founder of the Free Speech Collective (FSC), explains that women face gendered harassment distinct from the problems journalists usually face. Women journalists must constantly negotiate risk on the field, face sexual harassment or vicious online trolling, and constantly prove themselves ‘serious’ professionals. For Seshu, the case against photojournalist Masrat Zahra is a message to women journalists from the security forces to “stay within acceptable social borders and not to go into areas of direct conflict”. A joint-report by the FSC and Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) established that restrictions on mobility and heavily militarised roads are especially challenging for women journalists – a problem exacerbated by the fact that many do not own private transport.
One glaring hypocrisy in newsrooms is that stories about gender are considered ‘soft’ or less significant (thus designated to women reporters) despite a majority of conflict-related victims being women.
These gendered vulnerabilities make families overprotective about women. Women are advised while schooling to seek careers in sectors like education, health or administration that are considered safe. If a woman should express her desire to study journalism, her struggles continue. A Kashmir-based female journalist Maliha (name changed) recollects how her father became “completely berserk” when she told her parents about her aspiration to become a journalist. He told Maliha, “Girls are not supposed to choose journalism in Kashmir…What will people think when you roam around encounter sites, attend press conferences of police and army? This is the only journalism people do in Kashmir and it is tough for men – forget about women jumping into it.” When Maliha refused to change her mind, her father threw his hands in the air and blamed her mother. “Handle your daughter,” he said.
Even when women do receive journalism degrees, they find it difficult to get jobs at local newspapers. This is not surprising considering Jammu & Kashmir’s female labour force participation is extremely low (14.3 percent compared to 71.6 for men in 2013-2014). But female to male employment ratios are even worse in journalism. Media organisations consider women reporters more susceptible to risk than male reporters so hiring a woman journalist in Kashmir requires employers to think about how to ensure her safety. According to the Kashmir Press Club, there are over 220 registered male journalists but less than ten registered women journalists. There are about five or ten more women who work independently in Kashmir.
Even when some women do break into this male-dominated field, the discrimination continues.
First, wage disparities can compel women in the valley to quit journalism before they really begin. Second, it is commonly assumed that women cannot do justice to a certain type of story: Male students fresh out of journalism school get to report on politics, human rights or defense, while women are assigned subjects like health or education. One glaring hypocrisy in newsrooms is that stories about gender are considered ‘soft’ or less significant (thus designated to women reporters) despite a majority of conflict-related victims being women. How can violence that ranges from assault to rape be considered ‘soft’?
Women who want to bypass media organisations to work as freelancers will also discover an absence of support.
Finally, women reporters are denied the opportunity to sit in newsrooms and thus to observe and learn different skills like editing and layout design. This process generally happens quite late in the day and, even then, few women can afford to sit in a newsroom filled only with men. This lack of exposure stunts professional growth and can be psychologically damaging, too.
Women journalists find it difficult to form unions or associations to combat discrimination because they are few in number and that number keeps fluctuating. Male journalists in Kashmir effectively have more than ten associations or unions – these do not bar women from joining, but they do not encourage female participation either (women journalists do not hold any posts in these unions and may find it difficult to raise gender-specific concerns in spaces that are predominantly male).
In general, access, mobility and information are difficult to procure without formal accreditation. But these challenges are amplified in Kashmir.
Formally, female journalists do not even have one. This makes them easy targets for authorities or fringe groups hoping to silence them. Seshu explains that mixed gender unions are necessary and more importantly, most effective, if they are egalitarian, democratic, non-sexist and non-compromising. It is important for women journalists to have their own network, association or group that can operate within unions or independent of these bodies where their own solidarity and sisterhood is nurtured and strengthened. These, she says, act as important pressure groups and a check on larger, mixed-gender unions that may ignore or disregard the issues and perspectives women bring to the table.
Women who want to bypass media organisations to work as freelancers will also discover an absence of support. In general, access, mobility and information are difficult to procure without formal accreditation. But these challenges are amplified in Kashmir. Since freelancers are technically immune to the pressure and censorship faced by media owners, stories published by freelancers are difficult to ‘control’. So, the government makes it difficult for freelancers to operate, more so if they are women. The targeting of photojournalist Masrat Zahra is one such example. Aliya Iftikhar notes that freelancers are “often left to fight these cases of harassment, intimidation, and legal threats on their own. Often these legal threats can be very costly to fight and are time-consuming and can be drawn out for years. The process itself is punishment, particularly for accusations under UAPA, which is non-bailable.”
When Kashmir was sent into lockdown, women journalists braved government scrutiny and produced bold stories despite heavy restrictions on movement and communication. They conducted field visits and interviews (with men, women, and children alike) and highlighted the plight of Kashmir through stories published in reputed local and international news organisations. Despite the challenges and limited space offered to women journalists in the valley, there is a growing number of women opting for journalism.
However, most of these women may leave the profession for private sector or government jobs once married, which can pose its own threats to women who wish to be journalists. For women who wish to be and remain journalists in Kashmir, the struggle lasts a lifetime.