Women in Sikkimese media: The underdogs bringing a seat to the table, for themselves and for change
In the history of the world, there has always been a difference in the way men and women have been treated, perceived and lived. In the history of media and art, there this difference continued in the way that these two binary groups wrote or created. Having said this, one can look at the past and realize that the difference stemmed out of indifference. A complex play on words? Yes. If there is anything a scholar of semiotics, semantics, gender and queer studies can testify to, is that the world and those living in it, complexity is woven into the fabric of being.
But this is just an introduction, a rather brief and almost abstract one, to the main story which is the changing role and life of a woman (it should be understood that when one reads ‘woman’, it refers to all; transwomen are women, make no mistake) in the media, focusing specifically on those in Sikkim.
So why the need to point out the difference or even talk about just one side? When it’s not even women’s day?
Most organizations and companies only talk about women on one particular day, glorifying and capitalizing on their labour while dismissing them the minute a celebratory post is up or a listicle/article is published. As a queer person in the media, I find it insincere and overdone. I refuse to talk about women on women’s day. It’s as embarrassing and patronizing as when one showers attention on one’s parents during Mother’s or Father’s Days.
Despite my irritation with this, I know many believe that it is important to have one day for our sisters because they argue that it’s about acknowledgement. Except acknowledgement doesn’t pay one’s bills or further the causes we back. Acknowledgement on one day by men in our life doesn’t overturn the scales in their favour when the rest of the year they disregard our opinions, commit violence against women and girls, dole out less than average paychecks and talk over us.
Zooming into the microcosm of a media house and focusing specifically on those who identify as a woman whether queer or not, the obstacles one has to hurdle through is many. Pay gap, sexism, queerphobia, dismissal - it becomes an everyday experience that crystallizes as a norm for the future.
Being a journalist is one thing, being a journalist of colour, a woman, trans/non-binary/genderfluid, queer, Dalit, a religious minority is a whole other story. Newsrooms are dominated by cisgender, heterosexual, privileged, upper-caste men. To say that in this scenario, breaking through while being a marginalized class/gender/group is difficult.
In Sikkim’s case, the first journalist who was a woman, Lt. Santosh Nirash broke through the male-dominated field pre-Indian independence and pre-Sikkim merger in 1940. It became a full-time career from 1959 and she remained active until the 2010s. Almost 70 years in the field yet very few knew of her existence.
Why does it matter that her name and work be introduced in mass communication and journalism departments in educational institutions? It matters because her decision was a turning point. Historically, women in pre-merger Sikkim did not work in professional spaces and knowing that there was someone who took that necessary step is extremely important, even for the sake of chronicling the participation of women in the workforce.
It's a man’s world
Dichen Ongmu, who has many awards and recognitions under her belt and is one of Sikkim’s most popular young journalists, stood out when she first stepped into the field, with a majority of male reporters/journos, for various reasons. First, she was a local (a sizeable population of the press in Sikkim are from West Bengal), second, she was a woman, third, she had a degree in journalism and fourth, the fraternity was excited to see a new face after a long while.
“They thought I would not last for long. Previously, a lot of women journalists had come and gone, whether it was because they worked as interns in the state or secured a government job or wanted to marry and concentrate on homemaking, the fraternity thought the same thing would happen to me too,” she recounts.
Isabella Gurung, a journalist at Sikkim Express (SE) narrates a similar experience, “When I first joined my media house as an intern in 2015, there were only a few female journalists/reporters. I interned for almost four months before I got hired as a full-time reporter.
I wouldn’t say that I am the best journalist in Sikkim but what I think made me stand out is as I have done my master’s in journalism, had knowledge about what journalism is and most importantly knowledgeable about media ethics (which most senior journalists lack here). This may be because many of our media friends are in this profession only out of pure passion. As for the new digital era, ‘Facebook journalists’ are something else.
Most of the female journalists here in Sikkim are young. I joined SE at a young age so I feel I had a fire in me to do more. I am still in my learning process.”
Fortunately for Dichen, she acknowledges that she was not bound by socio-economic barriers and despite the low wages, her family has been supportive of her career throughout. “My father is especially supportive. Sometimes people ask him why he hasn’t asked me to apply for a government job but he doesn’t pay heed to it. He believes that I should be happy, no matter what I do”.
Sikkimese society, and well, most of Indian society tends to believe in government jobs, listing financial security and respect as the main reasons why children should opt for these jobs. The hard pill to swallow is that many still pine for them. But that’s a story for a different day.
“Girls from good families don’t stay out late”
A week back a journalist, Divya Kandukuri, put up a question on her Instagram handle asking women why they thought feminism was necessary and one of the most common replies was because they were harassed by their families for coming home late from their jobs. Despite how progressive families in Sikkim claim to be, letting women stay out post-8 pm is a hard pill to swallow. Now, this is a problem not only for those employed in the private sector since government employees have timings that leave them with enough hours to head back before night sets in. Those who are self-employed or have informal jobs do not have the privilege of returning on time.
Women’s safety is an age-old issue. The paradox of being a woman remains in the fact that if she’s dropped home in an act of paternalism by a man, society chooses to call it responsible or unacceptable behaviour as their moods dictate. Yet what they fail to understand is that the threat of being abused or harassed never leaves us, no matter what time of the day or night it is.
As a journalist, there is no set timing to return to one’s home. To follow a good story, there has to be a certain sacrifice involved and it is usually one’s time. Most government employees have routines that leave them with enough hours to head back before night sets in. Those who are self-employed, working in the private sector or have informal jobs do not have the privilege of returning on time.
“Journalism is a 24x7 job so the timing has always been a drawback for us ladies. Also, for any stories regarding conflicts in the state or our region, we as women are mostly side-lined or affected by gender-specific safety risks”, says Gurung.
It isn’t surprising that sexism exists in the media fraternity. In fact, in my opinion, it would be shocking if our male counterparts actually took it seriously instead of treating it as a “women are just dramatic/#NotAllMen conversation.
“People try to take undue advantage of the favour (as a favour, I mean being our sources). They are always expecting something in return and I have received several un-work-related calls and texts,” says Gurung. “Being young, people have tried to take advantage of me several times. It is not always a direct criticism but the day the news is published, even when my interviewee has made a certain comment, they try to deny it (just because they got into some problem with their seniors or bosses). They always say I made a mistake and make a big fuss at my office. So, now what I do is I always record the conversation”.
This normalized societal behaviour of never being believed or taken seriously has trickled into all aspects of living as a woman. Gurung elaborates further.
“A similar incident happened with a HOD from a local college. He called me and challenged me saying that what I wrote was nothing that he had commented on. So, I forwarded him the recording where he had said the exact thing that I had written. He called me back and apologised. I have always been recording conversations with my interviewee these days.”
This is a familiar scenario for most journalists and one can ask why it has to be gender-specific in this article. The answer is quite simple. Disbelieving and discrediting a woman is easier than a man. Patriarchy isn’t a new-age problem. It’s an institution that has remained through the ages.
One of the biggest takeaways from the #MeToo movement has been in believing the victim’s story and accommodating them to talk about it before an investigation is conducted. The culture of victim shaming has persisted, which is why the verdict given by the Supreme Court on Priya Ramani’s case is momentous to all journalists in India.
What men who wax poetic about #NotAllMen at others forget is that the dangers have never lain outside familiar spaces but within the ones we call friends, family and fraternity.
The steeply increasing costs of living
Some months ago, a colleague and I were discussing growing older and shouldering responsibilities over dinner. We talked about the rising costs of living even in a small town like Gangtok and wondered if the remuneration that journalists got, without direct interference from political parties - let’s be clear on that, solely from working multiple jobs would be enough to save up for a medical emergency or a loan. We agreed that it wasn’t.
We then went on to discuss how women empowerment is a term people use very loosely but remains unconvincing in essence for the women tribe in the real world.
The person said, and I quote, “In journalism, women empowerment and women upliftment need particular focus as all media houses in Sikkim may not have women staff working and being paid equally. Personally, I have seen colleagues being asked to dress up for in-house programmes to hold trays of Khaada or felicitation letter on the stage. Women are casually expected to even serve tea or food, irrespective of their hierarchy in the organisation.”
We aren’t the only ones with the same concerns.
“Financial burdens are piling. I did not mind when I was younger and getting less pay, but now that I’m getting older, I have to think of financial security for my future plans. Until now, I hadn’t taken it seriously. I ask myself if I’ll be able to manage?”, says Ongmu.
Namo Dixit, SE’s main correspondent in the South district of Sikkim, who is a household name in the area and is one of the most well-respected reporters in the state adds to this statement. “The economic factor is the most influential factor which as per my experience confines the performance of a journalist; journalism is not a well-paid job while also looking at the very nature of this profession, therefore for a woman journalist to be economically sound and independent is an additional challenge.
During my initial days of journalism, I had to depend on my parents for financial aid, when it was required to go out of the station (which was very often) I always borrowed cash from my mother so that I could return home safe and sound without facing unexpected and unwanted transportation glitches. Besides, there are many other experiences of limitations posed by economic factors not only as a woman but also as a journalist.
She continues. “Today, our income has improved a bit but so has the price tags and MRPs of commodities pulling us back to the same economic confinement”.
The socio-cultural nuances of being women in journalism
“It does make a lot of difference for a woman to be in this challenging job despite being considered once in a while”, says Dixit, going on further to elucidate her experience and give insight into the social and psychological factors of being a woman journalist, the sole one, in the South district.
“In my case, being the first stationed/district-based reporter in itself stood out as my plus point, occasionally there were reporters coming in and reporting from the South District but being permanently based and working alone during initial years from here was an advantage. Gradually, as the scenario changed male reporters dominated the circle but it was my continued passion, dedication, hard work and the tag of 'seniority' that kept me going. Besides, the urge to fill the void in the district kept me moving.”
Dixit too, like most others, has been asked why she opted for journalism instead of a government job. She shares how people query her on the working hours and the single handedness of my work, whether her family members are comfortable with the nature of her profession and then doubtful attitude as to whether a woman can equally perform well and do justice with the profession.
“The psychological factor has always been a reason for limitation on the professional ground; knowing that it can be overlooked there are certain instances where I experienced the influence of psychological factor in my performance; born and brought up in Namchi, working as a journalist where the society is closely bound has been difficult”, says Dixit.
“Reporting on my topic of concern like social issues is difficult, there were times when I had to report on regular social problems like bad drainage, mismanagement in garbage collection & dumping, water scarcity and similar other multiple problems, I received indirect messages through my friends, family members or other people post-publication; this is still prevalent even after two decades of experience in journalism.
The psychology of being misunderstood, rejected and hated by the fellow 'Namchians' for being a straightforward professional does bother me at times, but I am optimistic about the future of Namchi. On the other hand, dealing with the majority of men and mostly strangers during fieldwork also creates an insecure atmosphere psychologically.
There were times when I received threats and was even attacked on my way back home which obviously led to fear psychosis, but it didn't last for long, the very next day I was back to my normal routine. It is interesting to share that last year too I received a letter (postal) from abroad which warned me against the report I had written highlighting cases of child abuse in a school in West Sikkim, the letter demanded a counter-report from me correcting the image of the school authority, but I haven't responded to it yet.”
Adding to this, Tashi Ongmu Bhutia, a reporter at the Sikkim Chronicle says, “Socially, people are more accepting of a male reporter. People speak more in depth and give out more information to our male counterparts than us”. She also points out that there is only one woman as an executive member of the Press Club of Sikkim.
Dichen Ongmu also opines on the job affecting mental health. “Psychologically, there is more pressure. I’ve given so much to this profession that I’ve lost a lot of mental peace and time. I can barely give time to my family and my social life is more to do with taking a leave from work and having my salary cut for the days I wasn’t at work. I have anxiety and depression, which I’m trying to overcome with work.”
Another senior journalist, who has been in the field for over a decade, Kavita Sharma, the Senior Managing Editor of Sikkim Chronicle gives her view. “Since there are more men in the fraternity, sometimes they pass comments masked as a joke. Although they never say it directly to my face because they know I won’t take it lightly”, says Sharma. “Most of them don't like me. They probably think I’m ‘bathi’ which causes them to feel that way. There are very few who appreciate my work.
I have faced many challenges, not as a woman journalist, but as a true journalist. I was fired from the channel where I started journalism for making news in the interest of the general public. The second print media I was employed in also did not work, so now I am in digital media. Here too, some bigwigs of society tried to kill my journalism profession. I don't know what situation to face in the coming days.
In speeches, in big seminars, in various shows, the profession of journalism is decorated with big words. But in reality, that is not the case.”
An opinionated woman is a threat to men’s ego. Words like bathi or rebellious are thrown as insults on those who dare speak their mind. I understand that this isn’t confined to only women. Every other person not in the rich, powerful, cisgender heterosexual and upper-caste Indian male category is immediately targeted with words, if not violent actions. Except it is high time to draw the line. We cannot always ask for change if we’re not willing to change ourselves.
Yet the saddest part is, even after all this, people have the audacity to poke their noses into the personal lives of these journalists and undermine them depending on how they behave or express themselves outside of work.
So, what can and needs to be improved?
“Not just women, but any journalist has a lot to do to improve the state of media in Sikkim. Some media houses/journalists lack investigative journalism and create public opinions just because they are more or less PR agencies of a particular government, department or agency. Questioning the authority is not a trend for journalists in Sikkim, so we young journalists have to change the perspective and the kind of journalism we actually do.
The media has to be able to function independently, without interference from the authority/government. Also, digital media platforms have to be brought under the umbrella of registered media houses, and Facebook journalists should not be allowed to own such news pages individually”, states Gurung.
She continues, “As for us young women journalists, let’s produce content that challenges stereotypes, highlight women as drivers of change and cover critical issues for women and children. We also need to design methods to help increase women as expert sources in journalism in Sikkim.”
“Many things can be made better provided the way society looks upon a woman media person cause there are many positive things behind the curtain which people fail to see. It is not always the case of an unemployed woman who is tech-savvy and in search of a comfort zone finds her way into the media world,” asserts Dixit.
“Streamlining of manpower and providing appropriate platforms with equal opportunities for a woman can be made more efficient. The overall change in the outlook towards woman media persons and appreciation for their effort in the patriarchal social system are the changes I expect to see. Understanding of struggles and sacrifices made by woman media persons, considering and accepting their effort to contribute positively for the society despite the challenges they face mutely, along with necessary support is the much-needed changes”.
She adds, “By ethically developing oneself into an ardent journalists/media persons women journalists can contribute in improving the state of media in Sikkim. The participation of women journalists as the building block of the fourth pillar of democracy is crucial for bringing vital & necessary social stability.
Sikkim needs more women journalists who can contemplate important issues, more importantly, women journalists are needed to fill the void in other districts of Sikkim too besides the east district which will fulfil the first step towards improving the state of media in Sikkim. It is a record that other three districts of Sikkim could never have dedicated women journalists covering reports from the area.”
Then there’s the Press Club of Sikkim, which has little to no interest in taking care of the journalists it is supposed to protect – whether it be tangible or intangible, an example of the latter being the freedom of dissent and discussion.
Many haven’t forgotten the radio silence on PCOS’ end when journalist Pankaj Dhungel was asked to leave a press conference of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha by Jacob Khaling, Political Secretary to the Chief Minister for having made a simple request.
Without going into the details of this incident, beyond that, there is no real support or acknowledgement by PCOS. If it seems harsh that I am asking for accountability while pointing out areas that need improvement, it is exactly how I intend to be. What is the point of being part of a fraternity if they cannot move beyond their dull ideas and events? Where are the debates and discussions? Why do older members of the press avoid events held by the younger generation? Where are the discussions for sexual harassment, mental health and media ethics? No workshops or fellowships? No recognition to younger people because they don’t fit into the idea of ‘age and experience’?
“Although we report on harassment against women frequently, no media firm or the Press Club of Sikkim has an internal complaints committee for the same at the workplace. But we are taught to pity and talk about equality or #notallmen”, quips another reporter who wishes to remain anonymous. “When a woman journalist is misbehaved with, I hear senior male journalists say that we women need to be prepared for such incidents. Yes, we need to be prepared for threats, stone pelting or even long legal cases, but is it the right response from a senior journalist who we look up to?
She adds, “It is not a new thing in Sikkim when a junior female colleague needs to ignore impertinent messages from a male boss. Why only women? But #notallmen.
This isn’t exclusive to Sikkim. Outside the state, the scenario is more or less the same but if the fraternity uses that as an excuse, one can simply give up hope for change. Of course, it will have to be a heavy discourse albeit a necessary one.
So, to conclude this rather lengthy piece, I think back to all the discussions on women and the workplace and the society and the lives of all those who came before us and those who will come after us -- I keep going back to remember one particular line a friend said, “For women to be truly independent, powerful and fearless, all they need is to be looked upon neither with sympathy nor glare.”