The department of journalism, now the department of mass communication, at Panjab University, taught students what makes news and how best to write one, from when it was in Lahore in pre-partition India. The Tribune, established in 1881, was then the favoured English newspaper of the people in that region. Both were very dear to the people of Punjab, even after the university had shifted to the new city of Chandigarh, and the newspaper to a plush three-storey building. Besides giving the latest news, its spotnews board also announced that motorists and bus passengers had entered Le Corbusier's city.
Riding high on topping the batch of 1977, I entered The Tribune office, with all the confidence and excitement of a wannabe journalist. In the heady days of Emergency and immediately thereafter, there was a halo around a journalist. I asked to meet the editor, but was directed to an assistant editor. Very warmly I was offered a cup of tea and fresh samosas from its canteen. I was also heard out patiently. Half an hour later, a senior journalist told me that The Tribune did not employ women. "As a matter of fact, we don't even have washrooms for women in this building," he added. He, however, showed me around the swanky newsroom.
Even though women are said to have worked shoulder to shoulder with men in circulating all the underground news during the freedom struggle, the media had very limited openings for women then—of course there were some ladies in the national capital region. I have not entered The Tribune newsroom lately. But looking at the bylines, I am sure it is now packed with ladies.
In those days, 99.5 per cent of our "sources", too, were males—from lawyers in the district courts to officers in the estate office—and women were not even a sprinkling. They stood out because of the striking minority they were. The bonding, between the women in the government and the odd ones in the media, went beyond the source-reporter relationship, even though there was a professional interest. It was a woman to woman camraderie, and a substantial part of the discussion would be about women. Women's liberation was how it was described, and not gender issues or gender justice.
The only place where I saw a lot of women was in the health and education sectors. They, however, never made it to the post of a registrar or vice-chancellor of the university. When Inderjit Kaur was named vice-chancellor of Punjabi University, Patiala, women in the region celebrated.
Whether in front of or behind a camera, or in the newsroom, women are everywhere in the media. I would not be surprised if many publishing houses now employ more women than men. And like in journalism, we see women in large numbers everywhere—well almost. Be it in the bureaucracy, or in the police. One became a locopilot and I am sure there will be a truck driver, somewhere.
If Roop Kanwar's "sati" mobilised women and society against it, I saw a very young Swati Maheshwari and her sister light the funeral pyre of their father sometime ago. Now this does not arise any curiosity or comment. The message was loud and clear: you don't need to be a son to keep up the family name. It was, indeed, a big leap for womankind.
In the countryside, the contribution of women went unacknowledged and unrewarded. They slogged in the fields and the men puffed away on their hookah in Haryana. But came the Panchayati Raj Act giving women a third of the offices, and it was not long before they fought with their husbands who called themselves "sarpanch patis" (husband of sarpanch), and reclaimed their legitimate space. They took decisions on their own.
When Sangeeta Deol of Jalandhar decided to keep honeybees and sell honey at markets, the woman with a polio inflicted deformity showed rare courage. A few years into the menace of female foeticide, some women said "no" to killing the girls in their womb. Women came out to take control of their bodies and, eventually, sexuality. Young girls wanted more. Kalpana Chawla inspired millions of Indian girls even after her death. She may have done it in, and for, the US, but she was an Indian woman who broke the stereotype.
With strict laws in their favour—section 498A of the IPC dealing with dowry and domestic violence, the Vishakha judgment pertaining to sexual harassment at workplace, the liberal provision of "divorce by mutual consent"—the women of India have broken the stereotype, though late.
The agenda is incomplete. While it was no surprise that Indira Gandhi became prime minister, women celebrated when Pratibha Patil became President of India and Meira Kumar the speaker of the Lok Sabha. But the Women's Reservation Bill gathers dust in Parliament.
It may be a long journey ahead, but the women of India seem to know where their destination lies. And there is every reason to believe they will get there. In rural Bihar, there was a woman who corrected the general view, and mine, too, that a husband decided his woman's vote. "We listen to them, but do what we want."
The author is deputy chief of bureau, Delhi.