The Female Gaze
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The Female Gaze

Essays on Gender, Society and Media

Shoma A Chatterji

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Female Gaze

Essays on Gender, Society and Media

Shoma A Chatterji

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About This Book

Frank but scathing in her remarks, Chatterji in this collection of essays voices those who have been muted but not silenced. She scrutinizes the intertwined fabric of social and financial milieu that determines a woman's place in society. Her observations on the systemic silence of women, the physical and mental abuse, the stereotypes that women are forced to live up to, are some of the many things that force you to stop and think. Ranging from issues that affect women and society to the representation of women in cinema, she goes through important societal issues one by one with a fine-tooth comb and analyses them through multiple lenses.

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Women And Parliament

THE DEBATE ON the participation of women in the political process beginning from popular grassroots movements has raised several questions about awareness, impact, leadership, priorities, and so on. It has also led to many analyses on the nature of a political struggle, on mechanisms of mobilisation, strategies and perspectives on micro issues in relation to larger political processes and ideological dimensions.
Some scholars have argued that political participation of women depends largely on the historical tradition of women’s participation in political and social movements and on the political milieu. To understand the political behaviour of women and the constraints of their participation, it is important to define the concepts of political status and political participation. ‘Political participation’ is understood generally as the voluntary participation in political affairs through the act of voting, membership and other activities related with political parties, legislative assemblies and socio-political movements. ‘Political status’ has been defined by the Committee on the Status of Women in India as ‘the degree and equality of freedom displayed by women in the shaping and sharing of power and in the value given to women’s role in the society.’
Indian women have been contesting elections from the pre-Independence era. Annie Besant, who accelerated the process of women’s association in 1914 with her entry into Indian politics, was the first woman to be elected as president of the Indian National Congress. Sarojini Naidu too became active in Indian National Movement. In the 1930s, the powerful motivations of Jawaharlal Nehru made Uttar Pradesh a showcase province for women’s active participation in politics. The Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly had 16 women members. The most prominent among them were Begum Aizaz Rasul, the deputy speaker of the Legislative Council, and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who held a cabinet post. But one must note that both these women came from highly politicised, elite families who had no first-hand knowledge of the political situation and were not in touch with the masses. After the first general elections in 1937, almost every province had a sprinkling of women legislators.
Every election from 1967 to 1984 in the post-Independence era was dominated by the towering personality of Indira Gandhi. Till 1984, among the twenty-eight women members of the Lok Sabha, two-thirds came from well-known political families and had no independent base of their own. Till the latest general elections held in March 1998, one finds that the family connection has now percolated down to regional politics also in quite a big way. Not all of them are elite or Western educated, like Rabri Devi, but the filial connection is too obvious to be brushed aside.
One unique aspect of high-profile women in Indian politics is their political family background. Women not necessarily from elitist backgrounds, such as Ahilya Rangnekar, were from politically conscious families. Few women like Mrinal Gore came directly from the grassroots. Political power for most Indian women who rose to prominence in politics, such as Indira Gandhi, Shalinitai Patil, Sucheta Kripalani, Jayalalitha and Laxmi Parvathi was the direct outcome of their close relationships with politically important men. In journalese, we often call this ‘widow-cracy’ or ‘daughter-cracy.’ All these women have successfully extracted emotional mileage from these relationships. The situation has remained the same. Examples are Sonia Gandhi, Maneka Gandhi, Meera Kumar, Supriya Sule, Agatha Sangma, Shruti Chaudhary, Jyoti Mirdha… the list goes on.
A relatively recent addition is the entry of celebrities from the film, sports and cultural worlds into Parliament. They already have fame, popularity and money. So why to fight the elections? It gives them a sense of power their work fields do not permit indefinitely. It offers them a dream to pursue, the dream of participating in the developmental growth of the nation at first hand and to test their charisma among their millions of fans across the country.
Hema Malini, contesting for a Lok Sabha seat for the first time on a BJP ticket from Mathura, moved around in a white Audi with an orange umbrella and a lotus in her hand! Yet, in a recent interview, she said her complexion had completely changed because of the rallies. Do these people have the faintest idea about ‘development’ for the masses? Has Hema Malini returned to Mathura to take care of its ‘bumpy roads’ that have given her ‘back pain’? Hema Malini defeated the Mathura incumbent Jayant Chaudhary (JLD) by 3,30,743 votes and was elected to the Lok Sabha.
But the underbelly of glamorous Parliamentarians was exposed when the media reported that the Maharashtra government has given a 2,000 sq m plot in Andheri’s Ambivli area to the Natyavihar Kala Kendra, a trust run by the actor-dancer to build a dance school, at just Rs 70,000; market price for a similar plot in the area is around Rs 50 crore. On 2 February, the media dropped another bombshell reporting that she has been accused of destroying mangroves on a plot allotted to her in the 1990s.
Quoting an RTI reply provided by the Mumbai Suburban District Collectorate, activist Anil Galgali on Tuesday said the actress was allotted a plot measuring 1,741.89 square metres in Versova village and possession was granted on 4 April 1997. ‘She had even made a payment of Rs 10 lakh, showed a bank balance of Rs 22.5 lakh in the accounts of Samta Sahkari Bank and given a project cost estimate of Rs 3.7 crore,’ Galgali said. A year after the allotment, the collectorate slapped a show-cause notice on Hema Malini, asking why the allotment should not be cancelled for violating Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) norms, he said.
Hema Malini sought to make a clean breast of the issue by denying allegations of any ‘land-grabbing’ and claimed that all rules and regulations were duly followed ‘I ran from pillar to post for this. It’s not been easy. The government has given it to me, I have not gone and grabbed it,’ she countered on the ‘land-grabbing’ allegations. Following Galgali’s RTI revelations, opposition parties including the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party demanded a probe into the land allotment as well as its cancellation.
Rekha, nominated to the Rajya Sabha, records a below-average attendance of five per cent, which other MPs objected to. She was sworn in as a member of the Upper House in 2012. Her highest attendance at the winter session was a mere 10 per cent and she did not release any statement in her defence.
Elected in 2010, the Samajwadi Party member Jaya Bachchan was an exception, as the actor was seen taking her role as an MP more seriously than the other celebrities. As per MP Track by PRS Legislative Research, Jaya Bachchan had a 58 per cent attendance record from 2010 to 2013. Her attendance improved greatly in these three years. She has even spoken up for raging issues like the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012 and 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. She has also expressed strong reservations about the working of the Ministry of Women and Child Development on the floor of the House in August 2014. But whether she actually worked towards the goals is not recorded.
Smriti Irani is infamous for her high decibel voice on the floor of the House and media interviews. Irani rises on every occasion to counter every allegation made against her ambivalent comments in public space.
Maneka Sanjay Gandhi was the Union Minister for Women and Child Development in NDA. But she continues to focus on her role as a leading environmentalist, animal activist and a crusader for vegetarianism. She entered active politics in 1984. Since then she has won Parliamentary elections six times, starting with the Janata Dal and has served as minister in four governments. However, she is often criticised for her explosive comments on important issues. Responding to the Supreme Court’s observation on the need for harsher punishment for child rapist, she ruled out chemical castration as a form of punishment, calling the step ‘regressive’ and a form of ‘revenge’ rather than punishment with a view to reform the offender. She was also pulled up for her proposal to record the sex of the foetus and monitor pregnancies by several civil society groups opposed to the idea who felt this would lead to terribly negative impact on the girl child in the country and to women’s right to safe abortion.
Political participation of women over the past sixty-plus years suffices with one name: Indira Gandhi. To the world outside, women in India might appear to have total freedom and opportunity to participate in nation-building activities, politically speaking. But is this a true picture? For every Mrinal Gore, Maneka Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj and Smriti Irani, there are thousands of faceless, anonymous women with political aspirations who are losers in the political race even before they have arrived on the political landscape. The road to political success for women right across the world, one must admit, with their merits and demerits, is paved with thorns.
According to Anuradha Chadha’s Political Participation of Women: A Case Study in India, ‘Today, there is considerable increase in the percentage of women as voters. The participation of women as voters is almost equal to men. But the political participation (as a whole) of the women is not equal to men. They are still not able to get a share equivalent to men in organization that require decision making. Still, politics is dominated by men at every level of participation and women have not been regarded as significant part of the political arena.’

Women And Regional Journalism

JOURNALISM, FOR WOMEN journalists, is no longer confined to soft news critiquing the proliferation of beauty contests or a single case of domestic violence in the neighbourhood. Women journalists in India, both in the print as well as in the electronic media, are known for their commitment to their vocation, for their integrity in not ‘selling out’ to propaganda or cheap PR for a price, and for their moral courage in facing the dangers of war coverage or the coverage of a communal riot. When the Press Trust of India (PTI) recruited more women than men among their trainees a decade ago, begun with the system of entrance tests and interviews at entry point, Sujata Madhok of the Delhi Union of Journalists said, ‘PTI seems to have chosen so many women because they did better in entrance tests, also because women have acquired a reputation for being more hardworking and disciplined.’
The history of women in language journalism in our country dates back to more than a century. Interestingly, most of their writing applies to our social ethos today as much as it then did. Krishnabhabini Das, one of the first women writers in Bengal, in her article entitled Shikshita Narir Pratibader Uttar, (Response to a Protest from an Educated Woman) in Sahitya, (1891) wrote:
It is unjust to say that only men should cultivate that intelligence, that God has given both men and women. God could never have imparted such a great gift without a noble end in view.
Jnanadanandini Debi, in Stri Shiksha (Women’s Education), an article published in the prestigious Bharati in 1882 (BS Asvin, 1288) offered a manifesto arguing the cause for women’s education. She argued for a desegregation of the sexes, and proves how education is both the cause and the effect of this process. In Shekele Katha (Tales of Bygone Days) Swarnakumari Debi praised the reforms introduced by her father in the areas within the domestic sphere marked out exclusively for women. Yet, she did not forget to add that this ‘women’s world’ did have its share of happiness and joy creating a space for nostalgia for a more ‘democratic’ tomorrow. Others who demonstrated similar fluency with the language and courage of their convictions were Sarala Debi, Hironmoyee Debi, Rasa Sundari Debi and so on.
Aunt Kolli from Navsari in Gujarat wrote in StreeBodh—a Gujarati journal known for its focus on social reforms—that it was wrong to blame women for marital strife and for the unhappiness of men. She pointed out that men visit nautch girls and spend entire nights drinking and being entertained by these women not in response to their wives’ behaviour but due to their own inclinations for such enjoyment. The article was written in 1866. Streebodh (spelt Streebodhe in English) was the first journal for women in India published in Gujarati from January 1857 until the late 1950s. It was formed to offer suitable reading matter for Parsi and Hindu women, indirectly making it clear that families going through modernisation defined its target audience.
Sonal Shukla in her paper Cultivating Minds—19th Century Gujarati Women’s Journals, (Economic and Political Weekly, October 26, 1991) states that with time, as its founder-editor Kabraji died and his daughter Shirin, followed by his daughter-in-law Putlibai, took up the editorship, StreeBodh changed its profile in terms of appearance, language and content. ‘It reflected changes that were taking place during the nationalist struggle and the new role assigned to middle-class women within it,’ writes Shukla.
Flash forward to this century. On 3 April 2002, Sonal Kellog, a woman reporter and her male colleague from a Surat-based newspaper were pounced upon by the police when they went into Gomtipur to interview women who had been attacked by the police themselves. Before she could take down their testimonies, policemen surrounded them both. When they went to the Police Commissioner to complain, they were told he had no time for them.
Barkha Dutt of Star News covered the Kargil war, reporting directly from the front in the midst of shelling and firing with the mercury dipping below minus degrees centigrade.
Like the editorial stance of StreeBodh in its later years, the profile of the woman journalist in India has also changed. Tavleen Singh (then correspondent with The Sunday Telegraph), who won the Sanksriti Award for Journalism, in one of her most memorable pieces, expressed her intense shame for being born a Sikh herself after she had met Bhindranwala and his followers at the Golden Temple.
She wrote another historic report on the murder of Sumeet Singh, editor of Preet Lari. Anjali Puri, then with the Indian Express, covered the elections in Pakistan extensively, which returned Benazir Bhutto as the first woman PM of Pakistan. Sheela Barse won the PUCL Award for her contribution to investigative journalism focusing on human rights. She trod the rather uneven and rough terrain of women prisoners in the country, going from one jail to another, crossing insurmountable hurdles on the way, going on to examine human rights violations of juvenile offenders in Hyderabad prisons, then exploring the dingy and dark world of child labourers in the machine looms of Bhiwandi, near Mumbai.
Shahnaz Anklesaria, erstwhile of The Statesman and then with the Indian Express, also won the India Today-PUCL Award for human rights in journalism for her ‘devotion to a free and open society with which she laboured to secure and defend civil liberties and human rights of the disadvantaged in the country.’ Shahnaz got the award for the whole body of her work in contrast to the previous winners who won the same award for individual stories. Along with the late Neerja Chowdhury (also a PUCL Awardee) Shahnaz toured Punjab soon after Operation Bluestar. She is one of the first Indian journalists to report on the local response to the government’s action.
From a report by Usha Rai upon her return from the first International Women’s Media conference held in Washington, DC in November 1986, we learn that the director of development at the Columbia School of Journalism states that between 1976 and 1986, 60 per cent of students at journalism schools in the US consisted of women. Yet, there remains a greater discrepancy in the salaries of men and women journalists employed in the print media than in radio or television. Nearly 90 per cent of editors responsible for women’s news are women. Of the 400,000 professional journalists in China, one-third are women who write about everything from politics to science. According to Vesna Prijam, an economic writer for Yugoslavia’s Tanjug, most successful women journalists in the country were either single or divorced.
Women’s journalism has three dimensions. One concerns women actively involved in contributing the power of their voice and perspective to journalism. This is journalism by wome...

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APA 6 Citation
Chatterji, S. (2022). The Female Gaze ([edition unavailable]). Global Collective Publishers. Retrieved from (Original work published 2022)
Chicago Citation
Chatterji, Shoma. (2022) 2022. The Female Gaze. [Edition unavailable]. Global Collective Publishers.
Harvard Citation
Chatterji, S. (2022) The Female Gaze. [edition unavailable]. Global Collective Publishers. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Chatterji, Shoma. The Female Gaze. [edition unavailable]. Global Collective Publishers, 2022. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.