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Interview with Swati Bhattacharjee

Updated: Feb 13

Swati Bhattacharjee

Swati Bhattacharjee is the President for South Asian Women in Media (SAWM). Swati has a PhD in Social Science from the Tata Institute of Social Studies. Swati particularly focuses her work on poverty and social issues. She is the Senior Assistant Editor of the leading Bengali newspaper, Ananda Bazar Patrika, which is a top national newspaper. Swati won the EU-India Essay Contest for Young Journalists in 2005. She was a Fulbright Fellow, 2010-2011, at ALJ Poverty Action Lab, MIT. She has also received four other fellowships covering a variety of issues from nutrition and public policy, reproductive health, poverty, and other social issues.

Gender Equality Statistics (India)

Women have always played a crucial role in India's vibrant society and culture. Despite significant advancements in women's rights and empowerment in recent years, they still confront numerous challenges. These include gender discrimination, violence, and pay inequality. According to a 2005 report from The Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, infant mortality rates for girls are 61% higher than those for boys. In the realm of education, while 75% of boys aged 6-17 attend school, only about 67% of girls in the same age range do so. Often, girls are forced to work to support their families instead of attending school. This results in a women's literacy rate of 72%, compared to 84% for men as of 2023. This educational gap, coupled with traditional views about women's domestic roles, further widens the employment disparity between men and women, with 75% of men and only 25% of women employed as of 2023. In recent years, there has been an effort to empower women through various means, such as the implementation of government programs and policies aimed at improving women's health, education, and economic opportunities. Recent legal advancements for women include The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009), The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013), The Hindu Succession Act (amended in 2005), and The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005). While women in India have legally seen many positive changes, the main challenge now is to ensure these laws are actively integrated into societal practices. In conclusion, a greater emphasis on gender sensitization and education at all levels could help reduce gender disparities. In particular, the media can play a significant role in promoting positive messages about women and combating persistent gender stereotypes.



Interview With Swati Bhattacharjee, 4 October 2023

This interview was organized and conducted by Jonathan Carney, Gene Hermann, and Catherine Piskurich. Liliana Matte, Evan Evangelista, Kelsey Miguel, Gracie Reinhardt, Valentina Rydstrom, Carys Patton, and Annabelle Crouch contributed with their insightful questions. All of them were members of the John V. Roach Honors College (Texas Christian University) and attended the "Cultural Contact Zones: Asia" class, which was offered by the John V. Roach Honors College in the Fall 2023 semester.

Dr Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

What are the most common stereotypes about women in India? Do these stereotypes vary based on age?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

In India, a common stereotype is the strong mother figure who is endlessly self-sacrificing. She is seen as someone who will fight the world to protect her children, yet there's no reference to her ability to protect herself. In this sense, she never questions what society or her own family owes her. This results in a situation where she carries responsibilities without rights and holds power without asserting personal empowerment. Instead, her power is exercised for others. This image of the sacrificing, powerful mother is a significant stereotype.

Recently, the image of the "super mom" has become prevalent, particularly in English media. This concept, prevalent in the US as well, represents a woman who manages everything. However, there is no male equivalent. The husband or father is not expected to handle anything everything, from changing diapers to attending board meetings. Significantly, India is a country where men's participation in unpaid housework is among the lowest, at less than 30 minutes a day. Meanwhile, women's participation is the highest, at more than 5 hours a day. Such stereotypes greatly impact women's participation in the labor force. These are some stereotypes to begin addressing.

As women age, societal expectations often require them to become more sacrificing and accommodating. A contrasting stereotype exists among younger women, particularly those labeled as "Baalkatti" women (women who cut their hair short). These women, are are shown as trouble makers, holding frequent protests. known for their strong pursuit of justice and frequent protests. However, this stereotype inaccurately portrays them as detached from Indian reality, excessively westernized, and unfamiliar with their own culture. It suggests that they aim to introduce concepts foreign to Indian womanhood. This stereotype, like many others, is misleading. India has a rich history of a strong and serious women's movement spanning over a century. Unfortunately, the stereotype of the excessively westernized young woman is often used to undermine the women's movement in India.

Liliana Matte:

How can media effectively combat gender stereotypes in India, and what are some specific examples of successful media initiatives that have achieved this?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

Indeed, since values are created in a public space, media plays a crucial role in this process. Today, media is not just limited to mainstream outlets, but it has become increasingly diverse and fragmented. The boundaries between social media and traditional media are blurring, making the landscape more fluid than ever before.

As journalists, we've always strived to challenge stereotypes by showcasing how women live their lives and influence others, beyond just their families. At the grassroots level of the women's movement, efforts range from environmental protection to advocating for fair wages and protesting against persisting caste and class discrimination in India.

When we discuss how women earn their livelihood and lead their lives, imposed stereotypes on women are debunked. For instance, it shows that every woman is a working woman, and there's no divide between housewives and earning women.

The media can expose the hollowness of stereotypes, particularly by revealing the state's patriarchal nature. The state, often an extension of the conservative family, regularly undervalues women's work, neglects their opinions, and perpetuates violent and discriminatory practices toward women in society, police stations, and courtrooms.

As media practitioners, our job is to consistently challenge these biases. Many instances show where we've succeeded. Instead of highlighting one or two stories as examples of the media doing it right, a more effective approach is content analysis. Comparing how an issue was portrayed 5 or 10 years ago to its portrayal today can provide a clearer understanding of the media’s accomplishments. Let's look at a small example.

About a decade ago, a massive cyclone called Aila hit the Sundarbans in our coastal area, causing widespread devastation. Despite the urgent discussions about relief efforts, the specific needs of young women and women in general were overlooked. Fast forward to two years ago, when another significant cyclone called Amphan occurred. This time, the provision of sanitary napkins for women in the affected areas was a prominent topic. A decade ago, this subject was taboo and even considered indecent. I credit the media for continually highlighting sanitary hygiene over the last decade. Now, it's commonplace to discuss sanitary napkins without any offense taken.

Media can influence values, shape perspectives and even frame how issues are articulated and demands are placed. For instance, consider the differences in how rape was reported three decades ago versus how it is discussed now. These are examples of how media has played a crucial role in challenging gender stereotypes.

Evan Evangelista:

How is the press assisting women in moving beyond traditional homemaking roles, and more broadly, altering the stigma surrounding women's roles in society?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

This question, like many others we've received, seems to assume that things are improving. We often like to think that we've learned from past mistakes and are now progressing. However, this isn't always the case. In many countries, including India, we see a loss of hard-won ground that was gained through decades of effort and sacrifice.

The reason I mention this is due to the decline that we see of women's participation in the labor force in India. Fewer women are venturing out of their homes to work. Though the Central Government puts Women's Labour Force Participation at 37%, this figure is misleading, as it contains a significant amount of women's unpaid labor. While the media is challenging these stereotypes, its effectiveness is questionable. The issue doesn't solely rely on the media but encompasses broader societal factors.

For instance, political rhetoric plays a crucial role, especially in South Asian countries where the political platform is the primary arena for discussing various issues, ranging from civil life to religion and culture. Power negotiations primarily occur on this platform. If this platform is prejudiced against women and certain classes of people, it becomes increasingly difficult for women to venture out and establish their own lives. Even women with graduate degrees often seem to prefer the lifestyle of a homemaker over joining the workforce.

This situation arises from various factors causes. However, it's crucial to remember that we cannot hastily conclude that things are improving, or that the media is performing better. While we have succeeded in many areas, we are also falling short in others. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we aren't doing enough.

Kelsey Miguel:

Journalism is often regarded as the world's primary source of information, which is a significant responsibility. As a woman in this field, what is the greatest challenge you have faced? What steps have you taken or are you currently taking to overcome this challenge?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

When addressing issues of gender justice, particularly for the impoverished, working, and laboring women, the biggest threat is being overlooked. Your story might not be deemed significant enough to warrant attention or sufficient space. Mainstream media, both in South Asia and potentially in the US, has become a predominantly urban and elite space. There are abundant articles on obesity and staying slim, yet few on malnutrition. Over 50%, sometimes in some places even 70%, of women in India are anemic, yet the media seldom reflects this issue as much as it focuses on having fair skin and slim bodies. Raising awareness about the ongoing decline in women's wages and the neglect of women's health and education is a challenge. It's about fighting the apathy towards these issues, which is one of the primary difficulties we've had to confront.

When writing for marginalized groups such as the poor and women, it's important to remember that they may not be the ones accessing your content, due to limited access. However, it's crucial to make their stories relevant to both the editor and the reader. The major challenge lies in engaging people in these stories, particularly those related to gender justice.

If the question you're considering is how one navigates journalism as a woman, that's a separate discussion. The challenges women face working as journalists is a topic in and of itself.

Dr Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Do you know if the youngest generation in India is being educated about gender equality, both in schools and at home?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

Our national education policy, updated in 2020, explicitly supports gender equality and social justice as part of the school curriculum. It suggests several activity-oriented learning courses to promote these values. However, implementation is a challenge because education is a state subject. While there are federal policies, it's ultimately up to the states to decide their course of action, and many are hesitant to adopt these subjects. Teachers often find these topics distressing and controversial, and tend to avoid them.

In India, the obsession with achieving high grades often overshadows subjects that don't directly contribute to these grades. Despite having well-written books and curricula, they don't always translate into education on gender equality in schools, even though their importance is recognized.

Dr Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

I'm interested in hearing your opinion on a topic that's currently very important and controversial in India: gender quotas in politics. What are your thoughts on this?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

We've long supported the idea of reservation for women in our parliaments and state assemblies, specifically a 33 percent reservation. We're pleased that this is finally happening with the passing of the 'Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam' (Respect Women's Power Bill' in 2023, but puzzled as to why it can't be implemented immediately, and why it must wait for delimitation, the process of dividing constituencies. We don't see the connection. Regardless, one third seats are being reserved, so why not do it immediately?

However, the real challenge is different. In our local self-governance, the third tier of government at district and village levels, we've had a 50% reservation for women for over a decade. Yet, women's voices aren't adequately represented because political parties often nominate women who are wives, sisters, daughters, or daughters-in-law of powerful men, and lack their own voice. There's no shortage of vocal and strong women with excellent leadership skills in our villages. Every village has 4 or 5 such women who are well-known and have good organizational skills. Political parties are strongholds of patriarchy that often fail to nominate women and uplift their voices. This leads to a lack of female representation in Parliament and State Assemblies. In these high-profile roles, women are expected to be more educated and politically aware. This might make it difficult for the patriarchal system to control them, but it's uncertain. The uncertainty is partly due to the high financial cost of political campaigns, a trend seen in not just India but also countries like the U.S. The question remains whether women, who traditionally have fewer individual resources and have less control over public resources, can independently raise sufficient funds to run successful campaigns. Despite these challenges, it is crucial for the entire country to understand the importance of women's presence in the Parliament.

Gracie Reinhardt:

What is the general journalistic environment in South Asia? Are journalists able to report freely, or do they face certain restrictions depending on the country? Essentially, do governments tend to support or oppose active news reporting?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

In a word, the situation is dire. Just yesterday, 46 journalists from a specific website were interrogated, their laptops and smartphones confiscated by the Central government, and three individuals arrested. This was based on a report in the New York Times suggesting the website might be funded by China. It's unclear whether receiving funding from China is in itself a crime, but the current environment allows for journalists to be detained and questioned for 10 hours without a specific reason being provided.

This is happening at the federal government level, which is alarming. Journalists are being charged under severe laws, including those against terrorism and sedition. These charges are concerning, partly because such laws permit the state to detain someone for up to two years without a trial.

We are living in tense times. I am a member of the South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), a network of women journalists across South Asian countries. Recently, we spent a day in our Whatsapp group discussing how to safeguard our laptops and mobile phones. We pondered how to keep our contacts and materials safe if our devices were seized. How can we ensure that no unwanted content is added? What legal protections can we explore if our laptops are confiscated? This situation is deeply unsettling for our mental well-being. It's no longer about the content we produce; the government can level any charges, applicable at both federal and state levels. Journalists, regardless of gender, are increasingly facing baseless charges, an intimidation tactic to silence us. We are navigating through challenging times. While it's it has always been difficult for journalists to voice their opinions freely, the current climate intensifies the struggle. False and unfounded charges are levied against a few journalists to deter their peers from publishing anything critical of the government.

Gracie Reinhardt:

Do you notice any differences or similarities in media reporting between North America and South Asia? Do you have suggestions for improving media coverage worldwide? How can we, as citizens, contribute to enacting these changes?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

Mr. Trump introduced the concept of "fake news" and accused the press of its propagation. This idea was quickly adopted by global leaders, including those in India and other South Asian countries. The media industry is grappling with these charges, causing confusion among ordinary readers about what to believe.

The editor of the New York Times wrote an insightful article on how the notion of fake news has profoundly affected media organizations. If a New York Times correspondent is arrested by a foreign government, the US ambassador in that country might refuse to help, arguing that the correspondent has propagated fake news.

Political parties and state-owned media outlets further complicate the situation by running their own vicious campaigns, often on social media. This situation is eroding the environment of trust, leaving people unsure of who to believe.

So, when a journalist is arrested or attacked, people are uncertain if this is right or wrong, or whether the journalist is worth defending. This confusion is not only threatening to journalists and media freedom but also to democracy.

We are now trying to navigate these challenges. There was a time when an assault on a journalist would unite everyone in their defense. Now, it's difficult to establish consensus even amongst media houses. This lack of unity presents a significant problem for us.

Valentina Rydstrom:

What were the challenges you faced on your journey to becoming a senior assistant editor of the leading Bengali newspaper?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

There are numerous challenges. Media organizations, despite challenging stereotypes, often perpetuate them within their newsrooms. In India, most media organizations maintain a conservative approach. Some don't allow women to work the night shift, requiring them to leave before 7. Women are often assigned to the features sections, and if they are in reporting, they typically cover schools or hospitals. It's rare to find women covering politics, business, or sports, which are considered hard news. Our generation had to contend with these issues.

However, things are changing. For instance, our current editor the Editor of the century-old Ananda Bazar Patrika is a now woman, Ishani Datta Ray is a woman.

Outside of metropolitan areas, professional women journalists are scarce. In some districts, it's challenging to find a female correspondent working for a reputable TV channel or newspaper. Some districts don't have a single professional woman journalist. This lack of representation is contrary to the essence of democracy.

We need women to amplify women's voices and for the broader representation of gender equality. Everyone watches the news and its creators. The underrepresentation of women in journalism sends a negative message.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Thank you very much. Before we proceed to the last section of our interview, I have a question. You mentioned the situation of women in India at the beginning and about the state of journalism in India just a few minutes ago. So, my question is, what is more challenging in India: being a woman, being a journalist, or being a woman who is also a journalist?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

Yes, being a woman in journalism is still challenging. For instance, the MeToo movement, which originated in the US, caused significant waves in India. In 2018, it wasn't the film industry but the news media that brought attention to the issue. Numerous accusations against prominent editors and proprietors emerged, resulting in many resignations and transfers.

Our organization, the South Asian Women in Media India chapter, conducted studies to assess the situation. We performed an in-depth study in one state to understand the prevalence of sexual harassment of female journalists, both within their organizations and in their workspaces. We interviewed photojournalists, reporters, and freelancers to learn about their experiences when interacting with sources or working in crowded, challenging environments.

Another network of female journalists in India conducted an online survey with respondents across the country. Both our organizations found similar results: harassment of female journalists in Indian news media organizations is rampant. Over 30% to 50% have experienced it in some form, yet many organizations lack a proper complaint redressal system. Despite the law passed in 2013 mandating such systems, many are nonexistent, and women who make formal complaints often lose their jobs or face situations so hostile they feel compelled to leave.

These findings are disturbing and represent only one aspect of the challenges faced. Other issues include assignment allocation, access to necessary training, opportunities to work in different states or shifts, and career advancement. I personally had to fight for a transfer to Delhi, a critical move for career progression, which led to rumors about my personal life. This illustrates that the fight is as much against institutions as it is against rumors.

Online trolling, which disproportionately targets female journalists, is another significant challenge. Many threats involve physical harm, making them impossible to ignore. These are some of the challenges faced by female journalists.

Carys Patton:

What motivated the establishment of South Asian Women and Media? How has it evolved since its origin in 2008?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

We initially had a platform for South Asian. While meeting there, we recognized the need for a women's voice not only in media organizations but also in journalist associations. Hence, we decided to establish a women's network alongside the Federation of South Asian Journalists Within SAFMA.

As it turns out, this women's network has become more active and vibrant than the General Federation parent body. We have chapters in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, which are all very active. Some chapters hold regular elections, while others have registered themselves.

Our activities are diverse. One issue we address is the jingoistic nature of journalism in our countries, where national pride and issues often take precedence over the norms of balanced and fair reporting. This is especially evident in the breakdown of communication between countries like India and Pakistan. We protest against this and advocate for continuous, uninterrupted dialogue between countries. If governments fail to facilitate this, we believe civil society should step in. Hence, we, as women journalists across South Asia, converse daily.

In addition to this, we also tackle issues of media representation and aim to ensure equal opportunities for women journalists within media organizations and their work spheres. We conduct a lot of training, especially focusing on investigative journalism, and help each other establish networks necessary for this field. These are just a few examples of what we do.

Annabelle Crouch:

Could you discuss the progress made in promoting a gender-sensitive work environment in South Asia and worldwide?

Swati Bhattacharjee:

Indeed, the necessity of a gender-sensitive work environment is widely discussed. However, the extent to which we have achieved this is debatable. Recently, we've made strides in this area. For instance, we have networks of female journalists in Africa and South Asia. These groups came together to evaluate the practices, rules, and their effectiveness in promoting gender equality, preventing harassment, and ensuring work dignity within their media organizations. We've created a chart to identify the existing measures and the gaps.

Today's workplaces are far more gender-sensitive than they used to be. This improvement is largely due to the increasing number of women entering journalism despite various challenges. Their presence has brought about a significant change, not just in the United States, but globally. The growing number of women in the field has reduced prejudice against them. However, there's still much more work to be done.

Regrettably, the rise of women's voices in media coincides with a time when media freedom is being threatened. This is a challenge we must address and find ways to navigate.

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