August 23, 2015

Assam's sexist media is toeing a dangerous line in the name of tradition & culture

Daily O - 23-08-2015

Assam's sexist media is toeing a dangerous line
A news report pointed out the 'tragedy' of women gradually taking to fewer clothes, while even monkeys having the 'civility' to wear them.

Rini Barman


This week's top stories include unethical journalism promoted by a regional news channel in Assam. For those who don't know it yet, a blatantly sexist report on women's attire by Pratidin Time has spread like wildfire over social networking websites. A lot of people have opined that this volume of outrage should have prosecuted the regional media much earlier had it been channelised the right way at the right junctures, but we will come back to that later. The news report, as it turns out, pointed out the supposed tragedy of women gradually taking to fewer clothes, while even monkeys having the "civility" to wear them. Taking shots from Guwahati, which is the hub of many young students from the state and outside, the reporter emphasised for about 3.43 minutes how women in urban spaces resort to wearing shorts/half pants, thereby degrading the "traditional" Assamese culture. Now, this branding of women as cultural artefacts is not new. In fact, one journalist went on to say that they have made similar reports of men taking to Western wear as well. Why is this news, is what we must instead be asking. Whom do the regional media appease and whose favours does it stand to lose, if it doesn't shake hands with the society's moral police?

Also read: Our morals don't need policing but our streets do

A couple of other incidents profiled by News Live, NeTv and others may answer this. Images of couples being flogged by the police and cameramen are a regular feature. They sell like hot cakes during Valentine's Day, Saraswati Puja, and New Year's Eve. I would say that our surprise at the 30 couples being taken into custody in the recent Mumbai hotel raids is nothing compared to the daily raids in small town hotels. Aided by news channels, these couples are then asked to testify and apologise in front of the camera, the lesson being "trespassers shall be punished thus". Sometimes, to add fuel to the fiery narrative, these activities are labelled as prostitution. A similar case was the 2012 Guwahati molestation/public stripping of a woman stepping out of a bar.

Also read: India, ban hard-ons next

The consequences of these are definitely psychological. The middle class family lives and dies by this fear, but the media is at best portraying another harsh truth: the discomfort of this class at seeing the tide of purist tradition turning on its head. What you see on camera as blatantly "sexist and misogynist" doesn't pay attention to real life experiences bordering on a woman's attire and its disciplining. Elderly men and women monitoring younger women's attire is a ubiquitous presence at family functions. Zubilee Barua, a popular singer was denied a performance during Bihu because she was not dressed in the "Assamese traditional wear". The newspapers had conflicting views on this issue, and one can be certain that regional channels may fail to define coherently as to what is "Assamese tradition". Yet the charade continues: only last year, during Basant Panchami, NeTV and News Live carried a story on the changing trends of women's clothing styles during a sacred occasion such as the worship of goddess Saraswati. Their clips zoomed in on the faces of women exiting beauty parlours; they were literally chased to answer whether fashion or devotion is important in the current times.

Hemen Rajbongshi shooting women without consent and then branding their attire as "improper" is just the latest in a long line of sexist programming on Assamese TV. He is just one of these many journalists whose work doesn't "disrespect mothers and sisters because they never show their legs in public" and because we, the analysts of his work, don't know what "Assamese culture" is. The good thing about his outrageous defence is that it adequately exposes the cultural cavity between the moral police, the ones who abide by policing and the rest of us who would want to resist it. Now is the perfect time to put into interrogation viral social media posts that say "NE: Dowry-free zone" and "NE respects women as equals", as if there is a one-to-one correspondence between the two.

There isn't.

Responses to the Rajbongshi and the Pratidin Time incident are also divided on similar lines - while most of us agree that the regional media has absolutely no ethics, there are those who feel the northeast region is "liberal" in its attitudes and hence, such media reports are flawed because women's clothes are not leered at. Both these accounts are missing out on how the media, like the institution of family, have now given birth to a new form of self-disciplining on the city streets. Owing to the fears of a sudden arrival of the cameraman from out of nowhere, young men and women police themselves to prevent fatal social embarrassments. Shall some legal interventions be made to curb this lethal stalking/harassing/moral policing by the regional media? Only time will tell.

What we must emphasise is the fact that self-disciplining of individuals is brought about by regressive community training, and this must end before the media reforms itself. The objectification of women, voyeurism, and racist phenotyping tells us loud and clear: media is an extension of the deep-seated fears of a patriarchal society. But in the end, it is not just about patriarchy, it is about how we bow down to dominant power structures and pretend we don't care much about the classes that the media owes its allegiance to.

The regional channels ought to remember that issuing cultural threats only proves to damage the perspective from which younger generations view and understand "Assamese tradition". The greater onus is on writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, journalists and others who must act immediately to address these issues and end senseless, sexist, and unethical journalism.
#Moral police, #Hemen rajbongshi, #Pratidin time