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‘Journalists can only do as much as they are trained to do’

Urvashi Butalia on gendered violence, journalism, and silences

Urvashi Butalia believes news coverage of sexual violence has improved in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. Photo: Rohan Surti

Urvashi Butalia is a well-known feminist — a writer, a publisher, and a Padma Shri winner (with Ritu Menon) for her work in literature and education. In 1984, in the company of Menon, Butalia founded Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house. She now directs Zubaan Books, an imprint of Kali.

Butalia’s books include Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir, and The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, which won the Oral History Book Association Award in 2001 and the Nikkei Asia Award for Culture in 2003. In a telephone conversation with Sanya Chandra, Maanya Saran, Biplob K Das, and Yamini Krishnan, Butalia discussed sexual violence, journalism, and the silences surrounding sexual violence. Excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

On the expectations from journalists:
We expect too much of journalists. A journalist can only do as much as he or she is trained to do. If they are not given the training on how to report on sexual violence, when they hear something that they feel sounds sensational or graphic, they will report that. It may be something a mother [of a victim or survivor] feels and wants to express. I don’t know if journalists should keep quiet about it, but if a journalist hasn’t been trained to understand what is and what isn’t to be said, and what that report is supposed to do, then one cannot expect the journalist to imagine these things on their own.

On the training that journalists need:
It is very important for journalists to unlearn a lot of what they have learnt. Even the language they use in many ways is disempowering to the woman. For example, you will see “a woman has been raped” not “XYZ has raped a woman”. The language that you use informs the ways in which you look at people.

All journalists should be trained in the ethics of reporting, what you reveal, what you don’t reveal, how you represent the people you are talking about. It’s a very heavy responsibility to be representing someone whose autonomy has been violated. How they are portrayed is going to have a bearing on the processes of justice that will follow.

One basic of the training is to understand that sexual violence is not necessarily about sex, but also about power. To understand how it is used against women in situations of individual power equations and collective power equations, to understand where all of that is coming from, and to see what it means to be in the position of being the person who conveys what has happened to the public. The way in which you convey it is what will shape public perception, and public perception has quite a lot of bearing on how society understands the crime. All of these are linked, and if journalists are taught how to deal with these things, or even to keep them in mind when reporting, it can make a lot of difference.


On homophobia and transphobia in journalism:
Our entire society is homophobic and transphobic. It is not a phenomenon limited to journalists. And one of the things is that the body of a transperson is seen in a sexualised way, and also as a body that has no sexual autonomy or sexual choice. Journalists reflect this transphobia that is there in society in their writing on sexual assault on trans people. I’m not condoning it, but it’s a wider phenomenon. It’s the larger society. Journalists know they’re picking up on something that will get them a hearing. If they started writing about trans people in a sympathetic way, they could get in trouble with their bosses and the newspaper would start to receive hate mail.

I don’t think the solution to this lies with reporting. These solutions have to be much wider, because, a lot of the time, the onus is on the community that is marginalised to speak up for themselves — which, of course, they do. But the onus should also be on society to listen and act in ways that are inclusive and normalises the presence of diversity. Unless we stop seeing trans people as an aberration in society who have to be given certain sops to make them feel better, we won’t be able to make a difference. They have to be seen as part of the society.

The wider solution is education, it is reservation and jobs — in short, everything that the Trans Bill is not doing. Among journalists, there has not been as much outrage about the way the Trans Bill represents trans people, and, in particular, the ways in which it looks at the sexual violation of trans people as there should have been. There is a deep assumption that certain forms of sexual violation against them are permissible and something exceeding that is punishable only by two years. I expected that journalists would have spoken up about it and questioned it more than what has been the case.

On survivors and silences:
The silences [of survivors] is a complicated one. In some ways, you can say there is a lot of noise about sexual violence and assault. Every day, our papers are full of reports about rapes.

At the same time, there is a silence about certain aspects of rape: there is definitely a silence within families where they don’t want to talk about it, and there may be a silence among women who also don’t want to talk about it. That’s not necessarily only because they don’t want to talk about it, but often because they don’t have the vocabulary to do so. I mean, how do you talk about this kind of violation? You can only articulate it to people who you are really close to and if those people are not listening, you can’t just go out and talk to just any person.

But in some ways, technological developments have enabled some articulation for those voices that do want to speak. People can speak out on the net, they can use the shield of anonymity. Sometimes, a woman may choose to remain silent. That is the way that she feels she might heal or because this is something she does not want to share. Other times, women are oppressed by the silence. The provision in the law about not revealing the name of the victim, something women groups fought for many years ago, can also now be counter-productive for the victim because if she wants to speak out about her violation, she can’t say ‘it was me’. There are lots of complexities where silence is concerned.


On the ‘good victim’ narrative:
The perception of the ‘good victim’ has also been very strong. The media, the judiciary, the medical practice, ordinary people, the family — all collude to create this. The good victim narrative is like how the early ‘bad’ rapist narrative used to be: that the rapist is always the poor, the criminal.

The good victim is always the good woman who comes from a good household, who dresses in a certain way, who’s not out late at night. If you take somebody like Suzette Jordan, who was raped in Kolkata, she was the typical bad victim — the mother who likes to go dancing and drinking late at night, who hangs out in bars alone, and wears jeans and shirts and so on. A mother who is divorced and a mother who takes a ride from somebody she meets in a bar, all of that impacted her when Suzette was trying to report the crime. The police reacted to her reporting by insulting her. They didn’t take her seriously, they asked her questions about why she was in the bar late at night, etc. [West Bengal Chief Minister] Mamta Banerjee spoke out against her and said this was a political case because she didn’t fit the stereotype. Similarly, if it’s a prostitute who is raped, or if a transperson is raped, the assumption is that they don’t make ‘good victims’. That stereotype is very, very strong.

On sexual violence in conflict areas:
In areas of conflict, there are many things happening that work together to wipe out sexual violence as a serious issue. In places where the army is placed, you have the discourse of nationalism and patriotism, and you also have the entire discourse of humare jawan facing threats to life. A hierarchy of violence gets set up in which sexual violence is very low down. And therefore, it’s not really deserving of attention and it is seen as a much-less serious issue than, say, the violence of war. It is really difficult to counter this.

The other thing is the power relationship that exists between the people and the army or the militants. It is a relationship in which people are so vulnerable and so fearful of what can happen to their families. Women will choose to be silent because they internalise that if rape is reported, it can mean their husband or sons or somebody else getting picked up, or their daughter getting abducted. So they keep quiet about it. This not only silences sexual violence of those who are pitted against people [outside], but also silences what happens inside homes. Because inside the home, the man may be exercising violence towards his family or mistreating his daughter. Then what do you do? You can’t report that. The discourse on sexual violence can’t remain isolated from other forms of violence that exist around it.

On the changes in news reporting:
I do see some changes. I think there is more care in the media about victim-blaming [now], about profiling the survivor in certain ways. The ways in which the survivor was being stigmatised in previous times, or how the media kind of internalised notions of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victims has changed a bit. The reporting now is, if anything, more neutral as far as the victim is concerned. You might find the media saying it was brutal or whatever, but they are more circumspect of mentioning the details.

I don’t know if this is because editors have put curbs on it, or if reporters have become more sensitive. But I think there is still a long way to go before reporting is both sensitive and matter of fact. And I think the more detailed feature pieces need to be much more analytical and thoughtful.



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Sanya Chandra

Sanya Chandra

Ashoka University ’21 | History & International Relations Major | Interested in Gender, Popular Culture and Journalism