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Ammu Joseph, Champion for Indian Women in Media

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

In a country where Bollywood beauties dominate the media's attention to women, Bangalore-based, award-winning writer Ammu Joseph expands the horizons of female journalists in India.

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In a country where Bollywood beauties dominate the media's attention to women, Bangalore-based, award-winning writer Ammu Joseph expands the horizons of female journalists in India.
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Ammu Joseph

(WOMENSENEWS)--When Ammu Joseph was helping to finish a United Nations report on women a year ago, she impressed colleagues with her willingness to work extremely long hours and still produce a coherent document.

Amina Adam, the United Nations staffer charged with the responsibility of seeing that the report was written, says Joseph worked until the 4 a.m. finish line and her scholarship was, as usual, "top-notch."

It's a story familiar to anyone who knows the 50-year-old Joseph, author of three books on women in the media, especially given the subject of the report: women's need for better media access in India. It's an issue that has inspired Joseph to work overtime her entire career.

In 2002, Joseph pursued her interest in women and media by helping to launch the Network of Women in Media, India, a collective of women working out of 16 centers around the country to promote gender justice, in the media as well as in India at large.

The network began with Joseph's 2000 book, "Women in Journalism: Making News" (Konark Publishers), which detailed 200 female Indian journalists' personal accounts of facing sexual harassment, language barriers and pay inequities. The research spurred Joseph to organize a series of regional workshops in 2000 and 2001, which led eventually to the formation of the network.

In time, Joseph hopes the network will influence media standards, ethics, policy and gender policies in India, where, according to a 1995 United Nations report by media-and-gender expert Margaret Gallagher, women make up only 12 percent of media employees. Currently, for instance, the network is urging media houses to address their own possible problems with sexual harassment.


Interest Spawned by 1970s, Ms. Magazine

Joseph's interest in women and media began to take root in 1976, when she came to the United States to pursue a master's degree in communications at Syracuse University in New York. But her real inspiration came from Ms. Magazine.

In India, magazines for women purveyed strictly trivial advice about cooking, fashion and recreation. But in researching a paper on Ms. Magazine, she found herself in its New York offices, spending time with co-founders Gloria Steinem, Suzanne Levine and Patricia Carbine. The feminist issues covered by the magazine made her want to see something similar published in her own country.

It was good timing for Joseph, because the India to which she returned in 1977 was ripe for what she had to offer.

After the period of imposed Internal Emergency in the late 1970s--when then-prime minister Indira Gandhi drastically curtailed civil rights and press freedoms--India became a breeding ground for feminist thought.

More women began entering the press and serious coverage of women's rights issues--such as anti-dowry demonstrations--was emerging.

The forum for Joseph's editorial ambitions was Eve's Weekly, a women's magazine with a mixed female readership where Joseph had held an internship before her college days.

"When I got back to India and rejoined the magazine, I was full of ideas about what could and should be done to reorient it in keeping with the times," says Joseph. In 1977, she took as assistant editor position at the magazine.


Introducing Feminist Humor

One of the staples of Eve's Weekly--and one of Joseph's first targets--was a regular column, "Madam, I'm Adam," which poked fun at the witless hi-jinks of a woman styled after Lucille Ball. Along with a couple of colleagues, Joseph successfully crusaded to banish the column.

She then hired a female cartoonist to write feminist humour columns. While on staff, Joseph also encouraged the inception of regular columns on women in sports, film and politics, along with in-depth coverage of such serious issues as rape, dowry and female infanticide.

Not all the battles ended in victory. Despite her attempts to run cover photos of a wider variety of women, Joseph says Eve's Weekly--which folded in the late 1980s--continued to feature pretty and young faces, already seen on the covers of many popular magazines in India.

After four years at Eve's Weekly, Joseph left her staff position to spend more time with her infant. For the next few years, she freelanced, taught journalism part-time at Sophia College Polytechnic in Mumbai and worked for various magazines.

Looking back on those years of mixing childrearing with work, she says journalism was always about following her "natural path." She said she was fortunate not to be hobbled by family expectations or employers who stood in her way.

"At present many women seem isolated," she writes in "Women in Journalism: Making News." She adds, "They are often stuck between the devil and the deep sea: families that do not approve of careers in the media in the first place and would be happy if they gave up their jobs and employers who are still tentative about recruiting women."


Refusing to Write Fluff

Given her relatively painless entry into the profession, Joseph could have settled into an easy groove, writing the sorts of fluffy features that her editors have demanded over the years. Instead, she has focused on gender issues and taken the risk of what she calls "professional ghettoization."

In 1986, Joseph joined the Indian Post in Mumbai to serve as the magazine editor of Postscript, the daily newspaper's Sunday supplement magazine. An editor wanted Joseph to concentrate almost solely on food, fashion and fun. She quit.

"I was not willing to spend all my waking, working hours on such drivel," says Joseph.

Joseph, an occasional contributor to Women's eNews, is also the co-author of "Terror, Counter Terror: Women Speak Out" (Zed Books, 2003), and "Whose News? The Media and Women's Issues" (Sage, 1994).

Donna Allen, founder of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press in Washington, has equated progress in the women's movement with the creation of women's media. Last year, Joseph received the 2003 Donna Allen Award for Feminine Advocacy, which recognizes a champion of the rights and freedoms of women and minorities all over the world.

Carline Bennett, a free-lance writer in New York, is a former intern at Women's eNews.

For more information:

Network of Women in Media, India:
http://nwmindia.org

International Women's Media Foundation:
http://www.iwmf.org

Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press:
http://www.wifp.org