By Kalpana Sharma
If all-male panels are called “manels”, what should we call an all-woman panel? Womels?
People, meaning even well-intentioned men, get irritated when women remind them that it is possible to attempt some kind of gender balance when organising panel discussions on a range of subjects. But the norm remains virtually unchanged. If the discussion is about women’s issues, children, health, the elderly or other so-called societal issues, there is a preponderance of women on the panel. But if the topic is politics, business, foreign affairs, defence and even law, women are rare or non-existent.
During the extended election process to five state assemblies that concluded earlier this month on March 11, the majority of commentators on television channels were men. There were women, some of the regulars. The anchors were sometimes women. But the majority on any panel discussing the elections were never women.
No wonder the exception stood out. And not surprisingly, the person to break the norm was Ravish Kumar of NDTV India, the indefatigable journalist who continues to dare the establishment, break the norms of the dominant forms we see in mainstream television journalism, and yet survives!
On March 9, when all the other television channels were going ballistic over the exit polls, Ravish Kumar hosted a “womel”, an all woman panel of journalists who had covered the elections and were experienced political reporters. The women journalists on the panel were Neha Dixit, independent journalist, Sunita Aron from Hindustan Times, Vandita Mishra from Indian Express, Supriya Sharma from Scroll.in and Poornima Joshi from BusinessLine.
Ravish Kumar deliberately decided to ignore the exit polls and instead drew out these journalists on the issues that faced the electorate in the different states that went to the polls. The programme was informative, there was no shouting and screaming, no butting in or cutting off the participants. The anchor gave each person adequate time to make their point. In the end, the viewer came away with an enhanced understanding of the issues that underline the electoral process and that go beyond just the counting of the votes and the results.
In the last decade and more, scores of women journalists have been covering politics. Unlike the 1970s and even to some extent the 1980s, no one is surprised today to see women interviewing politicians, covering election rallies, and writing incisive and analytical articles on politics in the print media.
Yet, on television, although women anchor programmes on politics, and are also reporters, they are still rarely seen as “experts” on the subject. We have to question this.
Is it gender blindness on the part of mainstream television channels? Or are experienced women journalists hesitant about pushing themselves forward even as their male counterparts boast about their contacts and experience, however limited?
Perhaps it is a combination of the two. And even if one Ravish Kumar cannot topple dominant norms, his initiative has the potential to do so.