From equipment ‘designed by men, for men,' to the usual threats that come with rigorous reporting, Indian female photojournalists are burdened with fighting against the daily tide of misogyny and harassment, in addition to simply trying to do their jobs
On the evening of March 5, 2021, I was driving home when I looked through the rear-view mirror and spotted two hundred protestors carrying out a morcha (rally), and rhythmically chanting 'no farmers no food' as they occupied the Sector 10 roundabout -- one of the busiest crossroads in Chandigarh.
Law enforcement hustled back and forth, setting up makeshift barricades with police vans and sand-laden trucks.
The air was electric with indignation, as protestors were in a standoff with riot police, on the 100th day of the largest protest in world history. I squeezed through the rush hour up to the front line, swept along by a propensity to witness history.
Large-scale demonstrations have been far less frequent since the arrest of climate change activist Disha Ravi in February, as citizens fear the space for dissent is getting eradicated.
What started as a civil disobedience movement has abruptly escalated, with an increasing number of protestors getting arrested on the grounds of sedition and anti-nationalism – customary tactics used by the government to agitate protestors.
But with the farmers movement crossing the 100-day mark, and women occupying center stage at protest sites, the momentum is picking up again.
Walking through Chandigarh, the capital of the northern states of Punjab and Haryana which are India's agricultural clusters, there are subtle marks of the movement everywhere. Protestor-friendly stickers on the back of two-wheelers, flags attached to car bonnets, and anti-leadership graffiti; you can spot them if you know where to look.
I didn't fall into this work the way most journalists do – reporting it as yet another assignment, or as a paid gig. I have never covered a protest before.
However, my cultural positionality as a Hindu-Punjabi woman, and my present geography, influenced my journalistic trajectory. I was prompted to cover the farmers' protest, not as an activist but as a photojournalist, which is a rather demanding role for a female journalist of colour, especially at just 5'2" inches tall.
Looking back at the photographs and footage I have captured so far, I'm taken back, half in apprehension and half in disbelief, of how I've never been too much in harm's way. Somehow, I've majorly been able to straddle the literal line between protestors and police safely, which primarily I'd like to owe to my quick thinking . However, truth be told, my gender may or may not have been the actual end(er) to these forfeited threats and opportunities.
On Friday, March 5, that balance was tested.
On that day, I relied on my potential as a photojournalist that I developed during these three months of protests, to find a way to work safely as crowds nudged me, while simultaneously sharing updates in real-time on Twitter.
This decision led to a dozen calls and messages from loved ones, my journalism professors at UBC, Vancouver, and acquaintances, praising my work but also urging me to head back home.
"I can see as a journalist you have to take some risks, but your safety as a reporter and as a woman is cardinal while you cover them," my friend Hailee Olson said in a Twitter DM.
When the Chandigarh police assertively called on protestors to return, and mobs roared louder, my heart raced as I frantically switched from shooting 35mm photos, to videos of female activists working these sites on the frontlines, while patrolling grew intense and cops clashed with the crowds.
Covering a protest as a female reporter can be in many ways counterintuitive. Your instinct tells you to run, or pull out that pepper spray from the back pocket of your jeans when you see a large group of middle-aged male protestors headed in your direction. But your journalistic principles probe you to stand your ground, document, and use whatever you can to shield yourself from teasing and harassment while you reclaim your space, physically and symbolically, on the ground.
I have constantly reminded myself of this while covering the farmer's protests.
One thing I didn't have to remind myself of that day was to always keep recording. At a certain point on that Friday, a policewoman asked me to stop shooting simply because I didn't look "journalistic enough," while allowing my male counterparts to continue. The next thing I knew, I was involved in a brawl. It took officer Jane Doe with the infamous khaki-colored stick, less than five seconds to turn and yell for me to "get back" before swiftly jostling me.
I didn't feel offended enough to engage. The adrenaline kept me distracted. The most challenging part, however, of the unpleasant interaction at the time wasn't the push; it was to hold my tongue.
Under different circumstances, I would have called out the officer, shockingly a woman herself, for her blatant sexism. At that moment, though, I knew the cops were looking for a confrontation.
After getting physically knocked down and almost dropping my camera, I picked myself and my spirits up, walked back up to the front lines, and continued recording. A move that, in retrospect, I think was a sheroic statement in itself.
While I know the Indian media is struggling to cover the farmer's protest, I also know that a sea of male reporters are being sent to cover events that I have as much, and in some cases, more of an understanding of and deeper connection to, which isn’t easy. It also isn't easy to accept that I'm putting my neck on the line as an independent journalist, while others get paid considerably more to report on these demonstrations remotely from home.
March 5 was just a snapshot of what has been a wild couple of months for me. During this time I have been documenting dozens of peaceful and hostile protests, helping my peers understand these farm bills and their constitutional challenges, and been mentioned in multiple livid and threatening tweets critiquing my stance on the movement, among so much more. I'm still reflecting on everything that has happened.
There have been many times in the last twelve weeks when I’ve wondered if it would be easier for me to drop the label of a journalist and join the demonstration. But then I remember my place in this historic movement. Despite being part of an industry that is severely plagued by gender parity, I’m a reporter, and I'm just trying to do my job.
Each day before heading out, I regularly debate covering the protests from the sidelines, worried that if I dive deeper into the pockets, I will experience more bitterness than I have already. However, my decision to bring my camera and resilience along for the ride ultimately led me to this turning point in journalism.
After all, I’m the storyteller and not the story. It is my responsibility to be objective and unbiased, but it is equally my job to expose the fractures in our society. While my experience is not unique, given that dozens of women journalists worldwide have experienced graver threats, I take pride in knowing that I am now officially a part of the tribe.
About the author: Simran Chhabra is pursuing her Master’s in Journalism at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Born and bred in Chandigarh, India, she is a thinker and creator who responds to challenges and opportunities with passion and persistence. Simran is a recipient of the James L. and Donald A. Duncan Fellowship to Advance Excellence in Journalism at UBC. As she navigates her interest in corporate communications and public relations, she has also been given the Brian Truscott Memorial Award in Business Journalism.
As an International Ambassador for Women’s Health, Simran runs a social justice initiative called Stree Sahodaya wherein she advocates for sustainable menstrual hygiene and gender- gap reduction across rural villages in North India. A travel enthusiast and a trained Indian classical dancer, Simran completed her Post-graduate Diploma in Mass Communication from Panjab University, Chandigarh, where she graduated at the top of her class.
A fool for poetry, love, and Labradors, she thrives on coffee, chaos, wine, and words. As she straddles between building her empire in Canada and India, Simran intends to live life like a modern-day maharani!
Follow her on Twitter @PintSizedPataka