Harassment

As #MeToo storm hits Kashmir, a woman journalist details her tryst with the men-dominated fraternity

A typical example of what Kashmiri women journalists go through while working on the field would be the life of Farzana Mumtaz. From family struggles to societal stigmas to professional challenges, she has faced it all and yet continues to grow and inspire many young journalists.

The moment she pulls over near her workplace, the woman journalist turns heads around with her ‘I-don’t-give-two-hoots’ attitude. She can sense the disturbing gazes, some snobby laughter, as she walks down to Srinagar’s Press Enclave to greet her colleagues. Getting the disquieting vibes, she often catches people ogling at her body.

But Farzana Mumtaz has long learnt to rise above the perceptions that still make it hard for many to believe that a confident working woman can rub shoulders with her male counterparts, and excel in the field.

“In journalism,” the affable Farzana says, as we head to her office to talk about her life as a journalist, “you’ve to be  thick-skinned.”

In a men-dominated field like the media, she says, it’s a multi-front battle for the woman journalist in terms of competitiveness, contacts and colleagues.

“Since men are in majority in this field, so my friendly interaction with them earned me atrocious labels,” she pauses for a while. And then, resumes with a shuddering remark: “I was even called a prostitute!”

Choked with emotions, Farzana clears some air before continuing her professional journey. “It’s not that everyone out there is a demon. I’ve my wonderful colleagues who treat women very nicely. But then, the black sheep element is quite assertive and vocal in our profession. They think journalism is entirely their ball game, just because they’ve better platforms available to them. Such people tend to behave like default policemen, who easily bracket others.”

As she speaks, her gravity of thoughts simply defies her happy-go-lucky social approach.

But then, away from her daily trysts with her profession, Farzana’s background makes her a survivor of sorts, who has been repeatedly pushed to the wall, and yet she has bounced back to create her own space in the field grappling with a host of issues.

ALSO READ: Kashmiri Women Journalists: Calling it quits even before they start?

A native of Old Srinagar, Farzana, 37, was a joyful, daring child who grew up mostly with boys and pursued her education from a co-education school at Karanagar. At the age of 15, when she was in 10th standard, she got married.

Marrying at an early age is what she calls destiny. “After my elder sister and brother were married,” she continues to delve into her past, “it was my turn. So, it happened.”

By 17, Farzana had two kids: a son and a daughter. As a teen mother, she pursued higher education from Kothi Bagh School and graduated through a distance mode. “It was an uphill task for me to complete my graduation,” she recalls. “And shortly, I was working as a journalist, although I wanted to be a doctor.”

Her father had supported her while she was trying to study for the Medical Entrance examination. However, her in-laws, she says, never liked her idea of studying and did not let her choose the stream of her choice.

“I had to change my stream from Medical to Arts after Class 12,” she says, in a low voice. “It felt as if I was pushed into an unfamiliar territory, where there was nothing much for me to do.”

Her in-laws, she says, once again created hurdles for her when she started working. “You see, our in-laws in Kashmir either want our salary, or they want us to stay home and serve them all the time,” Farzana says with a straight face.

“So when I started working, my husband’s stepmother would misbehave with me for coming back home late. She would never appreciate how I would finish the daily household chores, before leaving for office at around 1 O’clock in the day.”

That kind of treatment would often leave her in a depressed state of mind.

Getting up, getting dressed and going to the office would be a struggle for her. She would often stay with her parents for months together after facing her in-laws. All that, however, changed when her father passed away in 1999 due to brain hemorrhage.

Two years after his demise, she got the rudest shock of her life—divorce. For some time, she says, her husband would support her, but eventually it ended up in separation.

“Losing your father breaks you,” she turns tearful. “And then losing your life partner to a divorce simply shakes your existence to its core. It felt as if I was left alone to brave the life and its myriad complexities. That was the turning point of my life. I had turned down many job offers for my in-laws and husband. But now, I was broken and miserable, and left with nothing.”

ALSO READ: Stalkers, texts and suggestive ‘courts’: Life of a female journalist in Kashmir

For about two years after her divorce, Farzana couldn’t focus much on her work. But she eventually realized that she had the spirit to bounce back in life.

“As a divorcee, I got a chance to take care of my diabetic mother back home, who has had a chronic kidney failure,” Farzana says. “That period was terrible for me. Even as some people tried to sympathize with me, it never helped. I couldn’t leave home. I would cry a lot. At times, I would hire an auto-rickshaw and go out on my own, to avoid any human interaction.”

But the new phase in her life was about to leave her further emotionally-drained and would even earn her heartbreaking tags. Being an opinionated woman journalist of Kashmir came at a huge cost for Farzana Mumtaz.

“After my divorce, people started talking more about me as a woman journalist,” she says. “Since media is a men-dominated field, I would mostly interact with them. But then, it fed to the rumour mills. People would often question: Is her interactions with males the reason behind her split marriage?”

The cost of being young and divorced would often make people raise fingers at her. “They would even slut-shame me while advising me to stay indoors.”

In that situation, Farzana says, she had only two options: either sit home, or commit suicide.

But she found a midway: prayers, and supportive people, like her illiterate mother and some colleagues. They supported and stood by her side, “like a rock”.

Farzana started her career with daily Kashmir Images as a reporter. “Then I worked with Doordarshan Srinagar as a stringer, before joining ANI, India TV, State Times and other media outlets.”

Apart from the family struggles, she says, professionally people tried to create problems for her. “After I got selected at India TV, the organisation received Faxes, reading: Farzana is not suitable for the job; she’s not a good girl and is anti-national,” she laughs at the spiteful content sent by someone from her media fraternity. “However, I still got the job and proved my mettle in the organisation.”

ALSO READ: Is harassment of women becoming a new normal in Srinagar?

But in early 2000, when she started her career, Kashmir was still in the throes of raged insurgency—that had picked up some steam at behest of fidayeen attacks. The escalating situation proved to be a challenging task for the young woman journalist.

“I would walk for miles and mostly cover gunfights,” she says, deflating the make-believe construct being floated these days that Kashmiri women journalists are the ‘recent inclusion’ in the field.

Back then, she continues, journalists wouldn’t even have bulletproof jackets. “I remember the Dalgate encounter when Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister of India. Amid curfew, I walked to the spot, despite being stopped at Barbarshah where I escaped an intimidating situation. Such ‘bravado’, so to say, in a place like Kashmir, can easily earn you an informer label!” she says laughingly.

But as a woman journalist, Farzana Mumtaz has long learnt to do her job without losing her sleep over peoples’ opinions and perceptions.

“One of the immediate challenges for all of us is to survive another day in the conflict zone called Kashmir where the forces can even tear your identity card and throw it in your face,” she says. “You can be abused or slapped. You’ve to be ready for everything. You’ve to be brave. That’s the only way to survive.”

But due to her mother’s deteriorating health, she had to stop hitting the field frequently. She eventually left the Delhi- based media and ended up starting her own weekly newspaper ‘News Kashmir’, some 7 years ago.

As an editor-owner of the weekly, Farzana is now working according to her own terms.

But why would someone (aspiring to be a doctor in a first place) choose to be a journalist and apparently unsettle her ‘conservative’ in-laws with her mandatory professional outings?

“See, I’ve always been adventurous and passionate about helping people,” Farzana says. “And in journalism when some story helps anyone, you feel blissful. Journalism is a platform where you get many opportunities to do some social service. I love to help people. That adds up to your deeds and happiness.”

Today, 17 years after starting her journalism career, Farzana is single-handedly supporting the upbringing and the education of her children. Her son is pursuing his medical degree, while her daughter has opted for Law.

“Whenever they visit their father, he expresses astonishment over the manner I brought them up without seeking his support,” the proud mother beams over remark. “I think that is the biggest achievement for someone, who was left to fend for herself with her toddlers.”

It’s her children’s welfare, which motivates her every day to come out and face the world—no matter how ugly it might be for her out there.

 

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