Newsmakers

Out of India: reactions to Christiane Amanpour's 60 minutes story on dowry in India

Out of India: reactions to Christiane Amanpour's 60 Minutes story on dowry in India

I find it strange that so many international journalists who do such stories out of India (and possibly other "Third World" countries) rarely interview even well-known women's/feminist organisations/activists here who have been consistently working on dowry-related and other forms of violence against women for at least a couple of decades.

It would appear from this story that there has been no public protest and/or campaign, no legal/legislative activism, no research/documentation, no effort to improve official responses, no support services for victims, etc., etc., and that no one other than individual heroines like Nisha Sharma — who have caught the media's attention —is doing anything at all to try and deal with the problem in different ways and at different levels. The one activist who has been interviewed is presented without any details about her work in the field and is quoted solely on her personal decision (not to attend weddings). Further, the story implies that individual rebellions (like Nisha Sharma's) strengthen social/political activism (like Ranjana Kumari's) rather than the other way around.

It is surprising that the story, presumably done out of Delhi, which is home to several organisations working on issues of violence against women, including dowry-related violence, makes no reference to even someone like Sathyarani Chaddha, once an "ordinary housewife" whose daughter was one of the earliest known "dowry death" victims and who went on to network with similarly bereaved parents and to ultimately set up an organisation (Shakti Shalini) providing shelter to women in distress, especially those harassed for dowry, in the capital city.

This is, of course, not the first time 60 Minutes has featured an ill-informed report on Indian women – there was one a few years ago replete with the most amazing stereotypes, etc.

The objection to this story is not about denying or glossing over the fact that dowry and dowry-related violence are among the many enormous, serious problems facing Indian women. It certainly is not about questioning international media coverage of such issues. It is a question of standards in professional practice, the need for informed reporting, etc.

Ammu Joseph, Bangalore, India

Amanpour's recent segment on dowry deaths in India for CBS illustrates the worst in western journalism. Though the piece focuses on a serious issue of violence against women in Indian society, it is presented without any historical context and without the voices of feminist leaders and elected officials who have been addressing the issue for more than two decades. Amanpour's reporting is simplistic, sloppy and lazy – she has done little to gather facts or a range of perspectives, to name sources of some of her facts (e.g., the anonymous "human rights groups" who allegedly put dowry-related deaths as high as 25,000).

The piece is sexist – it fails to bring to light the problem of patriarchal marriage systems that victimize young women and that reward women (e.g., mothers-in-law) for participating. Similarly, she links dowry deaths to female infanticide and abortions without examining the larger problems of women's status or gender roles. She heroizes two women – the college student Nisha and women's rights leader Ranjana Kumari – but she fails to acknowledge the depth and breadth of women's groups struggling to change laws and social practices around dowry.

By singling out India, a developing nation, for its abuses to women and not examining the similarities in developed nations, Amanpour commits the sin of racist reporting. The piece relies on a stereotype that developing nations are backward in their treatment of women. She had a responsibility to connect the murder of women in India to wider practices of violence against women in all other nations, including western nations like United States, from which she reports. There are so many possible ways of relating dowry deaths to the larger global problems of men's violence toward women that one can only ask if Amanpour is ignorant or willful in her inattention to these. Is she aware, for instance, that women organized in local communities around the world and also into larger networks beginning in the early 1970s to create legal remedies, services for victims and a new analysis of all forms of violence against women? Much has been accomplished through men and women working together to change cultural practices that keep structures of gender oppression in place everywhere. At the international level, for example, the United Nations recognized such abuses as fundamental problems in human rights 10 years ago.

CBS's program "60 Minutes" is notorious for its simplistic reporting of serious issues, so in some respects, the Amanpour segment on dowry deaths symbolizes a malady embedded in the structure of this program's production values. Let me put a gender and economic framework around the situation. Christiane Amanpour draws much material reward from her employment as a correspondent in not one but two global media conglomerates – CBS (now owned by Vivendi of France) and CNN (owned by AOL Time Warner). These organizations and the other large telecomm giants (e.g., News Corporation, Disney, Viacom), which form the backbone of the global economy, are all owned and controlled by white powerful men in western nations. They use their products to maintain gender dominance and neo-colonial relations. Amanpour is a tool of this (evil) empire, but certainly one too well-paid to be concerned.

— Dr. Carolyn M. Byerly, USA

I received an email concerning your comments on a recent CBS report on
Violence Against Women in India. This was sent via Global Sisterhood
Network, a feminist website which monitors electronic and print media
which have a direct impact on the realities of women's lives.

Thank you very much for highlighting the bias and continued
mis-representation media journalists employ when covering stories
concerning violence against women, particularly stories concerning
women's lives in developing countries. I, for one, know there have been
feminist organisations in India fighting for women's rights for over twenty
years (this is an approximation - since I do not have precise time-lines).

What angers me is how mainstream media journalists construct cases of
violence against women. CBS's storyline is a typical example. The young
woman was described as attractive and young who was the first woman to
courageously stand up and speak out publicly regarding womens' rights in
India. One wonders whether CBS would have been interested if this
woman had not been young, attractive and articulate.

I believe media/journalistic misrepresentation is endemic globally. Many mainstream journalists do not undertake research in order to ascertain whether there are organizations, both feminist and non-feminist, which have been working in areas and locations these journalists are interested in reporting on. Instead, these journalists construct a storyline which is simplistic in order to appeal to mass markets and the general public.

Countering this, however, are professional feminist media/journalists who
undertake excellent professional work reporting on women's rights and
issues. Unfortunately many of these journalists' reports are not taken up
by mainstream western media. One excellent newsite on the internet is
womens' ENews. Although this is western based, the articles are written
by both women and men who actually live in the countries they are
reporting on and have carried out extensive background research before
writing authoritative articles.

Once again, thank you for raising the very important issue of
misrepresentation.

—Jennifer Drew, UK

I am writing in response to Christiane Amanpour's recent story on dowry
in India. I want to congratulate 60 Minutes for raising awareness on this
issue, and for highlighting so many of its inter-connecting elements and
effects. The story rightly emphasized the terrible impact of the dowry
epidemic on sex ratios particularly in North.

But the viewer might have got a more balanced - and less individually-focussed picture if you had included a little coverage on the hundreds of women's rights organizations across the country who have been fighting dowry in increasingly sophisticated ways for over two decades (rather than just one activist whose main strategy seems to be boycotting weddings!). The story also failed to mention the scores of public protests and campaigns that have taken place (local news agencies could have given you impressive footage of these street marches); or the myriad legislative campaigns that have been launched for giving women equal inheritance rights, or myriad other strategies to remove the economic conditions that promote dowry.

The focus of the story was on the individual heroine, an appealing media figure. And while we all salute Nisha Sharma's courage, she's not the only one to have stood up to this vile practice. I wish CBS had told the story of Sathyarani Chaddha, a very traditional middle-class Punjabi woman whose daughter was one of the earliest known "dowry death" victims. This experience led Chaddha to found, along with other similarly bereaved or affected parents, the first organization to come out of the dowry harassment syndrome, which provides a shelter for women in distress in the capital city.

I wish the story had shown how much thousands of people and organizations
across the country have done and continue to do to fight the dowry system. Without this perspective, I'm afraid many viewers have concluded that dowry is yet another example of the barbarism of the east.

—Srilatha Batliwala, Harvard University, Boston

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