Thursday, March 08, 2012

Fighting the good fight for Feminism

By Thulasi Muttulingam

Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai is a well known blogger who specializes in covering Tamil events and issues.

DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai is a passionate journalist

Coming from a supportive family who made her believe she could do anything she set out to do, she was in for a rude surprise when she plunged into her first job as a journalist in a Tamil newspaper.

That was back in 1993, when she was just 21 years old. The country was in the middle of a long drawn out war, she came from the ethnic minority that was fighting the war, and if that wasn’t enough, she was female. A female from a very conservative and traditionalist community which believed in keeping its women safe, chaste and protected, ergo tied up with lots of rules and regulations.

But the 21 year old Dushiyanthini wanted to do what few in her profession and even less of her particular ethnicity and gender wanted to do; she wanted to cover the war.

I had to face exam after exam and several rounds of interviews before I got taken on” she recalls. “I had studied at St.Bridget’s Convent, so I was fluent in both Tamil and English. I wore jeans with short hair – not a typical look for a girl of my community; the management viewed me with suspicion. Journalism was considered a dangerous job so they repeatedly asked if my family was Ok with it.”

Even so, the management had several stipulations to ensure her safety – she was not to write on controversial issues, she was not to go into the war zone, she had to be accompanied by a male photographer on all assignments, whether one was needed or not and she was not to work late into the night.

Being unused to shackles of that kind, she rebelled. But it took her a long time to make any progress. Her stories were first carried without a byline, later with only her initials and only later with her full name. One would think that a media organization would be ecstatic at one of their journalists wanting to cover the kind of stories she did, with the kind of passion and dedication she brought to it. It’s an indication of the situation of the country that they were not. On her own initiative, she went into the war zone and made it a point to cover whatever events were erupting at the time. She covered displaced peoples, landmines, forcible cadre recruitments, disappearances – the whole gamut.

At that time, most of these stories were exclusive. Very few journalists were interested in covering it on this level by going to the places of conflict. Many of my work were lifted by other media organisations, often without bothering to attribute it to me,” she recalls.

She also tried as much as possible to stick to the journalism ethics she passionately believes in; that meant no partisanship.

The LTTE thought that being Tamil, I would fully support them. They didn’t take kindly to some of my write-ups but I didn’t let it deter me. I stuck to my ideals of being as objective in my coverage as possible”.

That got her into trouble when she covered certain doings of theirs such as the expulsion of the Muslims in Muttur. She travelled to Muttur to cover it and believing in the adage of a photograph speaking a thousand words, uploaded several on-site photos to her blog, along with a write-up the situation.

The post was getting hit after hit. People were linking it all over the internet; no-one else was covering it at that time. I got calls from senior leaders of both the Northern and Eastern factions of the LTTE, requesting me to take it down.

I said, “If you want, give me your side of the story and I’ll include it but I am not taking the post down

That sort of intransigence got her several death threats from both sides but while many of her colleagues who got similar threats fled abroad, she chose to stay on and continue what she was doing.

And somehow she earned grudging respect too, even from the LTTE. Over her career, she has met, interviewed or interacted with Prabhakaran, Pulidevan, Tamilselvan and several other senior leaders of the LTTE.

I collaborated on an exclusive story on the Black Tigers for the BBC. They were kept cordoned off and inaccessible to everybody. Other LTTE leaders I approached for this assignment refused but Soosai, one of the most approachable of the LTTE leaders finally agreed and risked the displeasure of his colleagues to arrange the interview for me.

“Unfortunately, the BBC used the words “World’s Ruthless Killers” in the headline and the LTTE wouldn’t speak to me for the next six months. When they finally did, they let me know how upset they were.

It might have been true but I wouldn’t have used those words myself. I needed to keep in contact with them to keep getting their side of the story and sensationalism like that did more damage than it was worth

Since the war, she has moved on to covering various other issues as well as cultural lifestyles of the Tamils. She started her blog in 2005, in order to upload her stories as they were not always sponsored or picked up by other media organizations.

When I first started it, people said no-one would read it, but I went ahead and took care to maintain the blog according to journalism guidelines. It is very popular among people interested in the North and East of Sri Lanka, both locally and abroad”.

Having moved on from print media to radio, television and finally the web, she is also a great believer in using modern tools for journalism. Along with that, she progressed from a small camera to a professional one, and found another strike against her in the male dominated field of photojournalism.

"I had to contend with a lot of professional jealousy, especially when I took up my camera and went into the war zone. Senior photojournalists who had had no competition from women in their sphere were seriously put off.

DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai is in action covering a protest in Colombo ~ Sri Lanka

They had this almost unbelievable attitude of ‘Who are you – a woman and a Tamil to come into this?’” she recalls.

Consequently, both within her community as well as outside, she has been labeled a feminist, not necessarily in a positive way. She is proud to identify herself as a feminist but says that the people’s conception of it, similar to NGOs, is severely negative.

When I first started to write about HIV and gay /lesbian issues in the Tamil papers, the backlash from my own colleagues was terrible. I had to hear things like, ‘are you a feminist? You must be a lesbian.’ Etc etc.

There is this impression that feminists smoke, drink and are lesbians, i.e westernized, valueless women. I am still trying hard to correct this impression among Tamil people, especially Tamil men”.

She tells an amusing anecdote of a man who does a lot of work for female emancipation in his rural community.

He took offence when I called him a feminist. I had to sit him down and talk to him at length about what being a feminist entailed before he smiled and admitted, ‘Ok, I am a feminist then’”.

Courtesy ~ Ceylon Today


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