Category Archives: Women

Tejpal, Tehelka and scandal

Tarun Tejpal

Tarun Tejpal

Tarun Tejpal. Tehelka.

Maybe my friends here in America have never heard those names. But in India, they stand synonymous with investigative journalism.

Tehelka has lived up to its name, which means sensation in Hindi, since it entered the Indian media scene in 2000. Early on, the startup almost brought down the Indian government by exposing bribery in defense deals. Tehelka got the story by engineering a videotaped sting operation.

Several years later, in 2007, Tehelka dropped its biggest bomb when it exposed bloody riots in the state of Gujarat not as Hindu backlash but the state-sanctioned killing of Muslims under the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, by the way, is now a prime ministerial contender.

The magazine did not always employ orthodox methods of investigation and came under fire for stretching the limits of the law by using secret cameras and false identities. It defended itself by saying that uncovering the darker side of India would otherwise not be possible.

With Tehelka’s success, Tejpal, the magazine’s editor, skyrocketed to stardom. He was called the rock star of Indian journalism; someone who set a new bar for media standards in the subcontinent. Charismatic. Terribly smart. Curious.

Now, all of it hangs in the balance.

Tejpal admitted “misconduct” against a fellow journalist this week and stepped down from his post as editor-in-chief of Tehelka for six months to “atone” for his sins. The journalist, according to media reports, is alleging Tejpal sexually assaulted her.

“A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for,” Tejpal said.

Some pointed out Tejpal’s language was inappropriate. It was almost as though he were writing about one of his fictional characters.

Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhary’s remarks didn’t go over well, either.

“There has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months,” she said.

A statement from the Editors Guild of India said this: “There ought not to be any attempt to cover up or play down this extremely serious incident. Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality.”

The Tehelka controversy has lit up Twitter and Facebook. That a media institution known for outing the worst of Indian society should be in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal is shocking to many. And Tejpal’s political enemies — he has many —  have come out with sharpened knives. Arun Jaitley, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused Tejpal and Chaudhary of “a private treaty” in what he called an attempt to suppress “a clear case of rape.”

Whoa. Let’s give Tejpal his due. We don’t know yet what the truth is here; whether Tejpal is guilty of his accuser’s actions.

I hope that if he is innocent, he will be reinstated and allowed to carry on with his journalistic endeavors, even though I believe his name will now forever be tainted.

But more than anything, I hope there is a fair and exhaustive investigation of what happened. Often in India, that does not happen.

And I hope that Tehelka will help lead the way in that effort. That is what the magazine stands for, after all — to do the right thing.

The Tejpal story hit a nerve with me for a number of reasons — CNN.com just published a story I reported from India in which I revealed my own rape. Sexual assault happens in all sectors of society. I have never worked full-time for an Indian media institution but I know from friends who have that abuse is widespread.

Reading about Tejpal all over the Indian media today, I came across an interview he gave to CNN-IBN in 2007, after the stinging story about Modi.

“It’s never personal, I keep saying that,” Tejpal said. “It’s not even finally about him. The story is about an extremely dangerous and poisonous school of thinking that is part of the national blood stream now.”

In this case, it is personal. Deeply so for the woman who alleges the assault. But it’s also the latter part of what Tejpal said.

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First-person fire

In my 30 years as a journalist, I’ve written a lot about victims. Many sorts of victims. Of war. Murder. Illness. Natural disasters. And man-made ones.

I always try to be sensitive and to highlight the incredible resiliency of human beings.

I was lucky enough to have won a Dart-Ochberg Fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I learned many things during that fellowship; how to improve my own reportage about people who have suffered.

All that really hit home last week when CNN published a story I reported from India about a woman who was raped four decades ago. You can read the story here: The Girl Whose Rape Changed a Country.

In the story, I revealed that I, too, had been raped when I was 18. I broke a 33-year silence. I wrote about some of the reaction to the story and how it made me feel in a follow-up. I was reporter and victim all at once.

I so appreciate the outpouring of support from women from around the world. It’s been a very difficult few days, reliving a memory from my past — one that I had put away in one corner of my mind. I tried to forget. But you can never really forget. The good thing is that it is possible to move on.

This post is to thank those who reached out to me. And for my dearest friends who took the time to make sure I was doing OK. Thank you.

I’m moving on to the next story. But I will not be afraid anymore to write about rape.

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A very difficult story

Me, reporting in Maharashtra. Vivek Singh, the photographer on the story, took this in Nawargaon.

Me, reporting in Maharashtra. My friend Vivek took this photo. He was the photographer on the story.

I have reported difficult stories before. It was never easy to tell tales of tragedy from places like Iraq. But a piece that published on CNN.com today is the hardest story I’ve ever told.

Because it became very personal. Because it was raw.

The producer, the photographer, the cameraman who went with me to Maharashtra for this story had no idea how I was feeling. Even I did not know, really, the emotions that would surface and then haunt me as I returned home from India and began writing the story.

But in the end, I felt it would be disingenuous not to reveal a horrible truth about my own life.

I hope you will read the story on CNN.com. Here is the link:

http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/11/world/india-rape/?hpt=hp_c4

As always, I have indebted to my editor, Jan Winburn. She edited the story with her usual brilliance and grace. But most of all, she believed in me. Again.

I hope rape survivors will be inspired by the quiet strength of Mathura. I know that I am.

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Eat your heart out, Travis Bickle

Meet Linda Randolph. Her resume is impressive.

Public health pediatrician. Graduated from Howard University College of Medicine and the School of Public Health in Berkeley, California. She is president and CEO of Developing Families Center, Inc., a non-profit in Washington D.C. that serves low-income women of child-bearing and child-rearing age and their families. She has been recognized for her sensitivity and commitment to the complex needs of poor women, especially those of color. She’s been doing this sort of work for years — three decades to be exact.

I had the privilege of sitting next to her at dinner one night last week at the America Healing conference, sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. Randolph nibbled on a slice of prime rib and mashed potatoes. Somehow the conversation migrated from maternal outcomes to the day that Randolph will retire.

Linda Randolph and I had dinner together at a racial healing conference last week.

Linda Randolph and I had dinner together at a conference.

 

“What will you do?” I asked. “Will you stay in Washington?”

Randolph is a native of D.C.

I wasn’t expecting the answer I got.

“I’m going to move to New York and drive a taxi.”

Whoah. Seriously?

Randolph said there were few women who drove taxis in NYC. She wants another cabbie to glance her way and take a good look when she’s behind the wheel of a yellow cab.

And she’s gonna make sure it’s a taxi with manual transmission.

She loves to drive stick-shift. More than 40 years ago, when she was still young and impressionable, Randolph drove from New York to San Francisco with a friend. He was from Costa Rica and had never shifted gears. But never mind that. They took turns at the wheel: 4 hours each. They drove like the wind and made it to the Pacific in 3 and 1/2 days.

So that’s what Randolph looks forward to. Out performing badass cabbies in the city known for them. I guessed her cabbie days were fast approaching. But how long would she work as a driver? She’s 72 now. Didn’t she want a few years of rest and relaxation?

Well, she said, her mama lived to see 99.

“When she died, she didn’t have a wrinkle on her face.”

Here’s to you, Dr. Linda Randolph, full of life and and now a source of inspiration for me. Here’s to you and many good years as a taxi driver.


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Rena

rena golden

Rena Golden

Hasan Zeya used to boast about how he was still practicing medicine into his early 80s. But at 84, he no longer is happy about his age. His daughter, Rena, passed away last week, days shy of her 52nd birthday.

“She did a bad thing. She cut ahead of me in the queue,” he tells me at her funeral Sunday.

Tears well in his eyes, though he keeps a brave front among the hundreds of people who have come to pay tribute to Rena. The weather, dreary and wet, matches the mood inside the inside Temple Kol Emeth.

Rena’s memorial was exactly how it should have been. A rabbi and grieving husband spoke of her incredible talent, compassion and ability to inspire. They spoke of a daughter, a wife, a mother, who gave her all to her family.

Rena worked for many years at CNN, a majority of her time spent as a leader at CNN International. The temple was filled with journalists who stood in awe of her.

Watch a birthday message from Dr. Zeya to Rena  on her birthday last year:

Dr. Zeya tells me how his own father had been a journalist in India but discouraged his son from ever becoming one. It was hard work and no money. But maybe that’s where Rena got her passion.

As a little girl, Rena would make her parents watch as she pretended to be a news anchor. She would hide under the table and appear from behind the tablecloth to the deliver the news.

Rena came to America on her sixth birthday. Dr. Zeya had wanted a better life for his family and moved to North Carolina from a remote part of the Indian state of Bihar. His family hailed from the place where Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil disobedience campaign in India — there’s a scene in the Oscar winning film that shows Gandhi arriving at that train station.

Dr. Zeya tells me he was happy to leave what he called the “most backward place in India.” For a variety of reasons.

He tells me he loved that in Chapel Hill, he could shower with hot water spewing from the faucets. And that he did not have to sweat through the entire summer like we did in India when the electricity went out and the fans stopped for hours. I felt connected with him — and to Rena — in a whole different way.

I never really spoke with Rena much about her early childhood in India. My connections to our homeland, of course, were much stronger since my parents chose to return there many years ago. But in a strange sort of way, it was comforting to know now that Rena had experienced life as I had there. She was only a year and half older than me.

My deepest connection to Rena was that when I first met her more than 20 years ago, she was the only other Indian woman I knew in mainstream journalism in the United States. Now, of course, there are many successful South Asian women practicing great journalism. But back then, there were few. Rena knew that and encouraged women like me to keep pushing forward.

As I speak with her father, I realize where she got a lot of her spunk, though he insists that it was she who inspired him.

Dr. Zeya tells me he never wanted to color his children’s thoughts about big things in life. Like religion. He wanted Rena to make up her own mind. It was exactly how my father had raised my brother and me. He never allowed organized religion to infiltrate our home. He wanted us to figure it out for ourselves.

Sunday afternoon, Dr. Zeya sat in the temple to hear Rabbi Steven Lebow tell the audience what Rena had said to him when it became apparent she was going to die.

She told him she didn’t fear death — she never had in her painful two-year battle against lymphoma. She worried only about what would happen to her children, Sabrina and Adam, and to the love of her life, her husband, Rob Golden.

She also told Rabbi Lebow that she wasn’t religious, though she considered herself deeply spiritual. It was a statement that made her father proud.

We spoke of religious tensions in India. Dr. Zeya sipped Sprite and launched a conversation on Islam. He believes followers of that faith must rethink their path to the future. It was not a discussion I’d expected to have at Rena’s funeral and at first, I was caught by surprise.

But on the long drive back home on 1-75, I decided otherwise. My conversation with Dr. Zeya was exactly what Rena would have wanted. Smart, forward-thinking, outside-the-box, provocative, even, and totally unexpected at a funeral. She would have liked that her father initiated an intelligent conversation with her friends and colleagues.

The rain came down harder. It was as though the entire world was mourning the loss of Rena Shaheen Zeya Golden.

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Filed under CNN, Courage, Feminism, Illness, Journalism, People, Women

WAR & Fashion

Carnage: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria.

Catwalk: Armani, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent.

War is ugly. Fashion is beautiful. War projects the worst of humanity. Fashion displays sartorial splendor in its highest.

War is fraught with danger, even for journalists and especially for photographers who must get up close to their subjects to frame an image.

Fashion is far less perilous, though photographers must also get intimate with their subjects on and around the runways.
There are photographers who shoot both: battlefields and runways, guns and glamour. At first, photographing war and fashion appear as incongruous acts that are difficult to reconcile. Until, perhaps, you take a deeper look.

Check out this provocative project on CNN. It was our Director of Photography Simon Barnett’s idea. I got to interview some very cool people for the story.  http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/02/world/war-and-fashion/index.html

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A brutal rape, then outrage. What next for women?

India-protestors-1200

When I was home in Kolkata several years ago, I climbed aboard a crowded public bus to go across town. The experience was far from pleasant.

It was hot and crowded. The bus was filled with the stench of body odor. I could feel the sweat of others on my bare arms as I clawed my way to the front door to get out at my stop.

But all of that could be borne in some way or the other. This was the price of getting from south Kolkata to its financial center in Dalhousie Square on a ticket that cost me all of 5 cents.

But there was another memory that came hurtling back in the last few days as I read the news of a 23-year-old woman attacked and raped by a gang of men on a moving bus.

Men on the bus pinched me and groped me and there was nothing I could do. My right arm was up, holding onto the grab bar for dear life as the rickety bus bumped its way over gaping pot holes.

I could not move in that packed bus. I could not hit them back. I was helpless.

But that was just the way it was. Not one person around me thought to do anything about it.

What happened to me happens to women all over India. Every day.

I’ve been stared at on the streets. Or heard catcalls and whistles.

In every instance, I was violated. But I was lucky.

Many times, the attacks are violent. In the December 16 rape of the Delhi woman, the circumstances were unimaginable. Her assailants gang-raped her and dumped her battered body off an expressway. Her injuries were so horrific that part of her intestines had to be removed in hospital.

The shocking nature of this crime galvanized Indians to take to the streets to express their outrage.

But I believe that anger was a long-time coming.  It stemmed from years and years of hearing about rapes and other forms of violence against women in which victims are blamed and perpetrators face little or no punishment.

I believe that Indians were finally finding a mass, united voice by which to say: We have to change the way we think about women and the way we treat them.

Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, got it right in a speech that was posted online:

There is barely a woman here who has not at some point fought for her dignity on the streets of Delhi, or in its buses. There is not one amongst us that has not found herself alone in such a situation. When we do this, we are told that we are inviting trouble; that we are asking for it.

The Indian government has promised stricter safety measures on buses. It can also, perhaps, make policy changes that will make reporting and convictions in cases of violence against women easier.

But ultimately, there has to be changes in the Indian mindset that affords women the dignity they deserve.

Here’s what journalist Shoma Chaudhury wrote on Teleheka.com:

Rape is already the most under-reported crime in India. But beneath that courses a whole other universe of violence that is not even acknowledged. It’s not just psychopathic men in a rogue white bus who can be rapists: it’s fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, friends. Almost one in every two women would have a story — perhaps told, perhaps untold — of being groped, molested or raped in the confines of their own homes. If they dare speak of it at all, they are told to bury and bear it. Take it as a part of life. To name an uncle who has been molesting a minor niece would be to shame the family. And marital rape — that stretches the very imagination. It’s a mark of our bestial ideas about women that even judges often suggest that rape survivors marry their rapists to avoid the hell of life as a single woman rejected by society.

It’s clear, say Indian women’s rights activists, that passing laws is not enough.

Legislation might give a sense of change, said Ratna Kapur, a professor at Jindal Global Law School, when in fact, very little is being done. This is what she wrote in The Hindu newspaper:

To confront the hatred that is now manifesting itself in the most egregious ways is to move forward as a society. We need to think about how we can handle women’s equality in ways that are not perceived as threatening. That demands greater responsibility on the part of parents as well as society not to raise sons in a way in which they are indoctrinated with a sense of superiority and privilege. There is also a need on the part of young men to be actively involved in their schools and communities in advocating women’s equality rights.

I am horrified by what happened in New Delhi.

I am heartened that so many people hit the streets in outrage.

I can only hope that from this brutal crime will come the beginning of a safer future for women.

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Killed in the name of honor



“All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone.”


That’s what Pakistan’s constitution says. But the plight of women in Pakistan today is grim.  Last year almost a thousand women were murdered in honor killings, according to the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. The real number is feared to be much higher — many such killings are covered up by families.


Of the 943 cases documented by the commission’s staff, 93 were girls. 


Here’s why these women and girls were killed by husbands, brothers, fathers. They were accused of illicit relations or they voiced a desire to marry a man of their own choice.


Before being killed, at least 19 women were raped, 12 of them gang-raped.


They were shot, bludgeoned and even strangled to death. 

Only 20 of these women and girls were provided any medical aid before they died.


This is now. In Pakistan.


I don’t know the statistics for my native India or neighboring Afghanistan. But all three of these South Asian nations top the list for the worst countries in which to be a woman.


I was horrified to read the Pakistan report today. It probably won’t get much attention in the Western media. So I write this and ask you to think about how these women and girls lost their lives all in the name of saving a family’s honor.


Could there be anything more dishonorable?

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A long journey


In the world’s largest democracy, men are still very much in control.

Even though we’ve had a woman as prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and the current president is also a woman (Pratibha Patil), women still lag way behind men in many ways. India has only 21 women in the 233-member Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament. In the Lok Sabha or lower house, women represent 11 percent of the seats. That ranks India 99th in the world in female parliamentary representation – behind neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh.

On Monday, which was International Women’s Day, the United Nations blamed a gender gap for the disappearance of 43 million women in India. Lost because of lack of health care, decent nutrition and proper education (only 55 percent of women are literate in India.

Gender bias leads to the killing of infant daughters. Brides are still burned to death in hopes of securing another dowry.

Those are obvious ways discrimination rears its ugly head. I can remember acts that were more subtle, yet insidious none the same.

The women in my mother’s generation cooked all the meals in the house but rarely sat with the men at the table. The men, of course, were served first; the women waited on them and then cleaned their mess.

Women on their periods could not enter a place of worship. I did not understand why when I was a teenager and wanted to join in on the puja festivities at my grandparents’ house. Now I am sure a man insisted on that rule.

My great aunt, who lived to a very ripe old age, was married and widowed when she was still in her teens. She lived a life of austerity, wrapped in white muslin, eating strict vegetarian food by herself on the floor of the kitchen. Somehow, she had been dishonored because her husband died on her. If she had been born a few years earlier, she might have had to plunge into her husband’s funeral pyre to save herself.

My own mother’s marriage was arranged. She left her own family to live with strangers. She gave up her own ambitions, her dreams in life to do what was expected of her. She was not a stalwart feminist. Nor was she one to complain about the way women were treated in Indian society. But I know, from all our quiet conversations, that she endured. And she told me many years ago that she would never wish the same for me.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recognized the uphill climb for women in India.

“Our women faced discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, they face discrimination in equal access to education and health care,” he said this week. “There are all these things. All these things have to end if India is to realise its full potential.”

A bill was introduced 15 years ago reserving one-third of parliamentary seats for women. The male-dominated Rajya Sabha finally passed the bill on Tuesday. It next goes to the Lok Sabha for approval.

There’s a long journey still ahead but the bill is a crucial first step to giving Indian women the voice they so richly deserve.

My mother died nine years ago. But I know she would have been proud of her homeland on this day.

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Goddess of strength

Thousands of deities are on their way to the banks of the Ganges in West Bengal today. The immersions have to be finished by Wednesday in the capital, Kolkata.


Ma Durga, the goddess of strength, returns to Ma Ganga, the holiest of rivers.


In the next few hours, murtis or images made from clay, wood, paper mache, bamboo, straw, shell and sand will begin dissolving in murky river waters.


Durga Puja, the biggest Hindu festival in my home state, is culminating this week.


When I was young, Durga Puja was the highlight of my year. Like an American kid looking forward to Christmas.


The five-day festival usually falls in September or October, depending on the position of the stars. We were off from school for several weeks. The streets were filled with fun and food. We wore new outfits for each day of the puja and went from pandal to pandal (temporary structures that housed the images) to see which one was the biggest, the baddest.


Hindu mythology tells the tale of Durga this way: Only a woman could kill the demon named Mahishasur. So the gods got together and each gave a virtue and skill to create the ultimate warrior, the goddess of strength. They gave Durga 10 arms so she could carry weapons in each to slay the Earth’s evil.


And so she did.


As I grew older and Kolkata became more congested, Durga Puja became somewhat of an inconvenience. The crowds, the road closings, the heat, the rain, the mud and muck of the dwindling monsoons. Last year, I almost missed my flight back to Atlanta because it took so long to weave through city streets to get to the airport.


The 15 million people of Kolkata all seem to be out together during Durga Puja. The constant banging of the dhol (drums) and blaring Bollywood music deafens my ears. At the end of every street, on every corner and in the neighborhood parks and schools, clubs fight for best in show. Who will win the prize for the most attractive Durga display? Some images are realistic. Others abstract. Some simple, others so ornate they would make Marie Antoinette gasp.


And when the five days of worship are over, throngs of people parade down the streets behind a lorry carrying their neighborhood Durga to the Ganges, so she can return to the heavens.


Whether you get into the Hindu puja spirit or not, there is something awesome about seeing millions of people fall at the feet of a woman to worship her strength, especially in a country like India, where women still have a long way to go to gain equal standing with men.


Last year, I was walking home from the bank and I stood and watched workers put the finishing touches on their Durga display. The beautiful and mighty woman, steely in body and soul (and loaded with weapons to boot!).


I stared into the eyes of the image. And felt her strength recharge me.


Check out this Web site for more information on the ceremony, rituals and story behind Durga:

http://www.durga-puja.org/


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