The Women's Movement and the Press in India: The Construction of Female Foeticide as a Social Issue(1)

Article excerpt

This textual comparison of articles on female foeticide in the Indian English press based in Bombay, and activist literature and documentaries, found that news frames followed closely the activists' own frames of interpretation, although certain themes were amplified and others attenuated. The meshing of frames enabled a construction of the female foeticide issue that was favorable to the campaign, but it also created important absences that could stem the radical potential of the women's movement.

The urban women's movement in India has been successful in publicizing various women's issues through the press, including dowry related murders, rape, and selective abortion of female foetuses (Balasubrahmanyan, 1988; Joseph & Sharma, 1994). Because of the efforts of women's groups in alliance with other progressive groups, the coverage of women's issues in the Indian press steadily increased during the 1980s (UNESCO, 1989; Joseph & Sharma, 1994). Although there have been studies documenting the quantity and quality of this coverage (Joseph & Sharma, 1994; Balasubrahmanyan, 1988), this study goes into greater depth by analyzing both the press coverage and activists' own framing of the female foeticide issue, interrogating the ways in which these relate to each other, and the limitations each present in terms of the radical potential of the women's movement in India. Activist interpretation of female foeticide is placed within the larger context of the contradictory relationship between the Indian women's movement and the mass of ordinary Indian women, and the ways in which this contradictory relationship informs news coverage of the issue are explored. Feminists have begun to look seriously at issues of representation of women within the Indian women's movement, including the difficulties and contradictions involved in the process of representation (Narayan, 1997; Sunder Rajan, 1993). This study focuses on coverage of the female foeticide issue to gain further insight into this process of representation.

Although the Indian press has been amenable to publishing stories on women's issues, it has often chosen to concentrate on the sensational and political aspects of the issues rather than the larger implications in terms of gender (Joseph & Sharma, 1994). In this way, the Indian press has participated in the "symbolic annihilation" (Tuchman, 1979) of women and of a gender perspective (Women's Feature Service, 1992) as have the mainstream media from the U.S. (Rakow and Kranich, 1991), Tanzania (Gallagher, 1981), Kenya (Steeves, 1997; Worthington, 1995), Sri Lanka and the Philippines (UNESCO 1989), among many other countries. Even so, the Indian English press has been an important instrument in bringing the issues of the urban Indian women's movement into the public discourse, and in influencing legislation on women's issues. It is therefore important to look at the relationship between the press and the women's movement in India.

In particular, this article focuses on the English Indian press coverage of the campaign in the state of Maharashtra to ban the use of sex determination tests for the purpose of detecting the sex of the foetus (which is coupled with the selective abortion of female foetuses termed "female foeticide" by women's movement activists). The various issues surrounding the campaign have been analyzed in depth by Patel (1989b), Shukla, Kulkarni, and Patel (1987), Parikh (1990), and Luthra (1993, 1994). Community-based studies of sex determination and sex selective abortion in the context of an urbanizing village have provided insights into the economic, social and cultural dynamics underpinning the practice (Khanna, 1997; Khanna, 1995). This article focuses on a different facet by looking specifically at the press coverage of the campaign, and relating this to activists' own interpretations of the issue.

The campaign against sex determination and sex preselection was waged by women's groups in alliance with people's science groups, and progressive doctors, lawyers and journalists. …