In India’s embattled news media, women are fighting to be heard

Not many outsiders come to Belarhi, a remote agricultural village in northern India. Yet during reporting trips there for the recently published series India’s Daughters, New York Times journalists were always shown great hospitality.

On our first trip to the village in March 2022, my colleague Shalini Venugopal Bhagat and I arrived to find Arti Kumari, one of the lead subjects of our series, and her family fully assembled. Her mother, Meena, had taken the day off work to greet us. Arti and her sister, Shanti, sent away the elementary-school-age children they usually tutored in math and Hindi. Their father, Anil, a farmer, left the fields early. The walls of their home were freshly painted. Rangoli — ornamental chalk drawings — adorned the clean-swept floors. A delicious feast simmered on the open stove.

My colleagues and I began India’s Daughters with a question: Why were Indian women leaving the work force?

Our first reporting obstacle was access. Not all women in India can freely speak to journalists, as I found in my four years there. If I went somewhere with a male photographer or reporter, his presence alone could make an interview impossible.

Women I tried to speak to were often swarmed by relatives, elders or concerned bystanders, who insisted upon chaperoning and interpreting or even speaking for them. It was impossible to get women to speak openly in this environment. Men in the communities we visited would not allow it.

In addition, foreigners are viewed warily in some areas, an attitude that has become more common under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many in his party have a “conspiratorial mind-set,” as the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has put it, that views criticism from outside the country as an attempt to hamper India’s ascension on the world stage.

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