If you want to understand what is meant by "trial by media", read the Mumbai newspapers of the last week in July.

The first instance is the way the media handled the tragic suicide by the former "Miss India" Nafisa Joseph. Here was a young woman who seemed to have everything going for her. She had beauty, a good job, money and she was about to get married. Yet just over a week before that she killed herself because her marriage plans fell through. It is a sad story, as are all tales of young successful people taking such an extreme step.

But what is even more distressing is the way the media has handled this event. The family were not allowed to mourn in peace, microphones were thrust into the faces of close friends, cameras flashed as they made their way to the funeral. As if that was not enough, the press indulged in all kinds of speculation about the man Nafisa was to marry. He was "hiding", said the media. Just because a man, devastated by what had happened, chose not to parade himself in front of TV cameras, the media decided he was "hiding". Is any of this reasonable, or even sane ? Needless to say, the same media has little interest in other suicides because they do not involve a celebrity.

The other story that has taken many news columns is the story about the aspiring young actress who accused a well-known recently married director of raping her. Subsequently, she withdrew the rape charge but went public with accusations of false promises in return for sexual favours made by this man. No sooner had she done this, than she became the accused. Several men revealed how she had used a similar charge against them. The woman fought back and defended herself. But in the process, although she got her picture in the newspapers and on TV channels, she has ensured that she will not be approached for a role in a film by any successful director. At the same time, not only is her reputation in tatters but once again, the issue of false rape charges has overtaken the reality of rape in this country. And the men come out smelling of roses, the poor victims of manipulative, scheming women.

One false case does not represent the full picture. Far from it. For every case of rape that is reported in this country, only a small percentage is registered and pursued as cases. There are even fewer convictions. For every incident of rape reported, there are thousands that go unreported. Yet, based on this one recent case, a well-known criminal lawyer in Mumbai is quoted as saying that every rape complainant should be put through a lie detector test. "Are femi-fundamentalists ready for this?" he asked. Is one such event reason enough to dismiss every rape charge as suspect? In which world are these men living?

Here is a horror story of the real world that millions of urban women in this country encounter. And this is from Kerala, sold to everyone as "God's Own Country". All I can say after reading such stories is that the "god" referred to in that catch phrase must have been a man.

A recent article on the website www.countercurrents.org by Sreedevi Jacob was forwarded to me. It narrated the experiences of six women reporters from the Malayalam Manorama newspaper who were sent out to test how safe it is for women to travel alone in that State. The reports following their experience led to an uproar in Kerala. Much of this went unreported in the rest of the country. But it is important to know this because it provides a perspective on the reality of women's lives that gets obfuscated by the media frenzy over celebrity deeds and misdeeds.

The articles, written on the basis of the experience of these reporters, were prompted by Kerala Chief Minister A. K. Antony's admission that in the three years that he had held power, 326 women had committed suicide, 20 sex rackets had been unearthed and 185 women had been kidnapped. These statistics clearly do not tell the full story but are indicative of the problem.

The six reporters — K.R. Meera, M. Vineetha Gopi, Rani George, Subha Joseph, Neetha Mary James and Gayathri Muralidharan — travelled separately in different parts of the State. Some of their experiences are hair-raising. Here is one quote from the article as reported by Sreedevi Jacob:

"On January 14, as soon as she boarded the general compartment of the Chennai Mail at 3.30 p.m. from Kollam (about 70 km from the State capital Thiruvananthapuram), the reporter became the centre of attention. She was the only woman in the compartment and hands began reaching out to her from all directions. While she held on to a seat to balance herself, the passenger seated there decided to push himself back and rest his head on her hands. Those passing by made it a point to finger her, en route. Sensing danger, hurriedly she moved towards the door. But the ordeal was not over. A man was sitting near the door, extending his legs casually across it, in such a manner that she had to cross over them to reach the door. On her request, he moved one leg and as soon as she moved forward, he kept the other leg intact, restraining her between his legs. The reporter requested several times and tried to push his leg with her bag, but bore no result. She was almost in tears when she could finally move out."

The article contains more details about this important investigation carried out by the six women. And it is essential reading for those who get swayed by media reports that suggest that stories about sexual harassment or violence against women are exaggerations. It also demonstrates what the media can do to give the true picture instead of distorting reality by focussing on one unrepresentative event like the recent one in Mumbai.

Men's mindset needs to change in this country before we can hope for a real change in the status of women.
The Kerala story also underlines that women's oppression will not end only with economic progress, (look at the crime statistics in any Western country), or with education (take the example of Kerala). The problem lies in a deeply disrespectful, even contemptuous, attitude towards women. Nothing matters. For example, she might succeed in sport but the picture that will make it to page one will be one of her inadvertently showing her cleavage (Wimbledon Champion Maria Sharapova's latest picture on some front pages).

This point has been reiterated several times in this column. That it is men's mindset that needs to change in this country before we can hope for a real change in the status of women. The Kerala survey merely illustrates this.