Women journalists in India’s hinterlands want to share their traumatic #Metoo stories but the many obstructions in demanding justice make it impossible to do so.
Google Trends is a handy data guide that helps people know about what is the current hot topic in your region or the world. What people could not have predicted is how it would show the reach of the #Metoo movement in India.
Watching the Me Too Rising, a Google Trends data visualisation tool created this April is a conundrum. India shines the brightest in the world with the reach of #Metoo. But should we be happy that the whole country is talking about it, sharing their stories of violations or be sad that women’s rights have been trampled upon unanimously in every corner of the country?
“The platform lights up the locations on a world map where the term “Me Too” is being searched for most frequently. The map doesn’t measure the total number of searches. Instead, it considers the number of times “Me Too” is locally searched compared to other phrases,” explained Quartz.
What it does do is shut up the critics of the movement. Many had dismissed the movement as an urban and elite gathering of well-heeled and educated women. The “top searching” cities and towns were relatively small compared to the mega-metropolises. early in the morning on Oct. 16, they top searchers were Goa’s Chicalim, Maharashtra’s Bhusawal, Punjab’s Zirakpur, and Chhattisgarh’s Bhanwreli and Rajnandgaon.
#Metoo has reached many smaller towns and cities. It is not an isolated event happening in the hubris of major cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru.
What is different though is asserting the call for justice. While women in the cities have accused their abusers in open on social media, they have had support and do not fear retribution in the form of job loss. They are ready to fight that too as resources are available to them.
Regional media continues to struggle with sexual harassment at the workplace with caste and class coming to the fore and many other obstructions in empowering women to take on their harassers. Women journalists too have their share of trauma to share, which often times is much worse in a more rigid patriarchal structure.
New Indian Express spoke to law student Raya Sarkar, among the first women who began the #Metoo movement in India. She had published a crowd-sourced list naming alleged sexual harassers from the academic circle which came to be known as LoSHA. The movement had begun last year in October.
She hoped that the current movement could include Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women in it. “Till now, the #MeToo movement in the country has been an urban phenomenon. Professionals who have been outed are mostly from English media houses, advertising companies, national NGOs and other bodies. Sarkar said, “I think it has potential to spread to regional spaces but frameworks do not exist to support and protect survivors there. Exposing a predator is more difficult when one does not have resources, aid or support systems to help and protect them in the aftermath,” she said.
She added that many feminists in India had denounced her move then but supported the current #metoo list. She attributed the invisibility and not being considered reliable to not being a “Bhramin Heterosexual.”
“Speaking to Express, Sarkar said, “Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) women have the least access to justice and often face intense hostility from the Savarna community when they attempt to take due process measures or expose predators. The movement does not represent DBA women yet. I hope as a community we can build more resources and support for the most vulnerable and marginalized. Any campaign should not treat the most vulnerable as just an afterthought.”
Tamil film star Siddharth spoke about how caste lines were obstructing women from opening up about their trauma in Tamil Nadu.
“Only in #TamilNadu #MeToo is being derailed with vicious lies about #caste. Dear dirty lying snakes, stop looking at the caste of the accuser or accused. Women from all castes are affected. Men from all castes are involved. This is #Survivor vs #Abuser. Puriyala? Vekka kedu!” he said.
“Unlike their national media counterparts, many women journalists at vernacular media houses in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala said they cannot even speak out about workplace harassment, let alone file formal complaints. In fact, barely any of these organisations has an internal complaints committee. Where it exists, it generally does not function,” wrote S Senthalir in Scroll.
“In South India, few women work in regional news organisations and fewer still in the print media. This makes it difficult for them to speak out. “They can’t afford to outrage,” said Kavitha Muralidharan, an independent journalist. “The moment a woman raises a complaint, she is branded a troublemaker.” They often do not even know what to do if they are sexually harassed by their “colleagues or seniors or while they are at work”, Muralidharan said, adding. “No training is given to them about what to do. There is a lack of awareness among young journalists,” he wrote.
He added, “In the Kannada media, many women are from rural and underprivileged backgrounds. This is partly why even senior journalists do not speak out against harassment, said DS Shamantha, president of the Sarathi Resource Centre for Community, which runs community radio stations in several parts of rural Karnataka. “In such circumstances, we cannot expect mid-level and junior women journalists to come forward to raise the issues,” she said.”
“In Andhra Pradesh, there are just two women reporters across 25 regional news organisations, said C Vanaja, an independent journalist and member of the Network for Women in Media. “The top three newspapers have internal complaints committees but there’s no system in place in other organisations for women to approach,” she added. “In most cases, women just leave their jobs when they are sexually harassed,” he wrote.
“It is not much different in the Malayalam media, said KK Shahina, associate editor with the Open magazine. Young women journalists are reluctant to talk about harassment for fear of being discriminated against and targeted. “The options for women working in regional media are limited,” she said. “Though women face sexual harassment at workplace, not many come out in Kerala. The state government has set up a panel to look into the problems of working women journalists,” he wrote.
Khabar Lahariya, a rural media organization has a network of all-women reports in up to eight districts of Uttar Pradesh. It had come out with its own share of #Metoo stories in 2014 through the magazine Zile ki Hulchul, published by the Women Media and News Trust. It had interviews of small town and rural women reporters.
Here’s what they wrote:
We know that this is risky business, speaking from the shadows, from the grave even. We’re not here, really. We’re not meant to be.
Yet, when the world outside is aflame, then how can we stay silent?
We want to add our stories of violence by you – our peers in journalism, our colleagues, bosses and rivals – to the stories that are proliferating, and ask you how things can change for us. With no laws or committees, no forums online or offline, no networks of power, and not even the beginnings of credibility when we begin to speak, will you admit to your wrongs? Or will you say, as you always have, that we shouldn’t be here in the first place, so why complain about it? The way you said on Facebook, ‘The next thing you know, Sunny Leone is going to say she was assaulted too.’
Will the thousands of brave women who have shared their stories amplify our quieter stories of everyday harassment too – so that you realize this will not be tolerated any more?
I trusted you, despite the rumours that flew wildly when we were seen together on your bike, when our selfies reached Facebook. But it became too much. The case of sexual assault I was able to file, miraculously, got you in jail for a brief period of time, but it has ruined my career. I have no colleagues, friends, family who stand by me. You are untarnished, and I have nothing. I am a Whatsapp joke to you now, you brag about the case I filed against you. People, including women in my profession, only say I got what was coming.
Our stories come from Aligarh, Mahoba, Banda, Chitrakoot, Guna, Meerut, Udaipur, Bhilwara, Samastipur, Rewa – no small town with a woman journalist lacks for these stories of battling sleaze and abuse, every single day. We have been told, again and again, until it rings in our heads, in our offices, outside the district headquarters, outside the police station, inside the police station: Why don’t you go into the beauty parlour business? Start a kirana store?Can’t you get a job as a teacher or nurse? Do you think you’re going to become a Collector? It’s not good for a woman like you to be roaming around all day in the hot sun. You should take care of how you look. Wear a bindi, and a sari. No sindoor? Oops, did we send you a ‘blue film’ by accident? Didn’t know there was a woman on this media group. Sorry madam, galti se chala gaya hoga.
The echoes of your taunts and laughter, your complicity with/in the system that wants us there, sharing space, sharing power, as little as you do – have forced us into shame, doubt and despair – even death.
There was a girl I knew… She was selected in [a major national daily]. Her in-charge was in Agra. Now I don’t know what her connection to Agra was, nor what their relationship was, but the in-charge was fired. The girl was kept on, but she was so stressed, I don’t know why, that she left and joined [another major Hindi daily]. This rumour flew around that the in-charge had misbehaved – aise dekh liya tha, vaise dekh liya tha (seen in her compromising positions). Her new in-charge then treated her so badly (itna shoshan kiya) that she became mentally disturbed. She was from Hathras, that girl.
Power works differently in our mohallas and galis and chaurahas. We live tightly bound to community structures – you are often our distant relatives, neighbours, watchdogs with deep interests in keeping us bound. Upper caste men aren’t too keen on watching girls from their community running around reporting. They like to keep them in check, like they can do with their daughters-in-law and their wives. Yet, despite the close distances, and with little knowledge of other women in other places, or the power of a hashtag, we have spoken and acted, using our voice and the broken tools of the law. It matters to us to speak, otherwise, why would we be breaking all barriers to do what we do? If we don’t call you out, you representatives of the fourth estate, then how will we call out any other wrongful use of power?
You stalked us, on the phone, on the streets of our own towns, driving close or stopping right in front of us, saying, with the lewdness dripping off your safas, ‘Come, let’s do some journalism together’. You’d rub up against us, in court, or at the site where a crime is being covered up, and slip notes into our hands, provoke, tease, humiliate us about not knowing how the game is played. You refused to comment on our best stories, claiming that it would set off rumours in the office of unprofessional behaviour.
You didn’t seem to think about unprofessional behaviour nor community mores when you were Whatsapp-ing us at midnight and commenting on our profile pictures and urging us to agree to rendezvous, which you wouldn’t entertain for your good wives and daughters. We filed complaints, were forced out of online spaces where we had just about made an entry, and for our efforts, got retaliatory FIRs from you, prohibitive fines, and permanent labels – the whore who dared to speak.
In the state capital, I went to the HR department in my newspaper’s office with my appointment letter. The person at the newspaper office told me to take a room in a hotel for the night and stay back and that he would come there and speak to me. When I flatly refused he told me, ‘Suno Madam, patrakaarita karna hai na to sab kuchh karna padega, hotel bhi jaana padega aur wahaan uthna baithna bhi padega (Listen, madam, if you want to work in journalism, you will have to do everything, you will have to go to hotels and do whatever is expected there too).’ I got very angry and tore up the appointment letter there and then and threw it at his face. I knew I had no access to the owner and his contemporaries would never stand up to him. In an office rarely do people like this stand up against one another. How long would I have fought with him given I was in another city?
We feel relief that there is a platform and a movement that promises to expose the abuse that keeps us tied down, under the control of a powerful structure. But there is a dark place in our minds where this relief refuses to reach – those of us who continue to fight, or those who have been defeated. The memory of a friend and colleague, a single woman trying to make it in the world of small-town journalism, and who was pushed into despair and a lonely death, only earlier this year, with no resonating cries off or online.
At the end of the day, our struggles are of lone women operating with few avenues to reach out, with little or no support structure to fall back on, at home or in the world. Whatever defense mechanisms we have, come from our own instincts, dressing down our personalities, keeping multiple SIM cards, or leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, creating our own informal networks for help when we’re in danger.
We’re saying #metoo, but we fear it isn’t enough to jolt you out of your comfortable place of power and entitlement or to provide us scaffolding when we are jolted out of the place we have created for ourselves.
Excerpted from Zile ki Hulchul (2014.)