Sunday, September 27, 2015
From instruments of abuse
The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Sept 27, 2015
They waited nine months. Filed two FIRs and one complaint. But the police were deaf to their appeals. No response; no action. Suddenly, everything changed. Within two days, the problem was solved.
The lack of response is a familiar story yet there is a difference. The protagonists in this story are a remarkable group of Dalit and Adivasi women journalists in U.P. They publish a weekly paper, Khabar Lahariya, in five local languages — Bundeli, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Hindustani and Bajjika. In a part of India where the sex ratio is hopelessly skewed, where women confront a daily dose of violence and abuse, where female literacy clings stubbornly to levels well below the national average, where poverty and absence of opportunities breeds its special brand of despair, these women are breaking every norm. And also setting high journalistic standards by doing what reporters are supposed to do — doggedly follow even difficult stories.
Their organisation provides no transport; instead they walk, cycle, hitch rides to places where they personally want to investigate a story. It would be much easier to call, an established norm these days. But these women journalists of Khabar Lahariya stubbornly stick to the old-fashioned way of reporting — burning shoe leather. And the difference is evident in the accuracy and quality of their reports from the rural hinterland.
For their labours, they have received recognition. From a paper that was viewed only as a “woman’s” paper, Khabar Lahariya is now seen as a genuine rural paper. It covers all kinds of news including political developments. In fact, as I wrote in an earlier column (The Hindu, March 23, 2008: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/article1437139.ece), mainstream journalists are now turning to these women for details, and even using their material without crediting them.
But the unsavoury side of recognition is abuse. For nine months, one man has been stalking and abusing some of these women on the phone. He used dozens of different sim cards to call and harass different women. He would tell them things like, “Talk dirty to me else I’ll have you kidnapped and raped, many times over. Wherever you hide, I’ll find you. You and everyone in your team.” Despite complaints, the calls did not stop. He called at all hours of the day and night to the point that some of them were terrified every time their phones rang.
The women registered their complaints and gave the cell numbers from which the calls emanated to the police and to the phone provider. Yet nothing happened.
The nightmare ended only when another form of technology kicked in, that of social media. The Ladies Finger, a web-based portal, ran their story. (http://theladiesfinger.com/the-policeman-said-why-dont-you-tell-me-what-gaalis-he-whispers-in-your-ear/). It went “viral”. It was posted on Facebook and Twitter. It reached the ears of the U.P. Chief Minister. And all of a sudden the local police woke up and arrested the man. Without this kind of pressure, nothing would have happened.
But as Shalini, one of the coordinators told the press, “Ironically, for journalists who report on gender issues, the very process of filing complaints and visiting several police stations for repeated recording of statements turned out to be a form of harassment in itself.”
We now have to wait and watch under what provisions of the law this despicable and unrepentant man, who calls himself Nishu, is charged. But the entire sequence of events has thrown light on many aspects of the challenges before women who are doing something different.
At least, the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya are known and have connections beyond the villages from where they report. But think of thousands of young women who want to break out, who make tentative attempts to do something different with their lives. When local police ignore even women like the Khabar Lahariya journalists, what hope is there for any other woman who faces similar harassment?
Then also consider the double-edged sword that is technology. On the one hand, the mobile phone has been an instrument of tremendous empowerment, including for women. It has given millions of people a means of communication that just did not exist for them. But on the other, it is also the source of harassment.
That also goes for social media. In this and other instances, it has been successfully used to put pressure on the authorities to act. But we also know of the increasing harassment that women writers, social activists and others face through this very channel. Any criticism of those in power is met with an avalanche of abuse and threats. The abusers use fake identities to evade detection. Few of them are caught or punished.
So even as we inch forward — and certainly the very existence of something like Khabar Lahariya represents progress — we are pushed back because a woman’s right to her space, her right to choose, her right to be explore the unknown, is simply not accepted.