ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Going Beyond Harassment

Women Journalists in Uttar Pradesh

The police may have arrested the man who harassed journalists of Khabar Lahariya for over three months but that is only half the battle won. In this article, the journalists share the everyday challenges in a deeply misogynist and casteist society. It is easier to crack one case than to combat the widely-held bias against them as reporters, who happen to be women. 

In September 2015, the police arrested the man who harassed five members of the Khabar Lahariya (KL) team over phone for the last nine months. This incident was by no means an isolated case, either in our work or that of other women journalists like us. Whether we are reporting, travelling or asking questions to those in authority, facing harassment is an everyday reality for us.

Who Says We Are Reporters?

The women journalists of KL have been lauded, awarded and written about ad nauseam over the years. Yes, we report, write, produce and distribute our own newspaper. But in the patriarchal and casteist society in which we live and work, are we really seen as reporters? On the contrary we are seen primarily as women, who, it is assumed, lack the requisite skills and qualifications to be a journalist.

For instance, when we cover crime stories we are often told by everyone, from our journalist colleagues to the administration, that women should not be chasing dacoits through the forest; that it is not our area of expertise.

In 2012, when the notorious dacoit Balkhadiya’s gang was at large, the police would often launch search parties into the local forests. Balkhadiya’s gang had terrorised a village in the remote, hilly region of Fatehganj. In one particular incident, the gang beat up some villagers, and broke a police memorial in this area.

We travelled 6 km by foot to reach this village in order to report on it. The local male journalists and the police were already there. When they saw us they asked, “How have you come alone so far? You should have left word at the Banda police station. What if something were to happen to you?” We were made to feel extremely out of place and intimidated by them.

It was not surprising to hear this. What was deeply offensive was the fact that we often came this far by ourselves, to report on issues not considered worthwhile by any of the male reporters.

We were told that the police were going to comb the forests and hills around the area looking for Balkhadiya’s gang. We were preparing to follow the police, when they turned around and said, “It seems like you have no weapons. What will happen if there is an encounter? How will you defend yourselves?” The question seemed to preclude the male journalists who were shadowing the police. After having said this, the police did not allow us to accompany the group.  

Cornered as Dalit Women

During the 2014 general elections, Shivdevi, one of our reporters, was distributing our newspaper in Pailani village in Banda. There, she encountered a group of Brahmin men who asked her, as a Dalit, who she was going to vote for. It would not bode well for her and other Dalits if Mayawati came to power, they said. They also warned her not to step into that village again.

When she refused to tell them who she was supporting, they said that they would not let her leave the village. All drivers of transport out of Pailani were instructed not to give the KL reporter a seat. Shivdevi was terrified; her heart was in her mouth. Without a word, she began walking out of the village. She walked 10 km until she found an auto that was willing to give her a ride home.

People threatened or offended by KL’s Dalit reporters writing or distributing stories have chased us out of villages with their pistols. That has not affected us adversely. But in 13 years, what has affected us is the abysmal level of awareness around women’s presence and ability to work as journalists in small towns.

Finding Common Cause

In 2013, we did a study on the presence and experiences of other women reporting from a few districts of North India. The findings were similar to what we have been facing in the field. Despite working for long years as reporters covering all beats possible, they were still seen first as women, and that identity could not be separated from their identity as journalists. One reporter from a district in Uttar Pradesh (UP) echoed our sentiments when she described her challenges in approaching male members of government departments.

If I go and see any official, I am first seen as a woman. I feel this when I go—I see other journalists hanging around, chatting with them. If I told an official I wanted to speak to him in private, he’d get scared—and refuse! This has happened with me. So I say, why are you looking at me as a woman? I’m a reporter—why can’t you see me as that? I’m neither a man nor a woman. If I can look you in the eye, why can’t you? If I need to speak to them about a story, is it necessary to have to do that in front of other reporters? But when they refuse, they make you feel like a woman, you begin to feel guilty for asking. If you ask for their number, they’ll say, no, no, don’t call me at home—what if my wife picks up? Now, if your conscience is clear, why should you be worried if anyone calls you anywhere? I’m Shehnaz, the editor of a weekly paper. But no, when I enter the gate—they look at you as a woman, and think, how is she looking, she’s dressed up well today. However I present myself, I will always be seen as a woman and nothing else. 

We are often told by the police and administration to stick to writing about “women’s issues.” This shows that even if you are the most prolific journalist writing on rural Bundelkhand, at the end of the day you will always be a woman. Your identity as a reporter will always be secondary to that.

The Nishu Case

This is the context in which we work, and in which a recent case of harassment that caught the media’s attention needs to be located. From January 2015, a man named Nishu called five members of the KL team incessantly, over a three-month period.

The story began on a cold afternoon in the beginning of January, when Nishu called while we were sending our newspaper to press. He asked to be given the phone number of one of our colleagues. When we refused, he said he would harass each member of the team till he got it.

The way in which he harassed and traumatised each of the five of us varied; what did not, was the fact that he knew a lot about our lives, our movements and our work. He would send us sexually explicit messages when we would not answer his call. He would threaten to have us abducted, killed and raped. The calls became so pervasive that we could barely work, think or sleep. They came at all hours of the day or night, wherever we were. When we showed anger, he began getting our SIM cards locked, not once, but over and over again. Not just ours, but our partners’ too.

We called the much-publicised 1090 Women’s Helpline a few times, but received no indication that they were dealing with the case. The calls never stopped. The harassment and feeling of being watched had put us into a state of paralysis, and also despair. We complained to the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police (Banda), who spoke to Nishu on the phone, and promised that the offender would be caught in 24 hours. When nothing happened, we filed first information reports (FIRs) in Chitrakoot and Banda towards the end of January.

The process of filing complaints entailed repetitive performances in the presence of the full Banda police force about the phone harassment—what Nishu said, how he said it. The police also asked why we allowed it to upset our lives in this way, why we did not change our numbers, switch off our phones or let male family members deal with the caller.  After many rounds of taunts and jeers, the police finally recorded charges under sections 506, 507 and 66A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The calls did not stop after the FIRs were lodged. He began harassing even a few members of the women’s group whose help we had sought. When the case was taken up by the Crime Branch in Banda, we were called yet again to provide testimony, since the investigating officer claimed the FIR was “weak” and would not stand in court.

For the first time, we lost patience with the police and their ceaseless interest in our personal lives. We refused to repeat the abuses and forms of harassment we had suffered, until the case reached court. The calls stopped shortly after this, but there was no indication that the investigation was on, or that this man would ever be caught. The police claimed he was untraceable.      

Sensitivity—What is that? 

We wrote about our harassment, and the subsequent inaction and insensitivity of the police for an e-zine called The Ladies Finger. The story was widely circulated online, and social media pressure caused the UP government and police to act at record speed. They had the accused in judicial custody in two days.

That action could happen so swiftly in one case provokes not only appreciation, but also cynicism. This is not our case alone, it happens to thousands of women in UP every day. The same patriarchal systems of power in which these incidents occur are quick to claim credit for their commitment to security and protection of women from violence. Will the action taken in this case mean that women complainants of harassment or violence can expect similar “sensitivity” in the future?

Our cynicism comes from long years of fighting and engaging with a deeply embedded resistance to seeing women in the public domain. As women reporters in rural UP, our class, caste and gender identities accompany us into every village, police station and government department. The harassment we face on a daily basis, and which caught public attention in this case, is in great part due to the lack of recognition and respect for reporters inhabiting these identities. It is easier, no doubt, to crack one case, than to combat the widely-held notion that we are women first and always will be, before we can be seen and engaged with as reporters.

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