(This story was first published on 8 March 2020. It has been republished from The Quint's archives to mark International Women's Day.)
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Sexual harassment is an everyday reality for most Indian women.‘He tried to hit on my chest'. ‘He followed me daily’. ‘His stare made me really uncomfortable’. ‘Their comments made me feel humiliated’. Women from all facets of life face it – in home, at workplace, public transports and the worst affected are the women from lower strata of society, house helps, labourers, women at shelter homes. But isn’t it time that we change this ‘normal’ ? Because it isn’t.
The Quint got in touch with women from different walks of life who shared stories of sexual harassment they have faced. These stories highlight instances which are very common, harassment that women have to live with everyday. But that’s not it. These women spoke about how they retaliated, they gave it back to the harasser, let him know that he is making her feel uncomfortable, spoke out, shouted!
Staring, cat-calling, stalking, eve-teasing, any kind of sexual misconduct is not okay and that’s why it is very important for women to retaliate and call out.
Sanuara is a house-help, primary works include cleaning and washing clothes and utensils. She started working at the age of 15. Sanuara has been harassed multiple times by the men in the houses she works. Sometimes she retaliated and sometimes she just simply left the job but one thing she has always done is to let the harasser know that he has done wrong to her.
“How many times will I have to leave work because of these men? They try to touch and make me feel so unsafe. What about my livelihood? This is the only way I can earn and survive and these men make it so difficult to work.”Sanuara, 24, House-help
37-year-old Vineeta is an entrepreneur and like all the other women, she also had many instances to share. The one that has left a long-lasting trauma is when she was in high-school, someone used to call at the landline and just say that ‘Vineeta will be kidnapped’. The calls stopped after her family complained to the police but phone ringtone still scares Vineeta. But she is feisty when it comes to dealing with men who misbehave. She recalls the incident when a passerby tried to hit on her chest.
“He stared at me after doing this and I drove courage from that. I knew that I should not ignore. I asked the rickshaw wala to turn around the rickshaw. With all my strength, I pushed him and he fell in the puddle.”Vineeta, 37, Entrepreneur
Vineeta says that she always calls out and makes noise whenever someone misbehaves with her and in her experience, public has always helped her. But privilege is such a thing that this ‘public’ doesn’t come out to help every woman. Take for example Sanuara’s case, she told us about the incidents when she has shouted and asked public for help and no one supported her.
“A man was leaning on me while I was buying vegetables, I asked him to move away and shouted at him. From the vendor to my husband, everyone scolded me for making a scene. They asked me to let it go as it’s normal. No one comes to help and want us women to let it go. It’s because all these men are the same.”Sanuara, 24, House-help
Priyanka is a working professional who was harassed by two male coworkers who made her work life really difficult. It started with deleting her mails about the work she assigned to these men and graduated to these two men speaking behind her back to other colleagues and her immediate boss.
“They would say things like, she has certain type of character and stay away from her, she is very easy. Whenever I used to pass by and they know that there is no one around.They would pass some comments and they would make noises. All this felt really humiliating and the working environment became really hostile.”Priyanka, professional
When she complained, Priyanka found out that the ICC in her organisation isn’t working. The members are no longer in the organisation. Leaving behind the whole fiasco was an easy choice for Priyanka but she made it a point to complain further, get an ICC reinstated and not let these two men go scot-free. The ICC was made after her constant complaints but the fight was far from won.
“All of them were looking at me like I am the culprit. ‘Oho! why did you complain? You look like a girl from a decent house, why don’t you start meditating? Why don’t you prove that these men have done these things with you?’”Priyanka, professional
She wrote back to the department again and kept pressurising them. Finally, an investigation was conducted and those two men were asked to leave and Priyanka joined back on her own terms.
Rubina, 52, housewife says that most women get scared and don’t have the courage to slap. But we, women have to wear a brave face everyday and retaliate and fight back.
“I have been followed by a boy for month, cat-called when I was with my daughters, touched by shopkeepers, hit by passerby. Sometimes I have been too scared to say anything but most times I have fought back, especially to teach my daughters.”Rubina, 52, Homemaker
28-year-old, Surabhi Diwan, who is a lawyer by profession tells us that she has become more scared and a lot aware of the surroundings now.
“When I recall my college days, I was a very strong person as compared to what I am now. I have become so conscious and extra alert when I am out of the house. I have a problem with such things being normal because these incidents have a long lasting traumatic impact on a woman’s mind.”Surabhi Diwan, 28, Lawyer
While sitting in a cloakroom of a railway station, Surabhi asked a man to not stare at her because he was making her uncomfortable. In return the man started shouting at her saying that she isn’t beautiful enough that he will stare at her. There was a ruckus around, some men intervened and asked the man to leave. Before leaving he told Surabhi that it’s because of women like her that rapes have increased.
There is no surprise that these women had numerous instances of sexual harassment to share and this in itself speak volumes. We have to address sexual harassment otherwise the safety and welfare of Indian women will continue to be compromised.