Sonika Mallik, 19, remembers the agonising moments clearly, as if they happened yesterday. She had approached the owner of a garment shop in Rohtak for a job. After some small talk, the man offered her a gift: “Kuchch bhi sari pehno, kuch bhi scent lagao (you pick any sari you wish and put any perfume)”. When she looked at the price tags, her eyes almost popped out. “Some of those saris were Rs 30,000 to 40,000 each. And I was wondering why will anyone give away such an expensive garment even before giving me a job,” she says. She had her answer the moment she asked about her job description; what was she supposed to do. “Bas hamein khush rakho,” (just keep me happy) the middle-aged man said, reaching out to touch her inappropriately. Sonika recalls running out of the shop, scared and humiliated. A few months later, she is battling depression as she has not been able to find a job.
Sonika’s ordeal will be among countless similar tales of sexual harassment in small-town India, which still awaits its #MeToo movement that will give women in places, say Rohtak, the courage and voice to speak out against their harassers. For women in Haryana, the #MeToo campaign raging on social media in metropolises is a beacon of hope in a state steeped in stifling patriarchal moorings. It’s a state where female foeticide is rampant and girls are killed in the name of “family honour”. It’s a state where the sex ratio is so skewed that men have to look for brides in other states. It’s a state where police data shows high—and growing—incidence of crime against women; and where khap panchayats continue to pass diktats barring girls from wearing jeans and carrying mobile phones.
Despite recent efforts by the Union and state governments, women continue to face horrific abuse in their homes and at the workplace. For every champion women Haryana has produced, such as Geeta Phogat and Bobeeta Phogat, it has an equal share of horror stories like that of Sonika’s. And Ramkali Jangra. And many others.
Ramkali, 54—married off when she was just 13—had to look for a job as her husband was an alcoholic and had five children to feed. “I had no option but work,” she says, recalling the beginning of her ordeals many years ago. But she was soon to find out that working in factories also meant constantly fending off attempts of sexual harassment at the workplace. “None of my jobs lasted more than 15 days as I refused to give in to the men in factories,” she says. She abandoned her husband and returned to her parents in Panipat, about 75km from Rohtak. But she was in for a shock as her parents blamed her for the problems. “They asked how are the other women working without any problem?” she says. Women have to compromise, more so in the private sector because there is no job security in the unorganised sectors. “The day you raise your voice against an injustice or anybody touching you inappropriately, you know it is going to be your last day at work.” Ramkali survived to tell her tale, raising her children with odd jobs till they grew up. She is now a social worker in Rohtak and helps women in distress.
Sonika Mallik, 19, says a shop-owner told her she only has to keep him “happy” to get a job in his showroom.
Sonika, fair and petite with sharp features is, however, not sure how long she can continue without a job. “I was married thrice and to men who were much older. One of my fathers-in-law tried to molest me and sent men to my room. I ran away every time. But now, looking for a job is like heading for another hell,” says Sonika from Ghandra village near Rohtak. Her voice quivers as her anger bursts forth—“women are not treated like human beings in our society, they are treated more like commodities without rights or privileges”.
At first glance, Rohtak looks like any of the growing cities in India. A concrete jungle with all the trappings of urbanity—sleek cars on roads and dazzling malls crowded with evening shoppers. It presents the progressive image of working women returning home and young girls riding scooties. But such images mask the deep-rooted misogyny and patriarchy running through the state, especially across its khap-dictated rural belts.
A report tabled in the state assembly recently reprises the distressing rise in crime against women. Since 2014-15, Haryana recorded a 47 per cent increase in the number of rapes and 26 per cent rise in the number of molestation cases. Kidnappings rose by a staggering 100 per cent during the same period.
The report doesn’t mention the harassment that young girls experience just about everywhere, even on the campus of Maharshi Dayanand University. Students say its scary after darkness as hooligans in cars move in, stalking and shouting lewd remarks at the girls. “When we complain about them to a security officer, he says, ‘Why does this always happen with you?’ At times, he says, ‘What do we do, gouge their eyes out? Go, go to your hostel’, without even caring to stub his beedi while talking to me,” says law student Kiran, who gave only her first name.
The students spoke in the favour of naming and shaming the harassers but were not sure if a #MeToo will start soon in the state. They are afraid that the men could react violently.
Monica (left) and Kiran say that after sunset hooligans sexually harass girls on the MD University campus.
Monika, a postgraduate student of English literature, accuses some boys from the university of having a warped mindset aligned to the khap diktats. They believe mobile phones make girls “characterless”, an argument often pandered by khaps. And they have twisted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature slogan to thus: “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Beti Ko Phone Mat Dilao (Save the girl child, educate her, but don’t buy her a phone).”
The story of the male sense of self-entitlement on campus does not end there. A research scholar from the faculty of life sciences, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says some of the most senior professors, including those in administrative positions, are known to sexually exploit female students, especially those from poor families. The scholar says a woman faculty’s research paper was rejected by a department head, also on the review board of the journal, because she allegedly refused his request for sexual favours. The scholar, however, did not name any of the accused and refused to confirm if anyone figured on a list of sexual predators on campuses, prepared and circulated last year by law student Raya Sarkar.
Santosh Mudgil, former principal of a girls’ college in Rohtak, says she has seen other principals try to hush up cases of harassment against girls, saying they bring “disrepute” to the college. She spoke about a case of harassment and abuse against a male lecturer in another college for girls. Though the men in the inquiry committee took sides with the accused, the case was strong. The accused lost his job but managed to find employment in a private college, she says. “Only a small percentage of men in Haryana understand the simple concept of gentle and respectful behaviour towards women.”
The ordeal of Renu Singh (name changed), an undergrad student of pharmacology, started when she wrote down a few equations on the question paper during an exam. “My final year paper was cancelled by the invigilator… he alleged that I was cheating.” She was asked to meet the examination superintendent who said she will pass only if she “satisfies” him. She told her father about it and complained to the department head. An FIR was lodged against the invigilator and the superintendent. But both were quickly out on bail.
Unsurprisingly, the harassment permeates all sectors of work wherever the women are employed. Sabita Mallick, vice president of the All India State Government Employees’ Federation, says contractual workers suffer harassment the most as their livelihoods depend on the whims of government clerks and officers. “Take for instance, the health workers. The officers and clerks ask them to sit with them, establish relations. If the women refuse, they won’t mark their attendance, file an adverse report against them, or issue unnecessary notices to them,” says Malick. The vicious cycle continues. If the women, students or workers, speak out the harassment to family members, the parents or husbands ask them to leave their work. If they complain, the whole system jumps to hush the victim into silence and retreat. The victims are left with little option but to endure.
The biggest problem is that most of the women workers in Haryana are contractual labourers. In agriculture, teaching, construction, health.
Ritika Singh (not her real name), who works at a unisex beauty parlour, says male customers are uncouth and use foul and abusive language. “There are times when I am doing a head massage and a client would say, “Thik se kar varna nichod dungi tujhe (do it properly, otherwise I am going to squeeze you hard). There are even times when one will say, ‘Do I need to f*%& you to teach you how to do a facial’,” she says. When she complains to the employer, he merely shrugs and asks her to treat “our clients as god”. Women working in beauty parlours and spas are often propositioned for sex. In many places, owners goad the employees to go along so that he can earn extra bucks.
Vina Mallik, a counselor with the Himmat Mahila Samooh, says cases of sexual abuse in small towns go unreported as the women are scared of speaking out. “Sexual abuse and suppression of women is rampant in Haryana. But sadly, not many have the courage to stand up against it. And even if they do, the cases go on for years and ultimately for fear of losing their jobs and because of family pressure the cases are suppressed.”
Women Outlook spoke to reveals gender-based segregation of labour at workplaces in Haryana. This, they say, is done to establish that men are more capable and women need to be controlled. One of them says it is a common practice, especially in factories and construction sites, to hire good-looking women and exploit them.
However, activists feel that it’s not long before the ripples of the #MeToo movement are felt in Haryana and elsewhere. “I think it has been very effective. Now women are coming out and speaking about the harassments which are opening new dimensions for intervention at the workplace” says Jagmati Sangwan, a rights activist. She recalls a recent meeting of the University Teaching Community where students fearlessly spoke about harassment. “The positive part of this movement is that further victimisation will be avoided. And it has been proved again and again that women are better performers, it will be difficult to keep women off the workforce,” she says.
Sonika, for one, is hopeful that the day is not far when she will be able to seek a job only with her skills, not her looks. “In another place where I had just started working, the employer used to lie down and order me to give him a massage. They feel that women don’t have any dignity and can be treated in whichever way they wish to,” she says, her eyes welling up.
Ramkali chokes as she reveals years of abuse and harassment. Once, when she used to sell women’s accessories from a pushcart, moving door to door, she used to shout out her sales pitch, “Kuchch samaan chahiye kya aapko (Do you want anything?) A man sitting on the verandah replied, “Hum ko sab kuch chahiye (I want everything). And he started laughing, a repulsive laughter that reeked of sexual innuendoes.
The laugh still rings in her ears and reminds her of what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.
By Lachmi Deb Roy and Salik Ahmad in Rohtak; Photographs: Jitender Gupta