‘We are all #MeToo’: The several battles of the women from Agra

One of the many women who accused M J Akbar of sexual harassment said she had ‘fought several battles’ in home town Agra to become the first woman in her family to step out to work. The Indian Express goes back to Agra to see what #MeToo means for the women starting out there.

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri | Updated: October 21, 2018 8:58:16 am
Namita Kushwah, 23–‘beauty advisor’ at the makeup counter of an Agra mall said, “Malls are safe for women to work. They are well-regulated, the rules are strict and we can complain to seniors in case of an issue”. ( Photograph: Renuka Puri)

Sometimes, they call her at night. Repeatedly. Sometimes, post-midnight, they flood her phone with ribald jokes. On the field, while she is chasing a story, they leer at her, a malicious grin across their faces: “Hamare channel mein aa jao, zyaada paise doonga (Come to my channel, I will give you more money).”

But despite the harassment by the men in her profession, and outside, says 22-year-old Saloni Pandey, a reporter with an Agra-based news channel, she has stuck to her job for the past two years.

“I have fought a lot to get here — my family, relatives, neighbours… almost everyone. I can’t just give it all up,” she says. “I am the first woman in my family to get a job, and that too in journalism. It has taken a lot and I am not willing to quit.”

Read | #MeToo should include sufferings of Dalit women, says activist

Pandey’s words almost echo what senior journalist Ghazala Wahab talked about in her detailed account of alleged sexual assault by her former editor M J Akbar, adding to the wave of harassment charges that saw him resign as Union Minister of State for External Affairs last week. Calling all charges against him baseless and intended to “malign” his reputation, Akbar has filed a criminal defamation suit against journalist Priya Ramani, who was the first to name him on Twitter on October 8.

“On the field, male reporters crack distasteful jokes, make comments, and at night, senior reporters call me, WhatsApp me”: Saloni Pandey. ( Photograph: Renuka Puri)

Making some of the most damaging allegations against Akbar, in an article in The Wire on October 12, Wahab wrote, “I was the first person in my family to come out of my home town Agra to study in Delhi and thereafter work. In the past three years, I had fought several battles at home to be able to live and work in Delhi. Women in my family only studied but never worked. In small town business families, girls always settled for arranged marriages. I had fought against this patriarchy…. I wanted to be a successful, respected journalist. I just couldn’t quit and go back home as a loser.”

Read | Symbiosis asks director to go on leave after 106 students complain of harassment

A year after the MeToo movement stormed the West, working women from the Indian media, film industry, the literary world and advertising have taken to social media to share their accounts of sexual harassment at the workplace. Most of these stories have emerged from big cities, felling big names. But at the heart of many lie stories that began in small towns, with a Saloni Pandey or a Ghazala Wahab “determined not to quit”.

Pandey doesn’t express her struggle as a MeToo, nor has the vocabulary filtered down to Agra, less than 250 km from the Capital, which is celebrating the movement’s biggest “win” in India. But in every step young women here take out of homes to pursue careers, in spaces with no space for them, in daily battles against gender roles to casual sexism to blatant assaults, it echoes.

‘I am known as the girl who fights a lot’

“School, college, and then marriage before 25; this is the norm in Agra,” says Pandey, sitting outside the Mass Communication Department at Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar University (earlier Agra University). With the college shut for Dussehra, Pandey is one of the few students around. Dressed in snug jeans and shirt, a thick layer of kohl under her eyes, Pandey recounts how “all hell broke loose when I told my parents after my BSc that I wanted to be a reporter”.

“They told me to leave the house,” she chortles. “Later, I got admission into a mass communication college in Noida, but they didn’t let me go. So, I enrolled in the Masters in Journalism programme at Agra University. It was a relief for my parents since I was studying. But then, I also took up a job. That was two years ago.”

Read | If more people speak out…each survivor will have to endure less: Tanushree Dutta

That meant long hours and navigating the dark corners of the city on a scooty. “I usually work till 8 pm, but you know how a reporter’s life is. There are days when I am out till midnight. On top of that, neighbours spot me with different cameramen and tell my parents, ‘Aapki beti har din naye ladke ke saath ghoom rahi hai (Your daughter is seen every day with a new man)’,” says Pandey, the second of three siblings, whose father runs a ‘medical company’.

While persuading her family to allow her to continue, Pandey says she fights another battle daily on the work front, as one of the only two women reporters from a local channel in the field. “The male reporters from other channels often crack distasteful jokes, make unnecessary comments, and at night, some even call me, WhatsApp me,” she says.

It continues. “Earlier, I was covering the crime beat and had to meet policemen. Often, it was like they weren’t even listening to me. ‘Madam, kabhi hamare saath chai peejiye (Come, have tea with us sometime),’ they would say. I stopped covering the beat soon,” says Pandey.

But the pestering and bawdy jokes did get to her, and eventually she came up with a “plan”. “I blocked some men on the phone, changed my beat to education and became more aggressive on the field. I am now known as the girl who fights a lot, I can live with that.”

However, one thing she refused to change. “I still wear kajal while working, my eyes are my strongest feature,” she smiles.

Read | The MeToo revolution

Still studying, Pandey, who made Rs 50 per story when she started out, now earns Rs 7,000 every month.

A few kilometres away from the university, Mansi Jain works 16-hour days as an anchor with a local news channel, earning Rs 10,500 a month, towards her dream of becoming a national journalist. She wakes up at 4.30 every morning, prepares her lunch box, goes to the temple, takes a bus to Agra from her kasba Tundla 30 km away, does her own makeup and straightens her hair at the office, and then anchors bulletins till the evening. In between, when she finds some time, she tries to learn reporting and scripting.

“My seniors say to move on to national news you have to make ‘compromises’. I just smile politely. I hope my hard work is enough” Mansi Jain. ( Photograph: Renuka Puri)

But that, says the 21-year-old, has been difficult. “It’s a male-dominated industry. There are just three women at the channel; all anchors. Most people, including my family, believe it’s better to stay in the studio,” says the youngest of three sisters, who lost her father in a train accident at the age of 13.

However, Jain also knows first hand what they fear. “Recently I was covering a live event. I stood out because I had make-up on. People were staring, some whistling, I was shaken but I had to continue. That too was part of my work. That is when I realised that as a woman, just learning journalism skills wasn’t enough for me. I had to also learn to protect myself,” says Jain.

Read | Can MeToo get beyond me

Apart from her family’s apprehensions, the long travel to work also means that Jain can’t work nights, often resulting in lost opportunities. “There are no arrangements for office to drop me. A few times when I had to stay back, I went to a relative’s home. But I can’t do that every day,” she says, walking around the newsroom.

Wearing her ‘anchor jacket’ over her sleeveless kurta, and taking her position behind the camera in the studio — located in a three-storey house, out of which operate three channels — Jain adds that even at the office, the reaction of her seniors to her ambitions has stunned her. “They all smile and say national jaane ke liye bohot compromise karna padta hai (To move on to national news offices, you have to make a lot of compromises). I just smile politely. I know what compromises they are talking about. I hope my hard work is enough,” she says.

Is she ready for her MeToo story though? Jain says she has heard of the movement, but “I am not prepared now to tackle those situations”.

Read | Rajinikanth on #MeToo: Great, but shouldn’t be misused by women

Back at the university, Pandey listens as her male classmates discuss M J Akbar and the other MeToo stories. “It’s a good movement but there are also questions about why the girls didn’t speak out earlier. Pehle hee thappad maarna tha (They should have slapped the perpetrators there and then). But yes, times have changed, and the women today are speaking out much more,” says Bilal Ahmed, 24, an MA Journalism student.

Ankush Gautam, 23, won’t be surprised if MeToo comes to Agra, adding that women in the town no more take even little things lying down. “Many of them file harassment complaints with police. In fact, a friend of ours has been fighting a case in court after he got into a debate with a woman classmate,” he says, leaning against a scooty.

Apoorva, 28–Sub-Inspector at the New Agra Police Station said, “20 years, 30 years, it’s okay. I deal with several cases and I know it is tough to speak out. So if women are doing it now, just listen”. ( Photograph: Renuka Puri)

But there are times, admits Apoorv Sharma (24), a student from the neighbouring Agra College, when women are forced to keep silent. “Once two boys were harassing a girl in our class in front of the teacher, but instead of admonishing the men, the teacher told the girl not to complain to police, warna shaadi nahin hogi (you won’t get married),” he says.

What the men agree on though is that a profession like journalism is “tough” for women, and that a teaching job is “more suitable”. However, says Gautam, “It is about choice, and if reporting is what they want to do, they should be allowed to. We have been there for all our women classmates when they needed us.”

Read | Saying MeToo Differently

As the group disperses, Pandey hops onto the pillion seat behind her cameraman on a scooty, her microphone clutched in her palm, and says, “MeToo is good, but my fight began two years ago when I took up this job. That is my MeToo.”

‘Can’t just sit at home and hide’

Twenty-three-year-old Saira Ali’s workplace is a mall that opened two years ago. Part of a small group of women who have found new work avenues with the opening of multi-brand retail outlets across Agra, Ali says she has heard of the MeToo movement, but “I don’t know what it is about”.

Dressed in her pink and black uniform of shirt and trousers, Ali is a saleswoman in the lingerie section of the mall. Told the details about the movement, she adds, “Don’t we women have to deal with it every day? Then, we are all a part of MeToo.”

According to her, the work environment at the mall is much safer compared to the “horror stories” her friends working in standalone shops share, “but it’s not like harassment doesn’t happen here”. “It may not come from my seniors, who follow strict work protocol on the store floor, but every day there are some customers who make you feel uncomfortable. This is Agra and I am standing in the lingerie section, there is bound to be some harassment,” says the third of seven sisters, all of whom, along with their parents, stay in a one-room accommodation. Her father is an autorickshaw driver, and Ali has been working in stores for the past two years after doing her BA from Agra University.

“Some male customers ask me awkward questions, some leer… But now I have found a way out. I have trained a fellow colleague and tell him to answer. That has saved me for the time being,” she adds.

Read | The inevitability of MeToo

However, what about the harassment outside, Ali asks. “The auto driver, the man on a crowded bus, sometimes even a beggar… It’s tougher for a working woman like me because I can’t just sit at home and hide. I have to earn.”

Over at the make-up section, ‘beauty advisors’ Namita Kushwah (23) and Roshni Ansari (24) say the proliferation of malls and shopping arcades is a boon for women like them in Agra. They have not heard of MeToo, but having been employed here for over a year, they say well-regulated shopping hubs like the mall are the answer to harassment. “There are very strict guidelines here, work does not extend for more than nine hours, and there are several senior managers whom we can approach in case there is a problem,” says Kushwah.

Chatting over a cup of tea during their 45-minute lunch break, trying hard to relax in their fitted black outfits, bright make-up, and hair rolled into neat buns, the two add that it’s a good time for women to work. “The money is good, we earn about Rs 10,000 a month, families are supportive and hopefully, after marriage, our husbands will allow us to work too. Hamari zindagi sirf chulhe ke aage nahin guzregi (Our lives won’t be spent just slogging over a kitchen stove),” says Ansari, quickly gulping down her chai and rushing back in.

“Earlier, I kept silent. But now if someone harasses me, I thrash them, call up 1090, drag them to the police station myself,”said 34 year old Sangeeta. ( Photograph: Renuka Puri)

At the mall’s entrance, frisking visitors, security guard Sangeeta Singh, 34, agrees that in her 12-plus years of work, a lot has changed for women. “I have worked as a saleswoman, at a dental clinic, at the cash counter and now I am here working as a guard. There were a lot of seniors, even peers, who would take their chances with me, say they want to ‘make friendship’. I would simply retreat into my shell. I needed the money.”

Not any more, says the mother of two whose husband works at a shoe factory and who earns Rs 8,500 per month at the mall. “Now, I give it back. I thrash them, I call up 1090, the women helpline number, khud khainch ke police ke paas le jaati hoon (I drag them to the police station myself). Agra is a small town, but the women have evolved and are not scared anymore to take on harassers, especially the ones at their jobs.”

Read | Whether Me Too stays or fizzles out, people will be wary: Neena Gupta

Apoorva, 28, a Sub-Inspector and investigating officer at the New Agra Police Station, backs this with statistics. Most of the complaints she has received over the past one year have been related to harassment, she says.

Her own job, Apoorva agrees, comes with its own issues. But the young officer says she is not scared of finding herself in the midst of hardened criminals and large crowds. “Even men with bad intentions think twice before doing anything. I think it’s the way I am, or other women my age are, and the way we deal with them. Or maybe it is my uniform,” she smiles.

Hailing from Baghpat, Apoorva lives alone in a paying guest accommodation and is not yet married. Is that daunting? “Not at all, no one messes with me. I have never been scared of anyone,” she says.

Mithlesh Dixit, 60 who is nurse at the S N Medical College and Hospital said,  “Predators were there earlier too… Now everything has a name. Women make a hue and cry. I am not sure if that is good” ( Photograph: Renuka Puri)

Mithlesh Dixit, 60, who started out working as a nurse back in the late ’70s and is currently on extension at Agra’s S N Medical College and Hospital after retirement two years ago, says she devised her own ways to tackle harassers.

“Predators were there earlier too. I would do night shifts with doctors, male nurses and patients. Invariably, someone would make a pass, say something inappropriate to me… Back then too, some women nurses would fight, but not me. There were many things to take care of, including my family’s reputation. I always wore sindoor and mangalsutra; that kept the troublemakers away,” she says.

Read | Need to rethink Vishakha to include incidents from past: Its author Justice Manohar

Her husband dead now, along with a young son, Dixit says she doesn’t approve of MeToo. “Today, everything has a name, like MeToo. Back then too we found solutions to problems, but not through public campaigns… We didn’t make a big hue and cry about it. Women today do that. I am not sure if that is a good thing.”

There are others who have raised questions about women speaking out on incidents going back up to 20 years, under MeToo. But Apoorva doesn’t agree. “Twenty years, 30 years, it’s okay. I deal with several cases and I know it is very tough to speak out, to relive the trauma… So if it’s now, it’s fine, just listen,” says the police officer.

‘MeToo will make workplaces safer for our generation’

Around noon on a weekday, the Air Go aviation training academy in Agra is bustling with girls and boys in their late teens, seeking to become flight attendants. Like a career in the news industry, aviation too is a relatively new field for Agra’s young, with its share of long shifts, late nights and travel, and family disapproval.

Seated in a simulated aircraft, Geetanjali, 19, says, “My mother has allowed me to take the course but there are restrictions. I can’t wear this short-fitted skirt and makeup to home. I change before I leave. My mother says you should look like you are coming back after studies, or else there will be loose talk.”

Her classmate Bhawna Manjrani, 18, says that girls like her who have chosen the field know what it entails. “It’s a tough choice but I am excited about all the exposure I will get.”

Read | The Road Ahead

As their training ends for the day, the conversation drifts towards the MeToo movement on social media. Both Manjrani and Geetanjali believe a movement like this will help make working safer for their generation of women. “It encourages us to speak our minds, complain about harassers to our seniors… But most importantly it has shown us that women need to stick together. If we support each other, if we come together, a lot of our problems will be solved,” says Manjrani.

As Geetanjali nods, preparing to change before heading home, Manjrani admits many of those problems may remain. “I know that when we join work, it is not going to be an equal space for men and women and I might have to tackle some kind of harassment.” But, she adds, “That cannot stop me from pursuing my ambition.”

There she is again: the woman “determined not to quit”.

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