Are women activists safe at protest sites? Time to look within

women at protest sites
Protest sites are not always safe at protest sites. Representative image, courtesy: arun sambhu mishra/Shutterstock

New Delhi: She remembers a man who just would not leave her friend and her alone at the Singhu protest site. They would be followed everywhere. Eventually, her breaking point came. She punched him hard in the stomach.

"Imagine the first word that came out of his mouth -- 'sister'. I told him to get lost and go back to his hometown," says activist and research scholar Kanupriya, the first and only woman President (2018) in the history of Panjab University's Students' Union in Chandigarh who has spent months at the farmers' protest site at Singhu and has been instrumental in mobilising urban women from across Punjab and Chandigarh in joining the protests against the new farm laws.

Even as the alleged gang rape of a 26-year-old woman from Bengal at Tikri a few days has been making news, several young women are coming forward with charges of sexual misconduct at the protest sites.

Recently, another survivor opened up to Kanupriya. She told her that a man had been constantly following her throughout the protests even as she was with her mother and friend. The person then started taking pictures of her, post which she snatched his phone and confronted him. "Despite scores of people around, no one came forward to support her. That was really shocking for us. You have to respond and take action. When we challenge such men in the society, why not in progressive circles as well?"

Simran Atwal is a Chemical Engineering graduate, now pursuing a degree in Law. Not affiliated to any organisation, she has been going to the Singhu protest site in her individual capacity and has stayed there thrice. Recalling her experience at the site during one of her visits, she says, "A young man from Punjab, formerly a member of Students For Society (SFS), very active in progressive circles, who has been called out by many women activists on the social media, was a permanent fixture at the Singhu protest site. Every time I would bump into him, he would propose to me, and just not leave me alone. He touched my face a few times, despite me telling me that I was very uncomfortable with that. Once when I had gone with my sister, he touched her too. I never interacted with him after that."

In fact the same young man, a permanent fixture at most protests in Punjab and Chandigarh, also active during CAA-NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh has been called out by multiple women for harassing them at different times and places.

Stressing that she personally knows about more than 10 women who have faced harassment at the farmers' protest sites, Atwal feels that it is high time that Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) realises that if a sizable number of women are coming out in their support, they too have a responsibility towards them. "It cannot be one-way traffic, no? You can't have us supporting you, but neglect our issues completely. That is not how it should be," she adds.

Kanupriya says that initially they did not want to come out individually for fear of being "labelled". "We were also anxious about the morcha as the girls were afraid that it could be at at stake."

Post coming out publicly, they approached 'Women Against State Repression and Sexual Harassment' (WSS). "Our purpose was to pressurize the leaders of the SKM. We wanted a support system. It is very important that there be an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) with helpline numbers and members ready to listen," says Kanupriya.

Recalling a tweet by a woman activist, which read -- 'Not going to support any movement unless it is safe for women', the former student leader got in touch with her. " When I spoke with her, I realised that she was referring to the farmers' movement. The women are standing strong with the agitation. But they will not put up with harassment and misogyny."

Contrary to popular perception, women activists have not really had it easy at the agitation. "I remember in the beginning, the day before I went over there, young women who had accompanied the morcha on November 26, stood up to some men who had been hurling abuses at one another. There were several who had been throwing up all over the place after getting drunk and dancing to lewd songs. But we women are always challenged and nobody ever questions those miscreants."

Another activist from Abhor adds, " I have been pushing strongly for an IIC from day one. Earlier, I was working as an individual, so, my voice did not matter much. We recently formed a group for the survivors of harassment, in order to put collective pressure. Then there is another group 'WSS', which I recently joined through some girls. That group is working with a lot of organisations. So, they have a heavy presence and have a strong voice. They have been doing really good work in putting pressure on the SKM."

Speaking to IANS, Sukhwinder Kaur, State Committee Member of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Krantikari) says that steps are being taken to address the issue. "The key is to address the problems that emerge. I know the state will make a great deal of this in order to discredit the movement but it is important to ascertain that everyone's problems are looked into. I am in Bathinda right now. The moment I am back at Singhu, we plan to formulate a five-member committee so that complaints regarding sexual harassment can be lodged immediately."

President of the women's wing of the powerful Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), Harinder Bindu, who heads more than 40,000 women associated with the union, clarifying, that the accused in the alleged gang rape were not even camping near their protest site, says, "They were in Tikri, but in the other part. In fact, the moment we came to know about the incident, it was us who raised the issue. Our leader personally met the father of the deceased girl and assured that we stood by him."

Ask her if they plan to address the issues of harassment on protest sites, and she says, "Yes, we are going to make an office manned by women near our protest site at Tikri. By the way, we have always ensured patrolling in cars and on foot near the tents where our women cadre put up. There is a constant dialogue with them to ensure that they feel safe."

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