After looking for work for several months, with not much luck, I was excited to receive a phone call inviting me to an interview at a local media house. I was so excited – this was a place I had wanted to work at for a long time, and given the unemployment situation in Kashmir, this was big! In the back of my mind, I had already started weaving dreams to work there, and the idea of this gave me a new lease on life. The conflict in Kashmir over the past two decades has affected women the worst, either by displacing them from their livelihood or rendering them jobless. The problem of unemployment is chronic in general among educated women. They are often not in the position to easily enter the local job market after the completion of their degrees, and are less able to move away from their families because of family obligations and security reasons. The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) calculates that the unemployment rate for urban females is 11.7 percent, compared to men, which is 6.7 percent for the state. According to Abdul Gani Malik, Minister for Labour and Employment, until December 2011, 599,000 people are registered employment exchanges across the state. “There are 25 to 30 percent women in the overall figure,” he informed. That night, I slept restlessly, feeling hopeful, nervous and excited. I woke up early in the morning, committed to take advantage of this opportunity to the fullest. I assembled my curriculum vitae, by-lines and certificates in one of my favourite black coloured portfolio files, and headed off. When I entered the office there was complete silence in the room. I enquired to the receptionist about other applications for the same job, but he told me he was unaware of any, nor had anyone come into the office to apply. This surprised me, but I was euphoric to be the lone applicant as I assumed that I would therefore be selected for the position. This meant a lot for me – to be a journalist in Kashmir was, in my mind, such an important job. Because Kashmir is so patriarchal, hearing the voices of women in media is crucial to enhancing our vision, knowledge, skills, expertise and innovation. If I could contribute to this, I believed it would be a panacea to the ills of our society, and also show women the choices available to them. As I entered the room I greeted the person sitting inside the room and he asked me to sit. He apologized for keeping me waiting for so long. I reached into my hand-made decorated jhola (bag) to get my portfolio, and when I tried to show it to him, he said “No, no, you don’t need to show all this. It is just a formality. We trust your calibre.” I was not only nervous, but surprised. I tried to tell him about some of my unique work experience – but again, he stopped me. His body language made it evident that he wasn’t interested – and then he asked me questions I was not expecting – who was my family, what do they do, and what did I want to do in the future. I didn’t know what to say, and was taken aback by these questions, as they were personal, not professional, and in a conservative place like Kashmir, this was neither common, nor generally accepted. I tried to change the topic, and to talk more about the work, but with little luck. As he offered me tea, he put on the TV and began explaining the work culture of his office. I nodded, still uncomfortable, and tried to avoid his eye. I was then shocked when I glanced at the TV – he was watching the footage of the news room, where only women staff was working. I was so surprised, and asked him, without even thinking, if his staff were aware of the CCTV that was taping them. His reply surprised me even more, “Our women staff are so hardworking. We monitor all their activities throughout the day. And surprisingly, they didn’t know about it.” His words reverberated in the plush room and it chilled me to the bone. I was not sure whether I would be offered the job or not, but I had made up my mind that I would not accept it – I could not work in an environment where the quality of the work was not valued, so much as who was doing the work. I was so disappointed, but also so angry, and quickly made up an excuse to leave, promising never to return, even if it meant unemployment. In Kashmir, women are mostly employed as teachers, but are increasingly entering into the IT, banking and other corporate sectors. While women in the past have stayed at home, more and more are working alongside men. “Conflict has a major role in the need for employment of women. Things are so uncertain. Everyone wants to be prepared. No family can depend on the earning of single working individual. There has to have a second line of support system for a family in Kashmir,” says an expert wishing not to be named. “Women are doing that.” The stereotypes of Kashmiri women, fair-skinned with blue eyes, homely and shy, have been replaced by the ongoing conflict. Women are stepping out of their traditional roles, coming to the forefront and lifting their veils. Several days later the man who interview me called, but I didn’t answer, nor did I ever step foot in that office again. I also tried to warn fellow female journalists about this man and his office. The reactions that I got from my family and friends were sympathetic – but almost everyone I knew had had this kind of experience, but most preferred not to discuss it, trying mostly to avoid the topic and these kinds of situations. It was understood that it was acceptable to talk about only if the harm became tangible. After this horrible experience, I made up my mind that there should be no compromise to offensive acts like this. The honour of a female should be given the top most priority in any workplace without any discrimination. The sexual harassment of a female at work places cannot be justified and there is an urgency to make women aware about the exploitation that they may be susceptible to. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, such cases should be handled with extensive care keeping in view the dignity of a woman. However, I strongly feel that the solution does not lie in silence and letting the issue simply rest. If we do that, we are not protecting ourselves, but blanketing the whole issue in which anyone among us can tomorrow become a victim. In Kashmir, the status of harassment at workplaces has increased over the past years. But most women prefer to silently run away from such situations instead of lodging their protest. Generally speaking, they don’t raise their voices, due to the fear of being misunderstood or blamed for the offences committed against them. Others don’t speak up as they fear the stigmas attached to actually ensuring men are made responsible for their actions. The Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women (JKSCW) is a statutory body which has been set up to make recommendations and review laws on women in the state and, simultaneously, to act as a watchdog body to see if the policies or laws are being implemented, including the overall conditions of women in the state. In its grievance cell, the commission can register a complaint against torture, harassment, re-marriage, and divorce, transfer of property to children, child support money enhancement, maintenance, desertion and cheating. After the complaint is registered the commission calls on other party and tries to settle the dispute and in many cases after the evaluation of the case from both parties, it takes up with the police authorities for remedial action, if found necessary. “The harassment faced by women especially at workplaces and on streets is often extreme, including humiliation, loss of dignity, psychological (and sometimes physical) injury, and damage to professional reputation and career. Inevitably, the victims face a choice between their work and their self-esteem and between their jobs and their own safe,” says an official at JKSWC. “Women should come forward and register their grievances without any fear.” She says that we shouldn’t try to be polite out of the fear that the situation will escalate. There is no accurate data available to get an idea about the rate of harassment like this, as very few cases are reported. In one police station in Kothi Bagh, located in one of the busiest streets of Lal Chowk in Srinagar, there had been just 40 reported cases of sexual harassment in the last five years. This is likely just a drop in the bucket, given the status of harassment. The major hurdle for women to remain silent and not to speak out about situations like this at workplaces is the growing unemployment among highly qualified youth, especially young girls, who are somehow lured to work on low salaries due to limited job opportunities. The growing scarcity of jobs is pushing more and more women not to speak on these issues. The Supreme Court of India has enacted laws and guidelines against sexual harassment, defined as,“ Any physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; or any physical, verbal or non-verbal sexual conduct leering, dirty jokes and comments about a person’s body.” It has been made mandatory for all businesses/corporations to have committees against sexual harassment and to punish the harasser. But, in a place like Kashmir, such guidelines and laws are rarely implemented. Women must step up and say no – if they don’t, men will get the message that what they are doing is acceptable, or that they can instil a sense of fear into women making it possible to take advantage of them. This is even more so in a place like Kashmir, where conflict, unemployment and injustice are relevant. “Being the highest militarised zone with ‘lawless’ laws and other security cover for the perpetrators who also indulge in such indecent acts in Kashmir, these molestations often go unreported for fear of reprisal and exposure to public shame,” says a women lawyer, asking to remain anonymous. Harassment of any kind is underreported in Kashmir. The unwillingness to lodge a complaint stems from the fact that it is almost accepted that men have the right stare, talk in an illogical and unjustified manner, whistle or sing a suggestive songs to women. As a solution I feel any unsolicited, unwelcome and unreciprocated behaviour should be opposed without silence or shyness. There should be mass awareness to educate boys and men to respect women and teach them to stop inappropriate behaviour. We should encourage young girls and women to share their stores of harassment and other abuses and increase public awareness about the problem. We need to enrol ourselves in self-defence classes to learn about the realistic tactics of protecting ourselves. Lastly, we need to know our legal rights, so that we can stand up to offenders. Officials need to deal with these sensitive issues with much more seriousness and sympathy, so that more women will report offences. Policy makers also need to ensure speedy justice for victims and punishment for offenders so that the victims will be able to get justice and bring offenders to take responsibility. Women do not need to confront men and imitate them. We have our own importance and role to play in bringing desirable changes in our society. We collectively need to respond on a societal level and not ignore these issues, as every group has an important and effective role to play. Our voices are powerful, and we will together ensure that women approach public places fearlessly.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2012: Frontline Journals.