How women are fighting back in India’s most patriarchal state

Quartz india
Quartz india

Being sexually harassed on public transport is unfortunately all too common for women in India, but last week two sisters struck back: they slapped, punched, and beat up three men who were harassing them on a bus in Haryana, and the men were arrested two days later after a video of the incident went viral on social media.

The video shows Aarti Kumar and Pooja Kumar, aged 22 and 19, aboard a government-run bus from Rohtak to their hometown of Sonepat. The driver, conductor, and other passengers were all mute spectators to the assault. The police have announced a cash reward for their bravery, but it’s unclear how that will help prevent future incidents.

It’s clear that Haryana—where two minor girls recently committed suicide to escape being stalked and harassed by a group of young men—is one of the country’s toughest places to be female:

  • Haryana’s rate of crime against women is among the highest in India at 75 per 100,000 women, compared to a national average of 52.2. Delhi, however, is the highest at 146.8.
  • The state’s gender imbalance— it has has 879 females per 1,000 males, 61 points below the national average—implies a high level of female infanticide.
  • Haryana is notorious for honor killings by families who kill their own children for marrying for love or outside their castes.

More than 65% of Haryana is rural, and local government is often carried out by an archaic social administration, called the Khap Panchayat, in which a self-proclaimed set of upper-caste leaders issues diktats to the rest of the village.

At the state level, things aren’t much better. A day after his appointment as the state chief minister in October, Manohar Lal Khattar suggested a ban on women wearing jeans to check sexual harassment. A right-wing group has demanded a ban on women wearing jeans and carrying cellphones as a way to reduce obscenity, a provision that is being considered by Khattar.

Nationally, India is trying to toughen its stance on crimes against women—especially after a physiotherapy student was gang raped on a bus in Delhi, which led to protests and demonstrations across the country. Under a new law passed in 2013, punishments for crimes like rape, sexual harassment, stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks, and other acts of violence against women were strengthened. In the wake of the new legislation, complaints against sexual offenses in New Delhi more than doubled from 2012 to 2013—especially since the law dictates non-registration of a case by police as a criminal offense.

The vigilante justice of Aarti and Pooja, however, shows just how far the country has to go.

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