Urban Indian Women Are Increasingly Combating Phone Harassment
How many times have you laughed with a group of a friends about some random man sending you badly spelled texts, asking to be your friend? Most people shrug it off, but it’s actually a form of harassment and women are fighting against it.
One in three Indian women, out of a source pool of 2,150 urban women across Indian metro cities, reported receiving lewd calls and text messages, according to a survey conducted by Truecaller, a popular-phone number identification app used by Indians.
The survey shows how rampant phone harassment is for Indian women, and how normalized the phenomenon has become: 52 percent of the women surveyed said they receive calls or texts laden with sexual content once a week; 45 percent said they receive unsolicited sexual videos and pictures; 9 percent of women report undergoing this kind of harassment “almost daily,” according to Truecaller.
It is important to note the surveyors only polled women who use Truecaller, and therefore the findings are not emblematic of all Indian women’s experiences. Yet, looking at the popularity of the app among Indians — the app reports more than 150 million users in India, according to Livemint — the survey manages to shine a light effectively on the problem of phone harassment and the steps women take to counter it.
In the app’s #ItsNotOK campaign, which documents women’s experiences with phone harassment in a series of videos, women are seen scrolling through their phones for inappropriate messages, and recounting the texts and voice notes in painfully matter-of-fact tones.
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Sameera, an assistant professor at Delhi University reads out a text: “I really lyke ur picture n I’m paralysed in loveee…So hereby I ask ur hand fr frndship…<3,” to which she visibly winces. “U like it wild and naughty? :*,” is another, she says.
“It’s so normal that my anger is now just like this undercurrent to my personality,” Sameera says in a Truecaller video, adding that she feels freaked out by such harassment, especially as her phone number is attached to many delivery services she makes use of daily.
A majority of women (78 percent) surveyed by Truecaller reported feeling angry and irritated by phone harassment, and 37 percent felt troubled, worried or frightened in 2019. While the frequency of harassment hasn’t changed from when Truecaller conducted the same study in 2018, the number of women taking action against the harassment has increased.
74 percent of Indian women took steps to combat phone harassment in 2019, compared to 62 percent of women in 2018. Furthermore, 38 percent of those surveyed took the initiative to report harassment to the police, as opposed to a mere 10 percent last year.
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The increase could be due to the pervasiveness of the #MeToo movement in India, which has created a space for women to identify and speak out against harassment, Gayatri Sethi, business head of White Balance, a Delhi-based creative studio that partnered with Truecaller, told Quartz. Another reason could be the initiatives rolled out by the Indian government, such as helplines for women to report harassment, Truecaller’s global brand manager, Lindsey LaMont, told Quartz.
Women have used the app to block specific numbers, searched strange phone numbers to identify callers, and requested Do Not Disturb activation by calling mobile operators — and the utilization of these methods show a marked increase from last year, the survey shows.
Other methods of dealing with these callers, Truecaller’s survey reveals, include confronting the caller and asking them to stop calling, ignoring the calls, adding themselves to the national ‘do not call’ registry, asking a male family member or friend to answer the call instead, shaming perpetrators on social media, or changing their own number.
With increased awareness of the myriad ways in which women are harassed daily, it is no longer enough to chalk this harassment up to badly spelled messages, saved up in the inbox to share with friends, who will also definitely have material to commiserate with.
It’s time we change the way we talk about these seemingly innocuous messages. They are not harmless. They are undeserving of being normalized. They are dangerous.
As Sameera said in the video, “Initially it’s funny … till it’s not.”