Interview Date: 18 March 2015
Name and Bio:
Arpita Bhagat, 27, is a lawyer by profession and a freelancer working on environmental management, for which she also holds a Master’s degree. She collaborates with organisations working on political campaigns on the environment and environmental advocacy, and has previously worked with non- profit organisations on conservation issues.
Although Arpita has no specific educational background on gender or women’s rights, she has been blogging and writing articles in Mumbai on sexism and women’s right before her involvement with Hollaback!
Note: Arpita refers to Mumbai as Bombay in the interview and so we reproduce this term throughout this archive.
Involvement with Campaigns:
Arpita first came across the main Hollaback! website in 2013 as she was working around the topic of safety and women’s rights, and searched to see how she could get involved in the local branch in Bombay. The timing was great, as Aprita was able to take over the branch just as the previous director had to move on. This way, Arpita Bhagat took over Hollaback! Bombay.
Initially, she didn’t consider Hollaback! as a type of activism, but as something which was empowering for her. With time, however she came to consider her involvement as activism.
Arpita, is “very consistent” in checking emails and social media once a day. As she says, there are so many questions, often legal ones, that people want to know, so he finds consistency with her replies very important. With time, she has collected various resources on the website that might answer such legal questions or “what to do and how to take action”. In reality, Arpita measures the outreach of Hollaback! Bombay by how many people she is able to help, and how many questions she is able to answer by linking them to the relevant sources. Since, as a freelancer, she doesn’t have a fulltime job per se, she feels she copes well with managing Hollaback! Bombay generally. At the same time, she is looking to recruit some volunteers targeting college students especially to help with extending the campaigns and day-to-day Hollaback! tasks.
Hollaback! in a Transnational Context
When asked about the way Hollaback! translates to an Indian context, Arpita comments that the term itself doesn’t mean much in the Indian context, so explaining the idea behind it is often necessary. However, she has found that over time there is a certain recognition of Hollaback! in Bombay. That being said, she has been very recently considered using another name instead of Hollaback! In the case of the recent campaign, “I got your back”, where posters click thus button as a sign of support, she instead used “Main Hoon Na” which means “I’m there” and found it worked well.
When asked about the amount of attention the movement has received in the local media, Aprita shares that she is not very happy with local media coverage because it focuses more on the work of the international movement rather than work done locally in Bombay, but she recognises that this is sort of the cost of being a part of such a global network.
Trolling and strategies:
Arpita has experienced trolling and online harassment long before Hollaback! when she wrote an article on women menstruation. This was, as she said, long before she identified or “came out” as a feminist. Aprita views trolling as an endurance test. When asked about how she deals with trolls, she states if the messages are not too threatening she might try engaging them, as she thinks some trollers are in a sense are also looking for answers to their repressions. However, Aprita states that she wouldn’t hesitate to block anyone who takes it too far, or who reacts to or ignores other comments. Because of her experiences however, she has high privacy settings on her personal Facebook account, and has delinked her personal account from the Hollaback! account and is very careful on who she adds as a friend, which posts she makes public and which are not. No matter what, she finds reading other women’s experiences of street harassment more disturbing than trolling because she can relate to it.
Until around 2013 Arpita Bhagat didn’t identify as a feminist. As she says, ‘It only happened after joining Hollaback!’ After her involvement with Hollaback!, however, and after talking to so many women about it, she realised that unless one identifies as a feminist, “there is just no way forward, not just for equality in general, but for development”. Basically, she asserts that “Hollaback! gave [her] that platform where [she] could go out there and connect with people working for women's rights in India and across.” So, she thinks even without involving with Hollaback! she would have eventually ended up identifying as a feminist.
On the importance of networks with this international movement:
“[W]hat happens with Hollaback!, because you are part of a network, it starts from the network. So it is about network first and then what we do, second. But it sort of has to be the other way round because what each of the chapters are doing, it’s very unique and the way we are doing it is unique, because we all come from different backgrounds. Culturally, language wise, they are doing it very differently.”
On her care strategies:
“So for me, I go for a walk, I try to go out to a park or a green place where I try to, it’s not that I’m trying to run away from them or forget about them, but think about them in a more rational and relaxed manner, and a more practical manner; okay, what XYZ can be done around it, and who can I reach out to connect who'll probably do something on these issues. So that's sort of meditation for me. Meditation for me is not in closed spaces. I go out in nature and try to calm my nerves.”
On the relationship between on and offline activism
“You see, for some people the on-ground activities sort of melt into the online world. For us, it's the other way around. The online work that I do, the digital work connected I do, sort of translates into on ground action. So, I don't think you can do one.”
Analysis: As one of the only international case studies, Hollaback! Bombay presents an interesting example of the ways activists are taking core experiences of being a woman, and translating this activism around the world. As Arpita notes however, this comes with challenges, particularly when the language and cultural contexts differ so widely. As Arpita notes, the term Hollaback! doesn’t meant anything, and she has considered changing the name to make it more culturally relevant. She has also translated some of the language on the site to make it more accessible for the Indian context. At the same time however, Arpita expresses the importance of being part of this international network.
Arpita is yet another example of an organiser who experienced a feminist awakening via her involvement with the movement. In India she notes, feminism is not only considered a derogatory term, but one seen as inherently Western, and thus carries an additional burden. She seems to be one of a small number of women however who feel it’s important to use the feminist label, even while recognising that doing so can create this ‘wall between two people’, particularly when they are men and women.
In terms of labour, Aprita is ‘fortunate’ enough to be a freelance worker, and thus make decisions on how much time to spend on Hollaback! That being said, Arpita is also in an extremely privileged position to be able to possibly forego paid employment for her activism – a position not all are able to take.