On a cold January afternoon, women gather on the veranda of a government-run nursery in Sarmathla village in the north Indian state of Haryana. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, they are eager to hear the visiting speaker.
The men and boys of the village mill about, reluctant to join the women, until Satyaprakash, a social worker, encourages them to sit on the chairs provided. “Please, join us tauji [uncle], today’s programme is about gaali [swear words],” he says.
The speaker, Sunil Jaglan, begins with a question, “Raise your hand if you have used cuss words that name mother’s, sister’s or women’s intimate body parts?”
People smile sheepishly, looking around for moral support before awkwardly raising their hands, “Everyone here has used gaali, sir, this is normal,” says one man.
A woman points towards a five-year-old on his father’s lap, “Even this kid knows to utter gaali.”
“But, is it right?” asks Jaglan.
To this, the women shout: “Of course not! Why target us or our body in your slurs? Why don’t people understand when they use misogynist profanities they actually target their own mothers and sisters? Is this what we are teaching our kids?”
Swear words in India might sound different from region to region, but they have one thing in common: many are misogynist, mocking, shaming or threatening women.
Under section 294 of the Indian penal code, those found guilty of obscene acts, songs, or words in public face a prison sentence of up to three months. But many people, especially in rural India, are unaware of the law.
As the sun sets, the villagers close the meeting by promising in unison three times. “Hum kabhi gaali nahi denge. [We will never use swear words].”
Jaglan’s crusade started in the village of Bibipur, where he grew up. After going away to university, he returned to be elected village head in 2010.
“Using profanities is so common in Haryana. I used them during my college days without thinking. One day I asked a friend about the meaning of the words. It was only then that I realised how misogynistic they are,” says Jaglan.
In 2014, spurred by complaints from Bibipur women, he formed a committee to monitor and curb sexist language. If children swore, their parents were referred to the panchayat (an elected district official) who warned the families that they risked a period of being formally ostracised by the village or even police action.
Three years later, Jaglan, who is also the founder of Selfie With Daughter, a campaign to empower girls and women, launched Gaali-Bandh Ghar (no-swearing house) in Taloda village. A community that pledges to stop using profanities is declared gaali-bandh (no-swearing) village. There are similar designations for households or streets, documented by village heads.
Jaglan has since gone from village to village to spread the word, rapidly gaining support from women fed up with a culture of sexist slurs.
Shortly after the launch, six Taloda women filed police reports against four men, who were taken into police custody. The matter was resolved only after the men issued a public apology in the presence of the police station officer, the village head and villagers, and gave written assurances that they would never disrespect women or say such swear words in future.
“This campaign gave women confidence to speak up against, not only their own family members, but anybody who would hurl slurs at them,” says Madan Lal, Taloda sarpanch (village head).
There have been about 800 community outreach programmes aimed at changing attitudes in Haryana. Complaints are reported to local group heads, usually a retired teacher or army officer, or logged on WhatsApp groups. The accused is assigned a counsellor, a local who has already persuaded their own family to stop using offensive language. Jaglan’s organisation has trained 2,000 women and 100 men as counsellors, and taken on volunteers who manage WhatsApp groups, conduct surveys, and coordinate local programmes.
“It is difficult for males who don’t like to listen to womenfolk. India is a patriarchal society and such things are expected, but we are also determined to fight back,” says 19-year-old volunteer Anjali from Sarmathla village, who is at studying Haryana University.
Jaglan has introduced the campaign to schools in Haryana for 11- to 17-year-olds using questionnaires to identify children who will be counselled against using derogatory remarks along with their family.
In 2021, the campaign was adopted by some village elders in the neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. And it continues to expand.
“This year, we have received requests from more than 30 gram panchayats [village councils] from states like Goa, Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh to implement the gaali bandh ghar model. Even NGOs from Nepal have asked us to come and help launch [it] there,” says Jaglan.